It would flood her, steal her breath.
But then it would pass. The moment would pass. Leave her deflated, feeling nothing but a vague restlessness.
-Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns (168)
I took a short break from reading Giovanni Verga’s Little Novels of Sicily to read a book my daughter gave me, A Thousand Splendid Suns. It was after Verga’s Story of the Saint Joseph’s Ass, when there, written in faint cursive script, someone had written, “depressing.” I laughed out loud because this story fell in the middle of the book and to be honest, we were well beyond depressing. D.H. Lawrence translated the novel of the Sicilian novelist and playwright born in Catania in 1840. The stories are like parables, except there is no consolation of sorrows to be found, rather a confirmation of pities. Each story is a wry, subtle social criticism pointing out the grinding down of humanity under the hard stone of poverty.
However, wherever there is malaria there is earth blessed by God. – Little Novels of Sicily, Malaria (70)
A Thousand Splendid Suns is not exactly a cheerful romp however, the story of two women’s lives amidst the upheaval and cruelties of Afghanistan 1960-2003… you kind of know going in that it’s going to be heartbreaking.
And it is, but as my daughter said, “Keep reading.” Some days are more splendid than others, and there’s just no knowing.
The attachment to the land of one’s birth is a strong component in each book, and one that I have difficulty relating to. As far as I can tell, the sun shines with equal beauty in all directions. To me it seems just one more chain of self imposed rigidity. Nationality, race, religion, should not a man make. But we do so need to belong….if not to someone, than to something.
A striking difference between these two books is that one, Hosseini’s, is ultimately a hopeful story, because where there is love, there is always hope. Signor Verga, on the other hand, tempts my cynical misanthropic side: the greedy folly of men, the slow but sure slide into a dust of nothingness, helplessness that sours into hopelessness over the centuries are the realities that he builds his tales upon. His characters, like many people’s actual lives, are sadly lacking in love, the pursuit of a piece of bread is all consuming. Ignorance is all damning. Mere existence is a kind of purgatory, where the shock of lovelessness has worn off. In Hosseini’s story the rays of love, even if they are intermittent shards reflecting bits of warmth in between the horrors, are all sustaining.
Hosseini’s redemptive tale, in the end, is beautifully heart warming. The appeal of the Verga tales, on the other hand, for me, and perhaps for Lawrence, (based on what I’ve read of his works) is the cautionary aspect, the dry humor, a kind-hearted condolence to the unfortunate, and angry outrage at those that abuse their power. Lawrence’s writing is full of a call to love, of finding the meaning and worth of our lives in the connections made to other people. Through Lawrence’s translation of Verga’s stories we see the alternative, we feel the chill of our inhumanity that has the power to blot out our shared sun.
My children’s Sicilian grandmother would sometimes wag her finger and say, “Shamey, shamey, shamey.” Verga’s Little Novels of Sicily is just such a pointing finger.