BOOKS: A controversial voice in a culture of silence: Marianne Brace meets the noisy award-winning Sicilian novelist Dacia Maraini

'BE SILENT, Dacia Maraini]' - la Maraini taccia] - an Italian Catholic newspaper screamed recently. Throughout the Sixties right-wing groups wanted to have Maraini tried for obscenity and accused her - together with her great friend Pasolini - of being 'a left-wing pornographer'. Undaunted, the feminist writer remains outspoken, prodding at a herd of Italian sacred cows from machismo to the Mafia. Maraini took on the Pope when he told raped Bosnian Muslims to reject abortion. She embraced lesbianism. She identified corrupt Sicilian officials and landed them in gaol.

Despite her volumes of poetry, nine novels and twice as many plays, Dacia Maraini was little known here until The Silent Duchess was published last year. Chronicling the life of Maraini's aristocratic ancestor Marianna Ucria, the novel was shortlisted for this newspaper's Foreign Fiction award. A bestseller in Italy, it won five awards, including the prestigious Premio Campiello. Isolina (Tr. Sian Williams, Peter Owen, pounds 14.99), her prize-winning reconstruction of a gruesome murder, is published this week.

The daughter of a half-Irish anthropologist and an impoverished Sicilian princess, Maraini had an unorthodox upbringing. Her family went to live in Japan and were interned during the war when her parents refused to support the Japanese alliance with the Italian fascists. Their concentration camp 'was two years of hell. We were nearly dying of hunger. For a long time I couldn't speak'.

Afterwards they moved to Sicily, and when her parents separated Maraini accompanied her father to Rome. The following year the 19- year-old completed her first novel, The Holiday. But it was her second, The Age of Discontent, which made her famous by winning the 1963 Prix Formentor.

It was through this book, too, that Maraini met her great love - Alberto Moravia. He wrote a preface to the novel. 'He was wonderful, very generous, a fascinating person. Moravia was 28 years older than me but he was like a young boy, so alive.'

Having left her first husband, Maraini moved in with Moravia. And she stayed 16 years. Was he her mentor? 'Not at all,' replies Maraini briskly. 'Luckily. I think it's better. He wanted people to be what they were and never wanted to influence them.'

With Moravia, Maraini founded Teatro Porcospino to promote the work of Italian playwrights. Later she set up Teatro della Maddalena, a women's theatre. Writing novels and writing for the stage have allowed her to explore different territories. 'Theatre goes vertically, it links the sky with the earth. It has to do with the spiritual idea of man, with the future, with God. The novel is horizontal. It has to do with society, the relation of man to man. In the theatre everything is nailed to the present.

In the novel, on the contrary, everything becomes past. Every novel is obsessed by the idea of time.'

Her own novels harp on the theme of awakening, their female protagonists making journeys of self-discovery, like Vannina in the diary-style Woman At War and Armida in the disconcertingly unpunctuated novel The Train. Embracing feminism in the late Sixties, Maraini's slogan Io sono mia - 'I am mine' - was adopted by the Italian movement. But 'I have never been fanatical. I don't like any kind of dogmatism.' It does, however, come naturally 'to take the side of those treated unjustly. Women have been treated unjustly very often in history.'

Her novels are not flawless and sometimes seem rambling. Yet there's an extraordinary physicality to Maraini's writing. 'The senses are very important in writing, not only the sex but the feelings: taste, eyes, the smells.'

Letters to Marina was Maraini's book about a lesbian love affair. Maraini regards it as 'a political statement. I wasn't bisexual, but it was necessary to fight for new ideas on sex. Italian ideas were so old-fashioned and narrow'. She wanted to show that 'sexuality is much more mysterious than we used to think . . . heterosexuality and homosexuality are not so different. And there is sex in everything.'

In The Silent Duchess it's sex which disables, and later frees Marianna. A deaf-mute as the result of a childhood rape, 'Marianna becomes aware of herself after 40. She starts to make love and believe that her body is not completely dead'. Her lack of voice symbolises the passive position women had in society.

Isolina, first published eight years ago, is historical too, but takes the form of investigative journalism. In this re-examination of a grisly turn-of-the-century murder, Maraini homes in on another bastion of privilege - the military. That Isolina became pregnant by her lieutenant lover and refused to have an abortion was known through newspaper reports. Also that she was probably murdered by soldiers who, protecting their comrade's reputation, forcibly aborted the baby with a fork and then butchered the mother. But all documentation of the lieutenant's trial has vanished.

Searching Verona for evidence, Maraini found everything had been destroyed. 'So I understood how important had been the case.' The crime could easily have been solved. Instead, the military powers chose to cover it up, corrupting and even killing witnesses. 'The chief of government was a general. The state wanted to defend the image of the military.' Isolina - mutilated, cut up and dumped in the river - simply didn't matter. 'I had a lot of pity for this little girl. She had been completely cancelled. Nobody remembered her. I felt this is a moment to speak about her.'

The collusion of officialdom and criminality is central also to Bagheria, to be published here next spring. This autobiographical work has had extraordinary success in Italy, selling over 250,000 copies and sending some Sicilian mafiosi to prison.

It recalls Maraini's adolescence in Bagheria, a resort outside Palermo. With its grand 18th-century villas it boasted two large parks, the 'lungs of the town'. But despite being protected land, the parks were sold by unscrupulous local councillors as building plots.

Maraini named the names. 'I was so happy for once. Usually writers feel so powerless.' Although she would never live in Sicily, Maraini believes times are changing even there. When she was young, 'nobody would speak about the Mafia. It was a sort of linguistic taboo. Now people speak about it. Things don't exist if they are not named. In Italy the great change is this,' she says, 'we have passed from a culture of silence to a culture of words.'

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
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.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor