Solfatara by Maciej Hen is an excellent historical novel, entirely unaffected by any modern trends or ideological debates. This is superb literature, graceful and cohesive, a great pleasure to read. Its cultural roots go deep into the past, to the time when the tradition of the secular adventure story was born, in other words, the era of Lazarillo de Tormes, Cervantes or Defoe. Thus Solfatara is rather a bold undertaking, a sort of treatise on writing the seventeenth-century novel, but a practical one, because the result is simply the finished text of a novel of this kind, without any footnotes or commentary. There’s no post-modern irony, quotation marks or brackets, and no winking at the reader – if there are any, then they’re outside the actual narrative, cleverly placed in a definition of the situation where we have a seventeenth-century Italian novel written by a Polish author born in 1955.
The book is set in 1647 in Naples, where a popular uprising breaks out. Triggered by high taxes and customs tariffs imposed by the Spaniards then ruling the city, the revolt soon changes into chaotic street fighting, aimed not just at the Spaniards but also at the local aristocracy. A local fisherman, Tommaso Aniello, known as Masaniello, spontaneously emerges as leader of the rebellion. The career of this commander – to some a righteous hero, to others a cruel madman – only lasts for ten days, and then, as the result of yet another intrigue, he loses his head too. The action of Solfatara covers these ten days, as presented to us by the central character and narrator, Fortunato Petrelli, an elderly local news reporter, who keeps updating his notes as events unfold. In the typical manner of a character in an adventure story, Petrelli gets into all sorts of difficulties – he tries to establish the identity of a rather charming prostitute who usually succumbs to him in the dark, and he saves the life of a beautiful noblewoman, only to find out that she has been lying in her grave for the past six years. But Hen makes excellent use of one of the best trump cards of old-fashioned literature – the “nested story”. Now and then we are sent off into a colourful flashback from Petrelli’s life, or we move into the life story of each new character we meet, and also into stories within stories. As – naturally, toutes proportions gardées – in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa by Jan Potocki, this entire, erudite, compound structure forms a proper narrative, which in this case is about friendship, jealousy, betrayal and artistic ambitions. The language used in Solfatara is also notable – simple but sophisticated, rendered archaic in an elegant way, but without affectation or unnecessary frills. This is Polish of the highest quality, rich and beautiful.
Solfatara not only pulsates with literary force, but also with the energy of the Neapolitan street. The city of Naples has been a continuous settlement for over three thousand years – it is not afraid of revolutions, taxes, mafias or wars. The only thing it might possibly fear is the volcano in whose shadow it lies.
Sunday 7 July 1647
Shall I emerge from this mayhem with my life? I must try to hope for the best, though in truth there can be no certainty. It would not surprise me to find that all this chaos marks the end of Naples. As every man knows, nothing on this Earth lasts for ever. But we would wish there to be some trace of us left.
Thus I implore you, whoever you are that holds these pages, before you hurl them into the fire, please endeavour to read these blindly scrawled notes of mine, as I place in your hands the memory of my own existence, and of all those whom I manage to fit into these pages in the time to be granted me.
In fact one could surely make do without the particulars of my person, since I, Fortunato Petrelli, am nobody special, nor do I play a role in today’s tempestuous events. Yet perhaps, knowing who is addressing you, you will find it easier to judge to what extent my report is credible. Know therefore, that for thirty years and more it has been my daily occupation to describe everything that happens in our city on the pages of the Neapolitan News, a gazette familiar to all. Thus I have taken a close view of every sort of crime, executions, brawls among the common folk, family feuds and fires – I was even at the foot of Vesuvius during the great eruption of sixteen years ago – and yet an incident of the kind that is now occurring may never yet have been witnessed in these parts before. […]
Profiting from a moment of quiet outside, I shall now attempt to explain to you, Reader, what is happening around us. To this purpose I must go back several weeks, to the end of May, when news of local unrest first came from Palermo. On each occasion in this period when, in my habitual way, I joined the rabble pressing in all directions along the streets of our city and, curious where it would lead me, allowed myself to be carried along freely by the human wave, in the voices and gestures of the people passing by I sensed a morbid excitement. My immediate thought was that I was suffering from an overtaxed brain, in view of the heat, which often makes the entire world seem strange and alien, as in a bad dream, and to sober myself I doused my head with a pail of water or two from the well; and yet – whether the squabbles of lazars (as we are wont to call the idlers who sit from dawn to dusk outside the Hospital of Saint Lazarus), or the shouts of market traders, snatches of song, the guitar chords, laughter and loud conversations flowing in the evenings from tables and benches set outside the trattorias – all these seemed to sound a different note than usual, and to be running to a different metre, ever faster, as if passing from a trot to a gallop. At times, when from this hubbub individual words reached me, or even several words at once, I began to wonder if I myself had been the unwitting cause of this mental agitation, by providing information in my gazette about the ongoing unrest in Sicily. For on several occasions I chanced upon small groups of vagabonds gathered around one or another agitator who, making constant errors and stumbling over the more difficult words, was reading aloud to them, sentence by sentence, from a frayed copy of the News.
