PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
The air around the door
She was sixty-one when I was born, and throughout my childhood, despite my mother’s urgings (‘You must call her aunt Ninin!’), she was always and only Ninin, a diminutive which served as a foothold for my small impertinent feet in my doomed efforts to subvert an authority to which in fact she never laid any claim.
In the parish register she was ‘Caterina’, like her grandmother - her father’s mother - but pronounced ‘Catlina’, with that particular throaty ‘n’ found, in Italy, only around our way. That she had been given this name was only to be expected: if the first-born girls of the sons of the old Catlina had not been christened Catlina the granda would have been offended, and the guilty parties would have been the first to know it. With rules like this, a family was bound to include several people with the same name, and endless diminutives were resorted to so as to avoid the ensuing confusion: Catlinin, Catlinota, Catlinetta. She herself was known as Ninin, from Catlinin, but in our dialect ninin also means a babe in swaddling clothes, something small and new which may or may not stay the course, a scrap of a life stirring within a worm-eaten cradle between a woolen blanket and a pallet made from maize, and you don’t give it a real name until it has learned to crawl. And Ninin she remained, even when a whole string of brothers and sisters began to follow after, including my grandmother.
She was the daughter of a Domenica and a Giuseppe, and her nursemaid was a cow. The story goes that they put her under this cow when her mother’s milk dried up before the newborn baby was old enough to eat polenta, and the other sister-in-law couldn’t feed her because she already had a strapping great lad who was drinking her dry. So they took Ninin into the stable and attached her to the long pink protrusion beneath the cow, and on hearing her famished shrieks, that kindly creature, it was said, just stood there quietly as though at milking time, with bovine patience, while Ninin sucked with all the force of her infant gums. She came to no harm at all. In those days people rubbed along with germs better than they do now; and any way children were often born in stables, which were the only warm places during winter, and they came into immediate contact with straw, and animals’ warm breath. They either grew up strong or they didn’t grow up at all. Ninin survived both the lack of mother’s milk and the remedy for it. The only damage she suffered, according to family legend, was a slight deformation of the mouth, due to having sucked for months on a cow’s big teat; her teeth, when they came through, stuck out, and remained that way until a set of false ones came to improve the picture.
We’re in the last decade of the nineteenth century. Throughout the year, women wore a coarse, scratchy undergarment known as the camisa, which you stuffed into your drawers, when you wore any, which was hardly ever. On top of it, any number of cumbersome skirts and bodices concealed the all too frequent pregnancies. Men too wore a version of the camisa, with detachable collars and cuffs for washing purposes; on high days and holidays they put on dark woolen suits, always three piece: trousers, jacket and waistcoat. In those days hemp was still used, cool yet heavy, unsuited to winter wear. All adult males sported a moustache, and wore hats; all women, from earliest childhood to old age, forced their hair into plaits or buns.
A photograph, in those days, was a rare and momentous event, you had to sit still for quite some time, looking as solemn as though you were posing for your own funeral portrait, and indeed some whiff of funeral parlour finality can still be sensed in the magical ritual conducted by the photographer when he hides his head behind the piece of black cloth. No one is smiling, that levity so apparent in our digital clicks is still in the distant future. In those family photographs that you find stowed away in the bottom of chests-of-drawers, no one is the least concerned with looking happy, and certainly not radiant. Indeed, everyone looks peevish, gloomy, if not actually ferocious; guarded, crotchety.
I have no photographs of Ninin as a baby or young girl, or of her family, in the years around the turn of the century. Perhaps they have been lost, or perhaps spending money on a photographer struck people as a scandalous luxury. So I have been obliged to invent one.
It can only be a group portrait, with the old people seated in the middle, stiff and impassive, as though dried out by age, no hint of benevolence softening the hardness of their lips and looks; behind them and around them are their sons and daughters-in-law, some fully grown, indeed prematurely aging, some still almost children. The men stare fiercely at the lens as soldiers might stare at enemy cannon; the women, doomed yet expressionless, like so many Iphigenias ready for sacrifice, proffer white bundles balanced on their outstretched arms, with children of various ages clustered at their feet, staring out in surprise, their eyes like so many black buttons in astonished faces. At one of the edges of the family portrait, a woman in miniature, dressed like her mother, and like her determined to act and to resist: Ninin.
