‘The Fireflies of Autumn’: a bittersweet take on the Tuscan idyll

By Helen Elliott

Moreno Giovannoni’s debut collection examines dislocation in a way rarely seen

The witty and urbane John Mortimer and the earnest and provincial Frances Mayes have something in common. In 1988 Mortimer wrote a diverting novel set in Tuscany called Summer’s Lease, which became a wildly successful TV series. Mayes went to Tuscany in the first half of the 1990s nursing a broken heart. She bought a house, had it renovated and then wrote a book about it. In converging the two deepest fantasies of the Western middle classes – how to find romance and home renovation – Mayes turned herself into a Tuscan Sun empire that reached from beer coasters to calendars. Mortimer, master of the known world in self-deprecation, did nothing but let it be known that for years he had spent his summers near Lucca.

Moreno Giovannoni writes about Tuscany too, but the Tuscany he creates in The Fireflies of Autumn (Black Inc.; $29.99) is a galaxy away from Mortimer’s and Mayes’ fictions. Giovannoni was born in the small village of San Ginese, 11 kilometres from charming Lucca in north-west Tuscany. San Ginese was one of those tiny villages, a collection of hamlets, that supplied men, and sometimes women, to do the gruelling physical labour required to open expanses of the New World, mainly in the United States, Argentina and Australia. Entire families came to the new world; some stayed, many returned. But dislocation can cause a peculiar vacancy in the heart, and too often the heart remains disconsolate, unable to find peace in any geography.

Early last century, Italy was subsistence poor, and the idea of making a fortune in the new world before returning to Italy to die was seductive. It was, of course, never straightforward. Giovannoni’s parents migrated to Australia, and Giovannoni grew up in north-east Victoria, where Italian migrants prospered on tobacco farms. Yet they yearned for home, and Giovannoni returned to San Ginese as a young adolescent and later went to university in Pisa. He is a professional interpreter and translator, an essayist and short story writer.

Giovannoni maintains the sly pretence that he is not the writer of these tales. The suggestion to the reader in the opening chapter is that they were written by Ugo, who, like Giovannoni’s father, was born in San Ginese on a stormy night in 1927. A birth, a stormy night. What more does any folktale need? San Ginese was, says Ugo, “a paradise”, but Ugo was expelled from this paradise when he migrated to Australia in 1957. Ugo narrates and doesn’t appear to reflect, but each word comes from a profound desire to understand the process of leaving one place to remake life in another: “Normally the people you live with share the same memories and stories. So who can you share yours with, the stories that in the village of your birth are in the skin of your people and the memories that are in the stones?”

Yet remembering can become a burden to living. This is the knowledge that Giovannoni, who calls himself “The Translator”, suggests in the final story. It seems that the translator has more talent for forgetting than he does for remembering, and this causes not just puzzlement but pain to the people from the village who embraced him as a child. “Don’t you really remember anything?” his grandfather asks. And when the translator says he doesn’t, his grandfather starts to tell stories, which his mother picks up. Don’t you remember? Your father told you this story, this significant story about the haycart and the fat doctor? But no, he remembers only the house in Rae Street, North Fitzroy. Before Australia there is nothing in his head to connect him to San Ginese, the village that holds centuries of memories.

But before Australia there was everything. Between the two bookends – the introduction by Ugo and the final pages by The Translator – are the intricate tales of the people of San Ginese. Mainly concerned with the 20th century, these stories elaborate the everything that one little boy was designated to forget.

In these stories, the people of San Ginese live as they have done for centuries, close to and entirely dependent upon the land and their animals, and entirely dependent upon one another. Paradise was wearing thin. Their health is poor, their education mean, their circumstances squalid, their sexuality basic; they are not driven by kindness or the Christian love in which the priests instruct them each Sunday while not providing an example. The Tuscans are practical, first and last. If your neighbours are starving, as indeed two sisters are in one terrible story, you don’t think of the word “charity” in a low-church high-flown Christian way. First, you look after yourself and then, if you can spare anything, you help others. There is no pretence or hypocrisy about this. Before Tuscany was swamped by rich English and Germans who needed the sentimental version, it was pretty much as it had been for centuries. Germaine Greer noted that when she bought her house there in another paradisiacal valley in the early 1970s, oxen still were used to plough. There was one telephone in the village. The Tuscan Sun idyll is for foreigners. With cash.

What Giovannoni conjures in what he pretends are folktales, oral tales that are as true as they are untrue, is the vitality of a real village. His tales always have a point, and it is never subtle. In the tradition of Boccaccio, Giovannoni would like to flash the laughter and ribald naturalness of the villagers, but he is not Boccaccio. And we are not Boccaccio’s readers. In the midst of some boisterous manoeuvre there will be a surprising aside that whips the reader back from the story with a gift of a melancholy truth. The most confronting story, “The Migrant’s Lament”, comes towards the end. The writer, the translator-raconteur, has thought long about these things and the result is a tristesse that sets a perfect tone that holds steady throughout. Unflinching though he is, Giovannoni is a master of the need for lightness and has full understanding of the thrilling discrimination of shading.

If there is a literature of homesickness, The Fireflies of Autumn will slide in at the top. It is a profound and delicate disclosure of a subject too often simplified, too often made funny. Funny is included, but the beauty of these tales is in the invisible stitching of erudition and the quite breathtaking emotional understanding of what the weight of the word dislocation means in any human life. And quite possibly the Albanians and Moroccans who are now buying into the Tuscan fantasy will feel it as keenly.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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