In recent days, I felt particular anxiety as I watched preparations for the approaching feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and as it soon came to light, my instincts were not deceiving me. There is a custom in Naples that every year in the square outside the Carmelite basilica the people build a large castle out of rotten planks, old papers and rags, and then on the day of the festival, there is a great battle fought with sticks, which some use to defend the stronghold, and others to storm it. There are always more volunteers who enlist on the side of the attackers, surely because in any case the fortress must be captured, and few would wish to fight in a cause that is lost from the very start. Furthermore, the Neapolitans love masquerades, and the attacking army always appears dressed up in turbans and fezzes, their faces made black with soot, or rust-red with brick dust. Since time immemorial these bizarre warriors have been called “the Alarbs”, which surely derives from the Arabs, although to what events this custom refers and what it is meant to signify I have never succeeded in divining, despite having lived in Naples for nigh on four-and-thirty years. This year, enlistment for the Alarb army began several days ago, and thus a long way in advance, for the festival is only due to fall on the sixteenth of July. On Friday afternoon, I made my way to the piazza del Carmine, where this beggars’ army holds its manoeuvres, in the hope of coming upon something there that would amuse the readers of my gazette. On the neighbouring piazza del Mercato, or to be precise, in the part of it free of stalls, where on Tuesdays and Thursdays there is a horse market, before the church of Sant Eligio a marble plinth has been erected, on which stands a platform of mighty beams; above it there rises a gallows, from which the stinking carcasses of malefactors usually dangle. They are rarely cleared away, for in this district the stench of the corpses is in any case lost amid the general fetor of waste lying scattered everywhere from the fishmonger’s and butcher’s stalls, dragged about by dogs and cats. (Things were different, so I have heard, in the days of the famous viceroy Don Pedro de Toledo, when ten condemned men were hung each day, each on a fresh string, thanks to which the rope makers were guaranteed constant demand for their goods.) But this time both hooks on the crossbeam of the gallows were free. Arriving at the square, I saw the “Moors” marching to and fro across their parade ground, dressed in motley, vigorously waving their sticks and rhythmically stamping their feet shod in bast shoes, causing dust to rise from the dried-out mud. I must admit that they did show some flair for the craft of war, as one watched them briskly march at every nod of the commander, now to the left, now to the right; then at an agreed signal, without breaking their serried rank, they rushed headlong into a successful attack on the gallows, now with their sticks held out before them like rapiers, now raised overhead like sabres. And yet I wondered why, if this was only to be a church festival performance, they were exercising so strenuously until sweat gushed from them in all directions, like water from a dog that shakes itself on emerging from a pond. Could the dishevelled youth with the large flaxen moustaches in command of these men have decided to eclipse all the Alarb storms ever enacted in human memory? And what might he gain from that?
I thought I had seen this man somewhere before. I stopped at a kiosk selling hot chocolate, ordered a cup of it and sat down on a bench, where I entered into conversation with others delighting in the fragrant nectar. On the first excuse, I steered the conversation towards the leader of the Alarbs, and in this way I learned his name. As soon as he announced to his subordinates a short interval in their exercises, I went up to him and, tipping my hat politely, asked if I had the pleasure of addressing Master Tommaso Aniello d’Amalfi.
“What is it?” he barked in reply, without even honouring me with a glance.
But when I introduced myself by Christian name and surname, adding that I am the publisher of the News, and asked at once how preparations for the storm were proceeding, he brightened; baring his rotten teeth at me, he raised a hand and waved it briskly.
“Why indeed!” he cried. “I didn’t immediately recognise you, Don Fortunato, I bow before you! Oh, my good sir” – he sighed with laughter – “the Lord God must have deprived me of my wits for me to have taken such trouble upon myself again. Last year it went rather well, and so they reappointed me. And, fool that I am, I was tempted to do it even more prettily this year. At home there’s misery, the children screaming, there’s nothing to put in their mouths, the old woman fumes in a fury like a swarm of wasps, while I am here, sir, playing at war.”
“Does that mean you are not a military man?” I asked, feigning surprise.
“I, sir?” He laughed, but at once puffing up with pride, he began to beat his scrawny chest with both hands.
“I am a fisherman! A genuine Neapolitan fisherman, like my father and grandfather before me!”
“Ah, indeed? I thought you were from Amalfi.”
“Not at all, that’s just my father’s nickname. I have never even been there. I am a local, everyone knows me here! Masaniello, the fisherman from vico Rotto.” But at once he grew downcast; he spat, and staring at the ground, admitted gloomily: “In truth, what sort of a fisherman am I nowadays? I had to sell the boat I’d inherited from my forefathers, and that for a paltry couple of carlini, because it was already falling apart. Now I do a bit of dealing in old paper for wrapping fish. But,” he added, brashly twirling his huge moustache, “once I manage to set some money aside, I’ll buy myself a new boat and return to fishing.”
After these words, I remembered that in fact I did indeed know him by sight. From time to time he had appeared at my gazette’s printing house, where he begged or bought for literally two cavalli the waste paper that we were intending to throw away. Now suddenly he smiled broadly, showing all the holes in his teeth.
“May a means of dealing with these thieves be found, and I shall live like a king!” he added, pointing his beard at the booth occupied by the customs officers, who in keeping with the law charge a fee for all goods sold at the market.
At the time, it never entered my head that behind these words of the dealer in paper for wrapping fish, something more than wishful thinking might lie hidden.
- Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones