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canne al vento

16 may 2022

In Grazia Deledda's Canne al vento (1913), the Pintor family clings to the decaying home at the center of their once vast, now sold-off lands. As their last faithful retainer, the aging servant Efix, describes it:

Gente forte, era! Adesso non resto che questo poderetto, ma è come il cuore che batte anche nel petto dei vecchi. (Chapter 4)

They were powerful people! Now nothing is left but this little farm – but it is like the heart that still beats in old people's breasts.
Canne al vento might be a good title for an Italian translation of Gone with the Wind, though it would have been confusing; the latter book is actually called Via al vento. The image of reeds "going with the wind," though, taking what life blasts at them and righting themselves again, is central to Deledda's novel.

Twin disgraces have blighted the lives of three Pintor sisters (Ruth, Ester, and Noemi). The first was the long-ago flight of a fourth sister, Lia. Frustrated by their tyrannical father Don Zame, who'd basically locked them all up pending appropriate suitors, Lia had escaped from Sardinia to the continent, married, borne a son, and died. The second disgrace was the death of Don Zame, who succumbed to obsession after Lia's disappearance. Well, to obsession, and to the rock that Efix hit him in the head with. But I should have tagged that murder with a spoiler, since even the three surviving sisters know nothing about it.

Things begin to look up for the Pintor family when they learn that Lia's son Giacinto may be on his way to Sardinia, to live with them and restore the family's fortunes. They are wary, though, and they warn Efix that if Giacinto does not live up to their expectations, Efix will have to expel him.

Giacinto does not live up to their expectations. He is a spendthrift, a gambler. He runs up an account at the local loan shark's. He flirts with the poor commoner Grixenda, a double disgrace to his aunts on two scores: when it looks like he might marry her (she's too low-born) and when it looks like he won't (he's a seducer).

Donna Ruth dies; the sisters fall into crushing debt thanks to Giacinto's misbehavior. The happiest thing would be for Donna Noemi to marry the well-off Don Predu, but he's not noble either, and pride forbids. Efix, whose perspective we follow for most of the novel, is set the task of getting both couples to pair off (Giacinto/Grixenda and Noemi/Predu), while reconciling the Pintor family to one another, and preserving his secret.

Having started the spoilers, I might as well complete them … Efix will bring about the reconciliations, but at the cost of his own life; he wears himself out in the process. Central to the second half of the book is a long peregrination that Efix makes, reduced to beggary and in the company of two blind beggars, one really blind, the other a con man. Efix hits rock bottom, but gains hope and a strange measure of sublimity from listening to the Bible stories that one of his blind companions recounts.

Canne al vento is an odd novel: substantial, at times melodramatic in tone but not greatly plot-driven. There is a lot of description, especially of the mountains lowering over the Pintor estate and the curious abandoned burial ground nearby. Ultimately the novel is an extended character meditation: on the way people cling to class distinctions as the system that sustained them collapses; on the way that a heritage of servitude becomes engrained in the very bodies of the servants themselves.

Deledda, Grazia. Canne al vento. 1913. Kindle Edition.