I see this image as though through running water, which is gradually eroding features already flattened by their pose and the direct light. Who, really, were these men and women? Were they as gruff and stern as they appear? Did they love each other, or merely put up with each other? What would they have to say to me, if they could surface from that water which is carrying them off a bit further day by day, above all if they were in the habit of talking about themselves, as they almost certainly were not? Have they anything in common with me, with the world as it seems to me to-day? The only one I can see clearly, the only one I can still just touch, dipping my hand into the flow of that past, all relatively recent though it is - little more than a century old - is the child Ninin; through her, the images of her brothers and sisters also take on life.
For me, Ninin is the fons et origo. Ninin the indefatigable, Mulier Fabricans. My Lucy, the first human form emerging from the slime.
Unmistakable, unique, my DNA, as deep in me as the marrow of my bones, her thoughts the substratum of my own. And, at the same time, wider, a super-personal being, a spirit permeating the very idea of what it is to be human.
Young or old, she’s always my Ninin. As when I called to her when I was a child, with the imperious possessiveness of a lover. Passion is not a prerogative of youth and it has little in common with sexual desire, with which it is often confused; sometimes, intense and total passions are experienced during the least sexual parts of life, in infancy and old age. I can only define as passion the feeling that bound me to my mother and the old people of my early childhood, among whom Ninin was the most reassuring yet most inaccessible, the most loved and necessary.
If I had to describe what, over the years, became my personal cosmogony, Ninin would be at its core: the small, clear-cut keystone of my universe, a symbol of the most absolute, unvarnished and pragmatic woman’s love.
The firstborn daughter of Giuseppe and his wife Domenica is destined to survive many another trial after the cow’s teat, including typhus, two world wars, breast cancer and a starveling’s pension after fifty years of working in a factory. She will bring up three generations: her own brothers and sisters (before she herself dies, she lays flowers on all their graves), her niece Maria, my mother, and me, her great-niece. She sees the history of almost a century unfold before her, with its events and portents: electric light, ships full of emigrants, cars, cinema, Mussolini, liberation and the republic, the Madonna Pellegrina, Kennedy, Pope John, the popular variety programme Canzonissima, the first man on the moon, the miniskirt. Always in danger of being crushed by history, she stands resolutely aside from it, absorbed in weaving a story of her own, and of her folks, small-scale, persistent, ever to be cobbled together anew and then shored up, an everyday adventure which keeps her holding her breath. However monotonous her deeds and days, Ninin is never bored. Throughout her eighty-five years on this earth, she works tirelessly (except during her last year, spent in bed complaining of her aches and pains and inability to carry on working) without putting aside anything for herself, or asking for any respite; quickened, to the very last, by a desire - all the stronger for being purely instinctive, indeed almost unconscious - to care for those who have been put into her care. To help them to negotiate to-day with honour and dignity, and to lead them to safety to-morrow; beginning afresh each day.
Work is to be her sacrament, and duty her religion – duty, a mysterious word whose very utterance tears at her lips like a sharp blade. Duty is a cruel god who demands that you rise early and go to bed late, that you give your bones no rest and your eyes no peace, that you curry-comb your very soul. Duty consumes its worshippers like an undying flame; you can sometimes glimpse it in her eyes, that little flame, storm-tossed but never quite put out. Ninin’s sense of duty has nothing to do with the law of the land, and on occasions may be at odds with it; her very personal theology is spliced with curious and contradictory dogmas, but its beating heart knows no words, it is inarticulate, pure elan vital. As prosaic and down-to-earth as the heart which pumps blood into the veins. While there is life, come what may, Ninin will push on.
She was born at the beginning of March, when it was still winter, in the stable among the cows and donkeys like Jesus Christ, as everyone was born around her way in those days; there was certainly an ox, and probably a little donkey, but no angels, and instead of the Three Kings there was grandfather Bartolomeo, with a yellow moustache which reached almost to his ears, and his teeth even more yellow than his moustache, his son barba Giacu, stinking of wine, and the primordial Catlina, the mare granda, the grandmother, with her little black eyes, dressed in seven layers of skirts and bodices, with deep pockets between one layer and another, and knotted bundles containing handkerchiefs and snuff, and cheese rind - and the countless fine blades of her own viciousness. The gift Bartolomeo brought to the birth was the willow rod he was he was always quick to send whistling around his grandchildren’s grubby legs; Catlina’s gift was the bitter taste of countless injustices to come. Barba Giaicu brought nothing; it was he himself who was brought back from the wine-shop.
After her came a Maria who was to be my grandmother, and then a Domenica known as Michin; a Bartolomeo known as Mecio; a Margherita who died at the age of three, drowned in a nearby stream where they did the washing; then a Giuseppe known as Noto (from Pinot, which was the usual shortening of Giuseppe), then another Margherita to replace the first. By the age of four Ninin, the oldest, was already busy rocking cradles, changing nappies, peeling small potatoes for which grown-ups’ hands were too big. Her mother Domenica – once she’d finished milking cows and goats, cutting grass, carrying logs and making cheese - would sit down at the loom, which stood in a corner of the big kitchen, in a niche in the ground, where she would settle with a rustle of petticoats, her feet flying over the pedals while her arms would lower and raise the bar. It was hard work. What she spun was coarse hempen cloth, for sheets and shirts, off-white in colour like cream when it’s time to take it off the milk to make it into butter.
Twice a year they would go to the market at Chivasso to buy hemp yarn and sell their cloth. It was neither Domenica nor the other current daughter-in-law who struck the bargains with the dealers, but la granda: ‘You two don’t even know what the weather’s like outside, they’d eat you for breakfast’, Catlina would say to the daughters-in-law. And off she’d go, her donkey laden with bundles, together with a young son or a grandson who was no longer wet behind the ears.
It was Catlina who was in charge of all the women’s money, and her pockets gave out a faint clinking sound. It was always she who went to the local market of a Saturday, to buy flour, cooking pots, salted anchovies and clogs. The daughters-in-law stayed at home, looking after the animals and the kitchen garden.
The hierarchy which reigned in the house of my ancestors was a tribal affair, with hints of matriarchy. When, as an Arts student in the Seventies, despite the professors’ objections, I insisted on doing a thesis on witches (a subject which was becoming popular among feminists at the time, which was why I, eager for revelations about myself and life in general, was so eager to engage with it, and also why my teachers were so against it, one of them expressing the view that witches were a phenomenon of no importance, or, to use the terminology of the time, ‘a carbuncle on the arsehole of history’), what I discovered as I painfully transcribed late medieval Latin court proceedings written in a bastard Gothic script, was a stretch of the past whose smoke-filled gloom put me in mind of nothing so strongly as my own house, before my birth. At the end of the nineteenth century as in the fifteenth, families were large, and the women were under the thumb of the oldest among them. As in a harem, perhaps, or a Chinese house where many wives live together, with the first one having the whip-hand, in the stone houses of the villages in the foothills of the Alps la granda lorded it over the daughters-in-law and, if she was firm and had them in her grip, the young men would serve as her armed right hand. She was a royal madam, a regent who had to watch out both for women’s plots and for vendettas fuelled by male pride. It was a world untroubled by finicky matters of democracy, nothing but power and submission, and it was no coincidence that the daughters-in-law referred to their mother-in-law deferentially as madona, which comes from mea domina, my lady, even if they didn’t know it.
