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
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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

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

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

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

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

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
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
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

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

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

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    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
    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England