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Bloodlines by Marcello fois; trans. Silvester Mazzarella, book review

From an island paradise to the hell of fascism hell

Jethro Soutar
Thursday 10 July 2014 16:49 BST

'Bloodlines' is a Sardinian family saga spanning the late 19th century to the Second World War. Political events bubble away in the background, not least the rise of Mussolini, framing and shaping the lives of the Chironi family. Michele Angelo and Mercede meet and marry, two orphans uniting to form a family: there are happy times – the family blacksmith business thrives, children are born – but sadness proves more enduring, as one misfortune after another afflicts the couple's offspring. The book is structured as a triptych of Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, after Dante's The Divine Comedy, but here the order is rearranged, Hell taking centre stage.

As befits an island novel, Marcello Fois explores issues of isolation and limited horizons. When told Italy will have to join a worldwide war, Mercede is initially relieved, "for what have we to do with Italy?" She then ponders this new term "worldwide" suspiciously: "Is she the only one terrified of words?" she asks. Later, as sleepy Nuoro becomes a Fascist province, grand public buildings are built, including an Office of Finances, "in a place where 'office' and 'finances' are utterly alien words".

For Fois, the power of words is integral to the powers of knowledge and insight. Characters struggle to articulate their thoughts and hence to express their emotions. In the absence of words, silence creates meaning: "He said nothing; not from embarrassment, but simply waiting for the frenetic and mute dialogue between them to end."

If his characters lack words, Fois doesn't: his descriptive prose is lavish, powerfully evoking time and place. It's as if nature is possessed of a richness of expression that humans have yet to acquire. Exuberant description can be troublesome for the English translator, Latin languages being more accommodating of long sentences and decorative modifiers. Translator Silvester Mazzarella's triumph is to allow the poetry and imagery to flourish without letting it grow wild and tangled. Indeed Mazzarella's translation is flawless, taking Fois' original and forging a new work of beauty. This is the third Fois novel to appear in English and while the previous two, The Advocate (2003) and Memory of the Abyss (2012), also focus on Sardinia at the turn of the 20th century, this is the first with Mazzarella at the helm.

Family sagas tend to be epic in length as well as scope. By the end of a Buddenbrooks or a One Hundred Years of Solitude, the reader has spent so long in the company of its characters that a sense of mourning greets the final page. Bloodlines has the scope – the horrors of two world wars, and also a side story tracing the Chironi name back to the days of the Inquisition, when Sardinia was a Spanish dependency – but is shorter and more fragmented. It leaves the reader satisfied rather than satiated.

Jethro Soutar is a translator and editor of 'The Football Crónicas'

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