Sweet Dreams, Little One by Massimo Gramellini, book review

Wit, charm and sorrow mingle in fairy-tale memoir

Given its plummeting birth rate and famed love of children, it is perhaps not surprising that all three of Italy's best-selling books in the past decade should have a child protagonist.

Massimo Gramellini's Sweet Dreams, Little One is, like Niccolo Ammaniti's I'm Not Scared and Fabio Geda's In the Sea There are Crocodiles, narrated by a boy who is under excruciating psychological pressure.

The nine-year-old Massimo wakes on a snowy New Year's Eve to a cry, and the inexplicable disappearance of his adored mother. The reader soon realises that the mother has died but the boy's agonised confusion gives birth to what he calls his "demon", Belfagor, which feeds on "my doubts and fears: mistrust, rejection, abandonment". His father is wholly lacking in sensitivity – though he has, as we come to see, other, sterling qualities – and with a disastrous choice of nanny, psychiatrist and school makes matters worse.

"You achieve greatness in life in spite of," Massimo is told by his teacher Father Nico; and the boy, who trawls through David Copperfield, Homer, football and TV series for succour, grows up to become a leading journalist and deputy editor of La Stampa.

"I haven't worked out if you're mad or you've just had a difficult childhood," his first boss on the Corriere dello Sport tells him, adding that if he's mad they'll get on fine together. Gramellini's observations about love, childhood, parenting and reading give his memoir wit, charm and sorrow, but it is also a kind of fairy tale. Each of his short chapters tells a story of an event in his life from which he draws near-aphorisms, some quite cheesy but others not. In a bombed-out house in Sarajevo, mourning an orphaned boy who has just died, he finds a copy of Les Misérables and quotes Jean Valjean: "Dying is nothing. What's terrifying is not to live." Disarmingly, he later claims (to the love of his life) to have written this line himself.

His "demon" provides him with a shield of egoism and irony which makes his lovers predictably unhappy. At 40, he's still behaving like a spoilt child; it's appropriate that he discovers the truth about his mother's death through an old newspaper clipping. In the end our narrator is forced to confront himself, and in the process becomes a popular agony uncle on his newspaper. Indeed, Massimo is so much a man of his country that this book might be added to Luigi Barzini's classic, The Italians, as a kind of spiritual X-ray of a nation many of us pity, censure and, despite itself, love…

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