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.