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The Day Before Happiness

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In an article I previously wrote about meeting Erri De Luca for the first time, I mentioned that he was a master of lyrical prose based on my reading of his novel, God's Mountain. In his latest novel, The Day Before Happiness, also translated by Michael Moore, what struck me most was not so much the lyricism and the laconic nature of his prose, but the structure and narrative of the text. Clearly, De Luca is indebted to the poetics of prose (if not to poetry) since there are no fewer than 50 instances in which he uses similes and an almost equal number of metaphors. It's apparent, too, that the use of such poetic devices are a kind of mainstay of his art. For example, De Luca has his Jewish character who has been surviving in the sewers of Naples during World War II saying:

The insolent sky of September 1943: a tablecloth with embroidered borders, fresh and clean without a speck of dust, a stain. An unblinking turquoise: come down to earth a bit, sky, let's trade places, why don't you take up there all the filth and spread your tablecloth down here on earth. A vicious, distant sky, not like today, that started at the rooftops. The uprising began when it started to rain, as if the city were waiting for an agreed sign or that the sky was closing. And the Americans stopped bombing.

As in God's Mountain, De Luca relies heavily on poetic tropes if not in quantity, then in degree to tell the tale. One discovers numerous examples in which De Luca uses such rhetorical devices as anadiplosis or the repetition of a word at the end of a clause or at the beginning of another; anaphora or the repetition of the same word or group of words at the beginning of successive clauses; or anastrophe which is the inversion of the usual word order within a sentence. These devices contribute to the lyricism of his prose which gives it the kind of poetic quality I've suggested.

But, as I alluded to, the narrative in The Day Before Happiness is somewhat redolent of God's Mountain especially in relation to the characters and how said characters are characterized. For example, instead of the "magically real" winged mentor, Don Rafaniello, we get the "magically real" doorman mentor, Don Gaetano; instead of the narrator's first love, Maria, we have the narrator's first love, Anna, who is also the focal point of "the day before happiness"; instead of the good carpenter, Master Errico, we have the good bookseller, Don Raimondo; instead of the unnamed Neapolitan narrator in God's Mountain, we have the unnamed narrator, "a scigna," the monkey, in The Day Before Happiness. Likewise, there are repetitions of other themes: a dysfunctional if not absent nuclear family; the acknowledgement of sexual desire; unexpected erections; the allusion to Argentina (which also appears in Three Horses); the persecution of Jews (as witnessed by the Jew who lives in the sewers during the war); instead of Don Rafaniello who has wings, Don Gaetano can read thoughts and, lastly, instead of a boomerang, there is a knife. Recalling Chekhov's dictum that if a gun is seen in the first act it must be used by the last, so too are the boomerang and knife (though the latter isn't proffered at the outset) used by the end of their respective novels. As in God's Mountain, the tale initially appears to be a memoir or a Bildungsroman until we realize at the end of the novel that it is more like a coming-of-age novel highlighting episodes from the narrator's childhood to the end of his teens and not any kind of document recording the narrator's life from youth to adulthood.

The language is very much De Lucan in that one reads the lyrical nature of the work and how much the language (even in translation) is valorized over other aspects of the novel; however, at times, the language itself tends to impinge on the didactic though it doesn't stray from the poetic as when Don Gaetano says:

Do you have to go looking for saints? There are neither saints nor devils. There are people who perform some good deeds and a number of evil ones. Any moment is right to do something good, but to do something evil takes opportunity, convenience. War is the best opportunity to do rotten things. It grants permission. To do a good deed, instead, requires no permission.

So, throughout the text one finds these somewhat didactic gems that advance the narrator's world view.

In terms of its overall structure, the text is reflective of a kind of neo-Realism à la Turgenev or, perhaps, Balzac; but unlike Turgenev or Balzac, De Luca's structure is less linear and more episodic. Whereas in Turgenev one finds a transitional link between one scene and another, as in Rudin, in De Luca's tale there is nothing that necessarily links two scenes. In other words, the narrator has recollections of his youth that are not necessarily linear nor are those recollections necessarily linked. They are specific episodes that the narrator recalls about his youth and his teenage years and by virtue of the narrator recalling those specific incidents, those specific episodes, they become valorized. One might assume there is some kind of motivational device that initiates the narrator's memory. That is, a kind of Proustian madeleine. But De Luca doesn't resort to that kind of motivation. The memories are just that -- memories.

One of the most distinguishing aspects of the novel is De Luca's use of dialogue. In relation to some of his earlier works, namely Montedidio and Three Horses, The Day Before Happiness relies quite heavily on the use of dialogue. As I read the novel, I was reminded of something Bahktin wrote in his book, Problems With Dostoevsky's Poetics, that specifically related to Dostoevsky's use of, what Bakhtin referred to as, "polyphony" or the notion of "many voices." In Dostoevsky, each character's voice represents a voice that is reflective of the individual character. No other character would "sound" like any other character and even though Bakhtin was talking about polyphony as it related to his other concepts of unfinalizabilty in relation to self and others that characterizes polyphony what seems somewhat incomplete in The Day Before Happiness is this notion of polyphony.

In some cases, as in the character of the cobbler, La Capa, the dialogue clearly reflects his character and his voice is individualized, but because the novel is so dialogue dependent, the dialogue doesn't necessarily reflect the voices of the other characters. No other character's voice seems to be as individualized as La Capa's. Perhaps, De Luca was privileging that character over others or perhaps that is an issue of translation since on more than one occasion I've been warned against reading English translations of novels like Gadda's Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana or Gombrowicz's Ferdydurke or Pushkin's Eugene Onegin for the same reasons. But polyglotism has its limits and, at some point, a reader must depend on the translator for some semblance of literary verisimilitude. In that sense, much of the dialogue sounds more like the narrator than the individual characters. Whether that can be perceived as a fault in the text is arguable, but what continues to stand out as a kind of De Lucan characteristic is his penchant for poetic prose and my thought is that regardless of the content of his future novels, that emphasis will prevail.