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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice