Being literature challenged and most especially post-modern literature challenged, ordinarily upon encountering a John Domini novel; I would “pay it no mind.” However, after reading Olivia Cerrone's brilliant interview with him, published over at John DiNapoli’s Magna Grece.blogspot.com, I became intrigued. In the 'thank god I lived to see the Internet’ department, within minutes after reading the interview, I was reading an e-book version of A Tomb on the Periphery on my i-Pad.
Uncharacteristic of post-modern literature, A Tomb... is a proverbial "page turner." Unlike the time shifting plots (arrangement of events) of many post-modern novels such as DeLillo’s Underworld with its backward in time main plot and forward in time subplot (OMG!); A Tomb... reads like the early Scarpetta/Marino melodrama crime novels Patricia Cornwell wrote before she lost her muse. I read Domini’s book in two sittings – couldn’t put it down!
While it reads like a melodramatic crime novel, it has all the characteristics of high literature, A Tomb... warrants rereading many times: first, to savor the language Aristotle characterized as “Diction” i.e. language reflecting the depth of moral character and principles, and second to reflect upon the profound moral and cultural ideas explored in the story’s plot and character development.
One of the lesser ideas explored in “A Tomb...” has to do with crime and the Naples Camorra. Essentially two antagonist Camorra gangster characters provide the basis of a sub-plot contributing to the evolution of the protagonist’s character, and also the main plot’s suspense and climatic ending.
In as much as I've read the book and posting this ‘review’ (as it were) in the same time frame of the recent New York Saviano ‘lovefest’ (as it were) and blanket coverage given it by i-Italy (as it was), it seems appropriate to treat the Camorra component of the book up-front in more detail than I might have otherwise. Subsequently, considering what hopefully I accurately judge the author’s intended theme, the more significant idea – the ancient presence in contemporary Terroni Patria Meridionale culture. Further, considering the logical implications of that theme: If Terroni Patria Meridionale culture is ancient, then so too American Terroni culture.
Crime in literature and film
“If it bleeds, it leads” is the old newspaper adage. Similarly, in film I would say: ticket sales follow bloody trials. Gomorrah was a wildly successful violent crime film; a high-tech ‘throw-back’ to the 1930’s Edward G. Robinson "Little Caesar" and Paul Muni "Scarface" violent Italian mobster crime movies.
I find it interesting (indeed fascinating) that the very same Italian American literati who rail against American Mafia movies and TV shows so adore the Gomorrah film and ONE of the SIX screenplay writers. Why is Gomorrah not judged to be just another stereotypical negative depiction of Italians and their propensity to engage in violent criminal activity?
Seemingly, because ONE of the films SIX credited screenplay writers (Roberto Saviano) is thought to be a crime fighter. If so, why aren’t Puzo, Coppola, Scrosese and Chase considered crime fighters, rather than Italian denigrators or Mafia glorifiers? They are to a person far greater artist than Saviano. Indeed, they are artist!
(Even the most vociferous admirers of Saviano have to admit, from the point of view of literary criticism, his single six co-authored artistic endeavor is a pretty simplistic TV melodrama plot dressed up in big budget, high tech, mass marketed cinematography – yet, this single six co-authored simplistic artistic endeavor has resulted in lavish praise and awards for Saviano by Academy of Fine Arts of Brera, NYU, etc – Go Figure!)
Saviano himself is a leading denigrator Italian American Mafia films. In a January 28, 2009 interview on BBC2’s “The Culture Show”, he says his intention in making the Gomorrah film was to “deconstruct the mythology of the mafia hero”. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qvSHK4BYbX8) In short, he rejected the Italian American film images of the Mafia. (note: HE made the film! The other five credited screenplay writers...?)
However, to my mind, the Saviano and Italian American literati denigration of the Italian American artists results from their failure to either understand or acknowledge that the social complexity and moral ambiguity of crime depicted in the great works of Western literature are also present in the works of Puzo et al.
Crime, in reality and in great literary depictions, is not a simple Manichean ‘Good’/‘Bad’ dichotomy. Quintessential Good Guys and Bad Guys is the stuff of old cowboy movie melodramas and current TV ‘cop shows’ like “Law and Order”.
The reality of crime is more complex and more ambiguous. East of Eden there are no purely Good Guys; only Guys who at times act good and other times act bad and most of the time aren’t certain what’s good or bad – Abraham poised to slay his son! Michael Corleone his brother! Moral ambiguity is the essence of great Western literature – “To Be or Not To Be”... “The Evil men do lives after them – the Good interred with their bones..." Puzo et al understand and embrace that precept and their literature is reflective.”
Because great literature deals with time transcending issues such as crime, great literary works transcends time. It is interesting to note, 40 years (two generations) after its inception, Godfather DVDs are still on sale at Target and other department stores, the Sopranos is currently on its umpteenth HBO rerun, and both can be found on the shelves of Blockbuster. When was the last time we heard about Gomorrah – outside of NYU? Saviano co-authored a "cowboy story" and it had the same lifespan.
John Domini’s “A Tomb on the Periphery” is solidly in the tradition of great Western morally conflicted literature. In it he explores the personal moral ambiguity of his protagonist and more generally the moral ambiguity of Neapolitan society. His Camorra is not Saviano’s Gomorrah – rather Puzo et al Mafia.
For example, why does the protagonist Fabbrizio ‘take a job from Camorra’? Because his mother needs medical services that she can’t afford and not provided for by the state insurance program. Further, Fabbrizio with three years of university education and also a highly skilled craftsman cannot get a job that pays enough to pay for his mother's medical treatments. So he takes a job from Camorra. Here we see a (bad) Camorra providing a (good) service that the state does not – a (bad) job that pays for a (good) medical treatment. Consider the self-divided Hamlet-esque Fabbrizio reflecting on his mother’s admonition not to get involved with the Camorra:
“He’d stopped in at the private studio of a doctor who for a price, could assure the signora of quality recuperative care...the Camorristi had mentioned a figure high enough to lure him... (location 952 – no page numbers in ebook, emp.+)
“He figured the cash would be more than enough for the required tests on his mother, heart and lungs both” (l. 521)
[Alone at his Camorra workplace] “Mama,” he said aloud. “Mama”, he thought, look at it, look at how I finished [the job] in spite of everything. Now, tell me. Doesn’t your Brizio love you?” (l. 1698)
However, this is not to suggest that Domini is giving the reader a romanticized notion of crime. Of course, as in human situations generally, at times the moral judgments are not ambiguous and unequivocally obvious. Domini presents us with two low level Camorristi: extortionist, murders, kidnappers, rapist, ‘you name it...’ – generally all round ‘dirt bags’ with no redeeming characteristics – seemingly!
Nevertheless, as murderously evil these fellows are depicted, there is a tacit hint of moral ambiguity even with them. Even though they have absolute power over him (life and death), power that Fabbrizio understands with nerve racking fear and trembling, they ‘honestly’ fulfilled they contractual obligation to Fabbrizio; they paid him his due in full and send him on his way. The ‘dirt bags’ pay for the medical treatments that the state or doctor would not provide.
“Fabbrizio had money in his pocket, actually in both pants packets, matching thick folds of Euros that should pay for six months and more in the best coronary-recovery program he could find, even Doctor High and Mighty’s”(l.1808)
But, even his belief that he did the right thing taking a job and money from the Camorristi, Fabbrizio is racked with guilt that his actions had set off a chain of events that led to the murder of another family man trying to get a little extra money. Domini posits Jesus’ doubt on the Cross (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) and the Existentialist ‘God is Dead’ themes:
“ ‘Mama, Mama, you wouldn’t believe how your toughneck boy kept crying’...At one point he discovered himself wiping his eyes with a pair of Euro bills, a ten and a twenty.”
“...that sorry stupidaagine...Fabbrizio hadn’t told him to pull that stunt...the blow to conscience that the returning Secondigliano suffered...he actually called aloud for help, praying to the angel...She was no longer visible, but neither was her boss, the Divine (l. 1831 emp. +)
In sum, given the high literary quality of A Tomb on the Periphery’s treatment of Camorra crime, to my mind, it would have been so much more appropriate to see John Domini on the stage in front of an adoring sold out auditorium at one of the world’s primer literary universities, and given blanket coverage – instead of a one-time co-author of a pop movie script.
Naples today – Magna Grecia past and present
It is not possible to develop, in this paper, what is (in my subjective aesthetic judgment) the main theme of the book –i.e. the ancient spiritual presence in contemporary Terroni Patria Meridionale culture – without compromising the suspense of the novel’s plot for those who have not already read it. (Don’t you just hate it when someone tells you “the butler did it” before you see the end of the movie?) Accordingly, I will just posit some general comments about the theme and what I judge to be implications for Italian American Studies.
In the very first sentence of “A Tomb on the Periphery" we are introduced to an “exposed skeleton” of a young girl buried with a necklace approximate 2600 years ago in a tomb on the periphery of present day Naples; whom Fabbrizio affectionately calls “La Greca”.