What I was reading then, at the age of twenty, in those courtroom proceedings, spoke to me of the fragility of women’s power, enclosed and contained as it was within those walls of stone, within those caves of beaten earth, amidst domestic objects transformed by a collective nightmare into instruments of witchcraft. Whether kindly or ill-disposed, the witches of bygone days - peasants, mothers, midwives, herbalists, witch-women or quite simply women – lived their lives exposed to a wind of pure barbarism, that same wind which was still worming its way into the house where Domenica gave birth to her first-born.
The other daughter-in-law of the family was called Rita; a woman of few words, she kept her eyes lowered and would nod her head without ever moving her pale lips. She was a see-through woman, the colour of the cold morning air; Domenica had tried to befriend her, to have someone young to talk to, but Rita was too timid, she didn’t know what friendship was, she’d grown up under the protective wing of a fat and jealous aunt and then fallen straight under la granda’s iron rod, without even a whiff of freedom in between.
Domenica had something invisch, something vibrant about her, which Catlina didn’t like. Furthermore, Domenica’s oldest children were all girls, while Rita had given birth to two boys, and it was this too – apart from her docile nature – which caused her mother-in-law to view her in so favorable a light.
Right from her poverty-stricken, hard-working youth, Ninin realized that she belonged to a persecuted tribe. Magna Rita’s sons received larger portions of polenta, and if there was any full-cream milk it went straight to them. Domenica’s daughters looked on, and knew better than to complain. ‘Men eat more’, their grandmother had decreed, and this was true for all males, even as children (though at a later date Domenica’s male children ate less than Rita’s). In that cavernous kitchen, beneath the long beam, the men would be seated at the massive table, blackened by the smoke of the many meals which had been served there, while the women crouched by the stone hearth, feeding their babies, or managed to gulp down the odd mouthful while they served the men, and the girl children would perch on stools with a plate balanced on their knee. Only Catlina would be seated at table, among the men, dividing out the portions on the chopping board and keeping an eye out to see that no one sopped up too much of the anchovy oil along with their slice of polenta, or helped themselves to either cheese or milk.
‘Cheese is made from milk’ – her voice would fall like an axe on greedy, guilty hands - ‘so if you drink milk you won’t be eating cheese, and if you eat cheese you won’t be drinking milk’.
Ninin never shook off this culture of dearth. Born into poverty, she never adjusted to the idea of being comfortably off, regarding it as some new-fangled fad, even when in the Sixties our house, like so many others throughout Italy, suddenly filled up with objects and foodstuffs which had not previously existed and which soon seemed indispensable. When, within the space of a couple of years, any number of tinned or frozen foods became available, along with household appliances and plastic buckets and televisions and man-made materials - things which in the immediate postwar years had come in parcels from America but which you could now buy here as well - she remained faithful to her cotton overalls and evening cup of milky coffee. She watched television, but only after supper, when she had done the washing up and all the other household chores. Her great friend was the washing-machine, which she treated with the respect due to a hard-working individual which plays its part in the household economy.
Food, for Ninin, always retained the aura of the truly precious, worth more than gold, because you can’t eat gold. The fruit of hard work, food had to be made by your own hand; food made by others, don’t even mention by a machine, was suspect. Particularly precious were the slightly burnt meatballs so gloriously combining all the remains from the previous day, the leftover pasta (always overcooked) reheated, the panada, dry bread cooked in broth, over-ripe fruit with the bad bits cut out, then cooked with a bit of sugar and lemon rind, and fresh cheeses made at home in hollow moulds, soft white blocks which you mashed up with your fork and ate with a ripe tomato and a bit of salt. In private, like someone practising a secret and barely tolerated religion, Ninin would eat up any leftovers which were beginning to go off, because food is like people, you have to show it respect even in its old age and decline.
For her – as I imagine for a Bangladeshi widow with a gaggle of children to look after – wastage was sacrilege. She would never have accepted to-day’s unisex, one -size –fits- all label of consumer: my great-aunt’s sole aim was to avoid consumption. For her, it was as though you had to creep up to things on tiptoe, leaving no sign of your approach, and, above all, never let the source run dry. She was an ardent ecologist avant la lettre, not for political reasons, but genetic ones: what shall we do to-morrow if there’s no more light, water, wood, bread, sun? ‘Turn the tap off. Turn the light out. What are you doing, still reading at this time of night? What a waste!’
