BOOK REVIEW / Hunger, hatred and viper bites in Sardinia: 'Chiaroscuro & Other stories' - Grazia Deledda Tr. Martha King: Quartet, 10 pounds

IF YOU need an antidote to all that self-conscious modern fiction lying about, these Sardinian tales by Grazia Deledda might just refresh the spirit. Born in 1871, in a remote, mountainous region of Sardinia, and allowed only four years of formal education, Deledda fought her way through to winning the Nobel Prize in 1926.

In Italy, critics have been frustrated in the attempt to match her to her contemporaries; her accounts of primitive peasant life in Sardinia couldn't be further from the mind games of Pirandello or the ornate decadence of D'Annunzio. But her work has a timeless quality admired by D H Lawrence: 'we can still read Grazia Deledda with genuine interest,' he wrote in 1928. Giovanni Verga, for example, had a far more established name, yet if you set his novel Storia di una Capinera, about a young novitiate who falls in love, next to Deledda's spare and burning Elias Portolu (1900) - the story of a shepherd who turns priest - Verga looks dated and melodramatic.

Reading these short stories, one can see the appeal for Lawrence in the elemental passions of a fast-disappearing agricultural community whose roots lie deep in paganism and superstition. Deledda shows how the ancient wellsprings of behaviour - jealousy, poverty, desperation, forbidden love, betrayal - chafe against the inflexible moral codes produced when Catholicism is grafted on to the already-rigid structures of a patriarchal society.

Unwilling to be dismissed as picturesque or folksy, Deledda stated that she wrote the plain truth about Sardinian life, and whilst her stories contain fairy- tale elements of legend, superstition and local tradition, they avoid trite endings. Her characters, furthermore, are battling against very real dangers and problems - malaria, drought, famine, destitute poverty. While their ignorant, tightly closed society is extremely judgmental - 'Truth is not important, but appearance is,' remarks one character bitterly - from the outside Deledda makes it almost impossible to condemn them. One girl, for example, marries a richer man whom she hates out of sheer hunger.

These are trapped people, from whom one burden is lifted only for another to fall. The stories are often left hanging on moments of frustrated expectation or uncertain emotional revelations, which lift them away from the folk genre and into psychological exploration. Perhaps the most poignant struggle of Deledda's Sardinian characters is the effort of simple, uneducated people to grasp and vocalise the emotional states in which they find themselves. An old shepherd is caught in 'an equivocal passion' which he cannot define, 'a strange discomfort such as he had once felt after a viper bite'.

Deledda reaps her images from this rural world with both feeling and accuracy: she describes the shepherd 'dragging his fatigue and his suspicions as he would drag sick and stubborn heifers'. Biblical references are also constantly present, the village men like prophets, 'so solemn, calm and simple', the women straight out of the Old Testament, all locked into an eternal cycle of sin and penitence. The symbolic potential of Christianity is taken to its literal extremes in Sardinia: during the Holy Week procession two real thieves from the village are tied on crosses next to the wooden crucified Christ.

Deledda fastens onto the points at which religion mingles directly with pagan superstition - the parish priest who is as famous for his witchcraft as for his sermons, the cobbler who uses verses from the Bible to cast a spell. The man who commissions this spell sees it as a religious loophole, a way of injuring his enemy without damaging his own soul through assault - an extreme example of the twisted sophistry of their moral code.

Their largely miserable destinies are redeemed from unremitting gloom by the sparse purity of Deledda's prose and by the extraordinary backdrop of the Sardinian landscape, a strange, hallucinatory place where 'rocks the shape of frogs and enormous turtles clambered over the wild slopes'. The desolate, hostile countryside is made transcendent by the magical quality of the light, creating an intense scenery painted in fauve colours: 'The sea-green, golden dawn,' the violet and blue horizons streaked with red and yellow. Across this march the peasants with their boldly coloured traditional costumes and their religious pageantry: 'Young girls in gold bodices passing across the ridge against the blue background.'

D H Lawrence, writing the introduction to Grazia Deledda's book The Mother, observed: 'She deals with something more fundamental than sophisticated feeling . . . what she does is create the passionate complex of a primitive populace.' Deledda herself might have put it more simply - her overriding ambition, which she never deserted, was to make her 'unknown, forgotten tormented land' known to the world outside. These brave and impassioned short stories are a fine monument to that desire.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own