Shipwrecked: On Lorenza Pieri’s “Lesser Islands”
By Julia Case-LevineMarch 3, 2023
Lesser Islands by Lorenza Pieri
This is where journalist Lorenza Pieri’s second novel Lesser Islands, translated into English by Donatella Melucci and several others and published by Europa Editions in February 2023, begins. Two sisters, Caterina and Teresa, prepare for the arrival of Freda and Ventura. Their mother, Elena, organizes protests at the hotel she runs with her cheery but inept husband. As residents devise a plan to blockade the dock with steel cables, the two sisters hover on a balcony above the assembly and listen in—Caterina keenly, Teresa clumsily. Teresa, who narrates the novel, is separated from the events unfolding around her by a gloss of childish misunderstanding; she comes to believe that a two-headed, four-armed monster named “Fredevventura” will soon wash up onshore.
But the spidery monster is real, Teresa eventually learns. Right before school starts, the sisters sprint to the beach and spend the day cartwheeling and somersaulting in the sand. They accidentally kick a stranger, who complains. Caterina recognizes the man as one of the notorious Piazza Fontana terrorists (although we never learn which) and reprimands him: “My sister is guilty of having thrown sand on you, and she even apologized to you […] have you ever apologized to anyone for what you did?”
The stranger looks around the beach, finds no adults in sight, and slaps Caterina in the face. Teresa, who has been watching silently, suddenly sputters: “Worm! Fucking coward! You filthy, piss-drinking, horny, slobbering prick!” The joke is that Teresa has no idea who the stranger is. When she later realizes that she has spat every obscenity she knows on Fredevventura, the macabre monster who haunts her nightmares, she wets the bed for weeks.
Teresa narrates the novel with a puzzling mixture of actual and feigned innocence. At times, her ignorance seems like a carefully maintained strategy. “Only I was aware of the power of being a sweet girl, a baby girl,” she tells the reader. “And as long as I was able, up until my adolescence, I practiced it on my father but also on the other women of the family.” Teresa’s grandmother, who hid in stables and gave birth on a newspaper-coated stack of hay during World War II, is compulsively helpful. She clears the dishes and cleans the table, even as she moves at the pace of a trembling snail. Teresa’s mother, who crouched beside a water well while fascists tortured and murdered her father, organizes political protests and runs the family business with swift efficiency. Their competence as adults is linked, Teresa understands, to a troubled past. These two women have faced unimaginable violence with courage and resolve.
But Teresa, born into a period of relative peace, is charmed by an easier path; she has been cared for, adored, and sheltered. As long as she remains oblivious, she is given an exemption from the responsibility that the other women in her life, with their “male attitudes,” inevitably assume. What Teresa will discover, eventually, is that every era has its monsters—and monsters have a nasty habit of making themselves known.
In My Brilliant Friend (published in Italian in 2011), the first novel of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, the friendship between eight-year-olds Lenù and Lila begins “the day [they] decided to go up the dark stairs that led, step after step, flight after flight, to the door of Don Achille’s apartment.” Don Achille is the local loan shark, but to Lenù, who only knows that her parents have cautioned her to stay away, he is “created out of some unidentifiable material, iron, glass, nettles, but alive, alive, the hot breath streaming from his nose and mouth.” One spring afternoon, the girls brashly decide to sneak into Achille’s apartment. As they creep upstairs, Lila grabs Lenù’s hand. That brief, intoxicating sense of togetherness “changed everything between [them] forever.”
As the two girls grow up, Naples and its fairytale villains haunt their friendship. All friendships carry in them contradictory impulses—to join forces or compete, to draw close or separate, to worship or humble. But for Lila and Lenù, those opposing emotions shimmer with an electric force. Perhaps this is because the specter of violence, both imagined and real, infects their friendship with passion, dependence, and affection as well as cruelty, revulsion, and malice.
In Lesser Islands, too, the intensity between Caterina and Teresa seems to come from their proximity to monsters. Caterina is not only Teresa’s beloved older sister but also the “dirty filter” Teresa relies on to make sense of the world. It is Caterina who narrates, through a bedtime story, the political conflict over Freda and Ventura’s exile; Caterina who reveals her grandmother’s horrifying experiences during World War II; Caterina who exposes their father’s infidelity. When Caterina leaves for boarding school, Teresa withers and wilts as if the sun has been flicked off. “I would have willingly gone into hibernation until summer,” she tells us. Only with Caterina’s return will there be “life on earth.”
Teresa’s reliance on Caterina is a tricky narrative stance, as her own observations, often simplistic and obvious, make for dull writing. (When Teresa confronts her father’s mistress, we get: “I held my head low and heard confused thoughts rolling around in my empty head.”) Caterina often steps in as the engine of the novel, to explain (somewhat didactically) the novel’s major themes. In one scene, Caterina fumes at her grandmother when Teresa is cut a larger piece of leftover tart. “In this family without justice or liberty, not only can [Teresa] have the bigger slice, [she] can even have the whole tart,” Caterina rants.