She spoke these words in a harsh and somehow ancient voice: an ancient voice calling me back to a world of poverty which is no more. Poverty may still linger on in many parts of the world, perhaps even more desperate and primitive than that which was felt around Catlina’s stone hearth. But nowadays poverty is always and everywhere reflected back to us through our complex, anguished wealth. For Ninin, on the other hand, when she was little, poverty was the whole story, all 360 degrees of it. Affluence was so far off that she couldn’t have glimpsed it even through binoculars, had she had any.
What she did have, right to hand, was that continual pain in the stomach which is known as hunger.
Not that her family were the poorest of the poor. They had some land, even if it didn’t yield much, scattered bits of field and woodland up in the mountains, which could only be reached by clambering up hill and down dale for hours on end, possibly with a load of hay or firewood on your back, or a sack of chestnuts over your shoulder. And there were animals in the stables, which gave milk to make cheese that you could sell. But people who lived in the mountains did not have an easy time of it, even if they did have the odd cow and a bit of workable land. My family numbered up to eighteen at times, what with the two grand, and their children and grandchildren; there was food to eat, but you rarely ate your fill, and what there was was divided up not in an equitable fashion, but according to power and privilege. The bread was never white, but d’melia, made of maize mixed with wheat or rye and bran, and it came in hard, solid cob loaves. It was good, though, for children it took the place of sweets, which they never ate except perhaps at Easter, when they might have a little sugar egg, or at Carnival a bugia fried in bacon fat. It wasn’t every day that you ate a piece of bread, and it was quite a treat. Once when Ninin has crept into the cellar lured by the smell of fresh bread and cut herself a slice, footsteps behind her cause her to freeze in the damp darkness which smells of stone and mould. Two hands clamp down on her shoulders in a vice-like grip, followed by Catlina’s voice: ‘What are you doing here? Thief!’
Scarcely has she bitten into the slice of bread than it is snatched out of her hands to end up among the folds of her grandmother’s petticoats. Ninin’s saliva turns to acid in her mouth.
That evening, polenta and nothing else.
‘Why aren’t you giving any milk to the cita?’ Domenica objects.
‘Because she’s a thief’.
‘But she’s a little girl, that’s no way to carry on!’ protests Domenica, bravely raising her voice.
‘That bread didn’t belong to her! And pipe down you, let’s have a bit of respect round here!’
Catlina in a rage is like a snake, swaying and spitting – this is one of Ninin’s earliest memories, a true revelation of things to come, and it will remain with her for ever.
Domenica is about to strike back, but her husband Giuseppe bangs his fist down on the table to silence her. She swallows her words and bites her lip. Bartolomeo, the pare grand, looks at her and tugs at his moustaches, first one side then the other. His eyes darken, then brighten, and for an instant a Saturday night smirk enlivens his set patriarch’s mask.
‘She can season the polenta with a bit of aria d’l’uss’, says Catlina with a disdainful gesture which sets her seven petticoats aflutter.
Ninin is all too familiar with the aria d’l’uss, the air around the door; it’s a common expression in everyday parlance. It refers to the lightness of what is absent, as opposed to the solidity of what is present; food seasoned with the air around the door is flavourlless and dull, only extreme hunger can spice it up; but faced with such unsustaining fare, the unsatisfied stomach constructs dream banquets. Child that she is – that is, still in thrall to the splendidly literal nature of the metaphor – Ninin moves towards the door with her slice of cold, hard polenta, hoping that it will change taste as she approaches; and, be it the power of the imagination or hunger, pure and simple, if you concentrate, it does indeed seem that, in the space between inside and out, that piece of polenta suddenly begins to taste of the cheese and butter it so sadly lacks.