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l'incendio nell'oliveto

3 october 2022

L'incendio nell'oliveto (Grazia Deledda, 1918) is the kind of novel where you need to keep a cheat sheet of all the family interrelationships and amend it as you learn more about the characters – and even at that, aren't sure you're getting everything correct.

The first character we meet, Agostina Marini, is afterwards simply "la nonna" or "la suocera," the grandmother / mother-in-law around whom the rest of her family cluster "come i raggi della ruota intorno al pernio" (77), like the spokes of a wheel around its hub. "La nonna" has had two sons. The elder, Agostino, is dead; the younger, Juanniccu, is aging fecklessly. Agostino had three children: two (Annarosa and young Agostino) by a first wife, and Gavino by Caterina ("Nina," "matrigna," or "nuora"), originally the elder children's nanny, who married and survived the elder Agostino.

Young Agostino now manages the family's olive groves and vineyards; he is more than a little workaholic. Annarosa loves Gioele, the disabled son of a disabled blacksmith; but "la nonna" intends Annarosa for Stefano, the lawyer son of a neighbor. Caterina loves Stefano, and has some reason to think it's requited (Caterina had nursed Stefano's mother during her final illness, winning his admiration); but Stefano is resigned to the destiny prescribed by both families, and duly asks for Annarosa's hand.

In the meantime, another neighbor woman has died, confusingly enough, and her widower, Zio Taneddu, wants to marry the Marinis' servant Mikedda. There is no triangle in that relationship, though. There is little enough of a triangle in the Annarosa / Gioele / Stefano main plot. Gioele basically vanishes, though he does show up in the village on the day of Annarosa's betrothal, so fleetingly that Annarosa tells Mikedda "ho l'impressione di aver sognato" (88) – I get the feeling I must have dreamed it.

Juanniccu, at the party to celebrate the betrothal, remarks while drunk that all will be well: Annarosa will marry her young man, and Stefano can get together with Caterina. This bit of in vino veritas upends the family plans. Stefano is determined to go through with the marriage and hope for the best, but Annarosa refuses him. In quick succession, la nonna has a fatal stroke and young Agostino beats the tar out of his uncle Juanniccu in revenge for the older man's frankness.

And then – and this cannot be a spoiler, because it's in the title of the book – there's a fire in the olive grove. Thanks to Kindle, I can pinpoint this fire as starting 95% of the way through the novel. Probably never in the history of fiction has a central event hovered over the plot for quite so long without actually happening. Well, I guess in Paradise Lost Adam and Eve don't leave Eden till the final line of the epic. So L'incendio nell'oliveto comes a close second.

Though I suppose the fire in the olive grove has been a symbolic presence all along. The Marini family is internally combustible. Their duty to one another runs counter to their individual yearnings, and paradoxically, in order to help one another they must continually hurt one another. Maybe that is the essence of the institution of the family; in Grazia Deledda's analysis here, it certainly is.

As usual in Deledda's fiction (and I've now read five of her novels and have a provisional sense of what's usual), concerns of the larger world are far away, if not always tangential. There's always a war somewhere. Several of the older male characters in the novel have lost limbs in previous wars. Now the "fifteen-eighteen" war has come, with a

rombo di turbine che veniva di lontano a scuotere la pace morta di quell'angolo di mondo (114).

humming of engines come from abroad to shake up the dead calm of this corner of the world.
But all the village Sardinians in the story know about the war is that it will take their menfolk away. They barely know who they'll be fighting, let alone why.

Class concerns lie closer to home. The family's nervous insistence that Annarosa and Stefano must marry is linked to the need to bind together social equals and preserve family properties. As the servant Mikedda continually reflects, "i padroni devono stare coi padroni e i servi coi servi" (138), the masters should stay with the masters and the servants with the servants. It is fine for Mikedda to marry the contadino Taneddu. It would not be fine at all for Annarosa to marry a blacksmith instead of an attorney.

Young Agostino also stands in the vanguard of class anxieties. He has the law after some contadini who allow their livestock to wander into his olive groves and browse there without permission. When he has them punished, they are determined to exact revenge. Though the final fire isn't a result of this conflict, and the contadini mobilize to help put it out, their resentment smolders just below the static surface of the novel.

Deledda, Grazia. L'incendio nell'oliveto. 1918. Kindle Edition.