In the second last paragraph of the book we are told
“[her] ghost would be at peace now...The Greca’s bones no longer had to wander in search of a home. At the same time, her long-ago fatherly [necklace] gift would’ve found its way to a righteous new purpose for another young woman in another life-to-come.” (l.3551 emp. +)
In between the first sentence and second last paragraph, at least thirty times or more, Fabbrizio interacts with the spirit of “La Greca”. For example, he hears “a voice”:
“...my necklace... my father... the truth in how he fastened it around me... my father hooked it around my perfumed neck... so much truth in his farewell... and death as ever so near... (l.777)
Fabrrizio tries to explain the voice:
“...if he came up with some other rational he’d only be lying to himself again. No choice but to blink and bear it: this had been a voice from beyond. It’s been the girl from the half-open tomb Greca” (l. 799 emp.+)
This connection between Fabbrizo and Greca seems to have been alluded to in the above-mentioned Olivia Cerrone interview, Domini says:
“[Naples] inner city's layout and architecture. The Greco-Roman nucleus presents classic structures undergoing constant adaptation... The city may be the longest lasting in the world, if we measure by the continuous usage of a single space, a single downtown. Certainly there's no downtown so old anywhere west of Damascus... So all my novels' diverse angles on Naples have to reference that same original city.
It is this sense of the at once ancientness of Naples and the ever presentness of the ancient that pervades “A Tomb on the Periphery". Fabrizzo not only is imbued with the spirit of La Greca. He also carries a Penates at all times in his pocket; an ancient Roman icon, which he thinks of as “a hook to catch the good.”
“...he closed both hands prayer like around his Penates [experiencing] jolts [making] his grip close still tighter around the two-thousand-year-old bronze. After that, a voice [La Greca]. (l. 777)
In Domini’s novel, today’s Fabbizzo and Camorra seamlessly blend with a 2000 year old Roman icon and a 2600 year old Greek skeleton and necklace. Domini reminds, indeed teaches us that the ancient past is ever present in the culture of southern Italy. And, by implication, we may deduce its presents in southern-Italian Americana also.
This profound fact has been profoundly lost upon the historic amnesic Italian American literati.
La Greca “...like Hecuba – languished and banished...” at Stony Brook
Documentary evidence of literati historic amnesia can be found in the catalogs of the primer Italian American studies universities. For example, the SUNY Stone Brook catalog list a total of 24 courses as either “Courses in Italian American Studies” or “Undergraduate courses in English on Italian and Italian American art, literature, and culture” (http://www.italianstudies.org/iam/curriculum.htm)
Of these 24 courses, Not One! (Not a Single One!), not a single course constitutes a dedicated study of the people, history and/or culture south of Rome. A student of southern-Italian descent has not a single opportunity to take a course dedicated to his/her heritage before Ellis Island.
Further historic amnesia evidence: in the same catalog is an extended statement titled “Beyond the Basement: A Manifesto for Italian American Studies”. This “manifesto” praises Italian Studies programs around the country. Specifically, it lists four university Italian Studies programs: University of Connecticut, Seton Hall, California State University at Long Beach, John Carroll University.
Referring to the catalogs of those university one finds:
University of Connecticut offers 21 Italian Studies courses (not language) – not one dedicated to Patria Meridionale.
Seton Hall offers 23 Italian Studies courses (not language) – not one dedicated to Patria Meridionale
California State University at Long Beach essential is an Italian language program with not one course dedicated to Patria Maridionale
John Carroll University offers 12 Italian Studies courses (not language) – has one dedicated to Sicily (sing Hallelujah!).
Thus, at Stony Brook and four university promoted by the Stony Brook Manifesto there can be found only 1 course dedicated to the study of a southern Italian entity and not one dedicated to a Terroni person (Roger Who? Amari Who?...)
“A Tomb on the Periphery" stands against the historic amnesia of the Italian American literati. It tells American Terroni, forget about trying to learn your history and culture in the American university Italian Studies programs. All you can learn there is post Ellis Island nonna’s kitchen history and northern Italian art history. Your glorious 2500-year history before Ellis Island does not exist in the minds of the Italian American literati.
“A Tomb on the Periphery" is an absolutely brilliant many faceted novel written by an American Terroni. It’s a great read as a crime story. It’s thought provoking as an ethical consideration of moral conflict. And, it’s a lesson in the historical and cultural roots of southern-Italian Americana – would that the Italian American literati read it as such and write curriculum accordingly.