But maybe it’s normal given that [Nonna] lived in a world where justice and equality didn’t exist: there was the boss, the sharecropper, the farmhand, there were men who got the best parts, and the women had to be happy with the rest. If you grow up among injustice, it is difficult to perform justice afterward …
While we feel Ferrante’s monsters, like Don Achille, in Elena’s whirling, ferocious narration, we only hear about Pieri’s secondhand. Caterina feeds us sweeping statements, which Teresa diligently transcribes. Being in Teresa’s head is somewhat like finding oneself in a remote village, at an infuriating distance from a city in which we are told there is activity, vibration, noise, excitement. Teresa compares their relationship to a familiar geographic hierarchy: “Caterina, the mainland, me, the lesser island.”
Pieri, who grew up in Giglio and spent eight years in Washington, DC, as a reporter, excels as a chronicler of historical events. The Garden of Monsters, Pieri’s second novel but the first one translated into English, in 2020, fictionalizes an encounter with the real artist Niki de Saint Phalle. In reality, as in the novel, Phalle filled a 14-acre field in the hills of Maremma with her colorful, whimsical, and surreal sculptures, her “monsters,” attracting attention from locals and tourists alike. Lesser Islands circles around Freda and Ventura’s stay at Giglio Island, establishing in a few, swift strokes an episode that’s been almost entirely forgotten by Italian historians and completely overlooked by the international press. But Pieri’s careful attention to history and place can’t quite bring a character alive. Teresa flounders as a narrator; at the height of her emotional arc, there is no spark, no heat. One of the flimsiest sections involves Teresa’s teenage love affair with a distant childhood friend, Pietro. One evening, Pietro invites Teresa to sail with him to a nearby beach. Lying on the sand, he mutters, somewhat inexplicably, “Damn you.” The next moment, the two are intertwined in a kiss that feels, to Teresa, “like a magical fluid.” We never quite believe in their chemistry, nor do we in Pietro, a character who doesn’t get much more depth than a stock-figure sailor: quiet, strong, and loyal.
The more convincing scenes come when Teresa wrestles with her place in history. As a child, Teresa is desperate to elude the suffering inflicted on her mother and grandmother, to live comfortably and pleasantly and avoid any brush with evil. Years later, she grows envious of the older women’s fiery convictions, which seem formed by another era. Teresa’s Italy may be peaceful, but it is quietly spineless. As an adult, Teresa is a miserable marketing executive who repeats insipid clichés, like “I really need to unplug.” She is eventually forced to unplug when her woman-run marketing agency fires her for spending too much time with her newborn.
When Teresa does finally confront the event that will define her moment in time, it’s not an epic battle against obvious evil, a political showdown between left and right, or a war between competing definitions of justice. It’s a boat crash. A hulking, extravagant cruise ship barrels into Giglio, crashing into the granite shore. Dozens of passengers drown. For Teresa, this episode epitomizes the generation in which “suffering and death don’t come to pass for a great ideal, for a revolution, for liberation.” It represents, instead,
the banal carelessness of a mediocre spineless man at the helm of a glittering circus of fake, neon-colored crystals, hydromassage tubs and sports pitches, music lounges and all-inclusive cocktails, chrome handles, slot machines and jewelry shops, parlor games, carpeting and strobe mirrors, waitresses who are also dancers and dishwashers who act as acrobatic bartenders.
Until this night, Teresa has spent much of her life avoiding the monsters that haunt her particular place and time. Once she becomes an adult, she’s jealous of the women who have done otherwise, and have in some way been part of a greater historical arc. Which is not to say that the older generation managed to impose its will on the world. In 1969, Giglio residents blocked Freda and Ventura’s arrival for only two days. Eventually, the duo was flown in on a helicopter, and shortly after, both escaped Italy. Meanwhile, the protesters were arrested and spent up to six months in jail. What those who participated in the demonstrations accomplished was not to change Freda and Ventura’s corrupt and enfeebled sentence—justice, in this case, would never be served—but to at least, in some small way, face their moment.
This is what Teresa finally recognizes, as she springs into action the night of the boat crash, inviting washed up passengers into her family’s hotel, bringing them duvets and thermal blankets, and writing down the names of survivors. The novel ends with a faint sense of triumph, but not one that comes from escaping or transcending Giglio’s monsters. Instead, when Teresa is asked what she’ll do after the destruction of the shipwreck is cleared, she says simply: “I’ll be here.” For once, Teresa knows what that means.
Julia Case-Levine is a critic and essayist based in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. She is a graduate of the Cultural Reporting & Criticism program at New York University.
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