“I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence” [1; p. 21]
My Brilliant Friend is the first novel in a four-part series, the Neapolitan novels, written by Elena Ferrante (the author’s pseudonym). The narrator of My Brilliant Friend shares this name, Elena, and begins her story by describing her and her best friend Lila’s childhoods as marred by violence. In her life, it is normal for men to beat their wives, for parents to beat their children, and for children to fight viciously in the streets. Although Elena is writing her story as an adult several decades in the future, she describes events from the perspective that she had as a child growing into a young adult. As children, Lila and Elena have a limited understanding of the social and political background of their environment. They both seem to understand that there was a time “before” they were born that had influenced the dynamics of their neighbourhood and shaped their home into the one they now lived in:
“…[Lila] spoke so much of that absurd thing-before us…it was the long, very long, period when we didn’t exist…” [1; p. 21].
Whilst the characters are fictional (albeit they are arguably very realistic ones), the setting of the Neapolitan series is based on a real place and time in history. For instance, in the fourth and final book of the Neapolitan series, one chapter details Elena and Lila experiencing a massive earthquake on 23 November, 1980, which was a real event (the Irpinia earthquake). Reading the novel with a limited understanding of the historical context – such as the “before” that Lila speaks about – as well as the limited perspective of a child trying to understand the world around her can be confusing. For example, we learn that during this “before”, the character Don Achille Caracci “…had showed himself to everyone for what he was: an evil being of uncertain animal-mineral physiognomy, who-it seemed-sucked blood from others while never losing any himself…” [1; p. 21]. From Elena and Lila’s perspective, Don Achille “was the ogre of fairy tales”, and “regarding him there was, in my house but not only mine, a fear and a hatred whose origin I didn’t know” [1; p. 12]. For the careful reader, there are later some answers as to this origin, but in the early stages of the novel we can only guess, based on our own knowledge of the setting of the book, what the history of Don Achille is and why he is so feared in the neighbourhood. Here, I’ve attempted to outline the general historical context of My Brilliant Friend to help myself and possibly others understand the setting of the novel better.
“We lived in a world in which children and adults were often wounded, blood flowed from the wounds, they festered, and sometimes people died.” (1; p. 16-17).
Arguably the most common motif within My Brilliant Friend is violence. Violence in many forms is almost inescapable in the book, and Elena begins telling her and Lila’s story acknowledging this violence from the outset. The way Elena describes it, violence doesn’t simply exist in the neighbourhood, rather, the neighbourhood lives and breathes violence:
“The oldest son of Don Achille… had gone to war and died twice: drowned in the Pacific Ocean, then eaten by sharks. The entire Melchiorre family had died clinging to each other, screaming with fear, in a bombardment. Old Signorina Clorinda had died inhaling gas instead of air. Giannino, who was in fourth grade when we were in first, had died one day because he had come across a bomb and touched it… Our world was like that, full of words that killed: croup, tetanus, typhus, gas, war, lathe, rubble, work, bombardment, bomb, tuberculosis, infection.” [1; p. 17].
Elena and Lila are both deeply affected by the image of their neighbours, Melina and Lidia, viciously fighting, rolling down the stairs and Melina’s head hitting the floor “like a white melon that has slipped from your hand” [1; p. 23]. The “ogre of fairy tales”, Don Achille, is murdered partway through the novel. Lila herself is thrown out of a window by her father [1; p. 72]. The violence Elena and Lila experience comes mainly from two historical elements: the destruction of World War II and the political instability of the time; it is these elements that I want to study.
The Aftermath of World War II
My Brilliant Friend begins in the 1950s, right after the end of World War II (WWII), a time of great complexity with regards to political activities amongst various groups and organisations in Italy. This complexity is summarised when, later in the novel, Lila learns from her friend Pasquale about the “before”, and talks to Elena about it:
“That man fought in the war and killed, that one bludgeoned and administered castor oil, that one turned in a lot of people, that one starved his own mother, in that house they tortured and killed, on these stones they marched and gave the Fascist salute, on this corner they inflicted beatings, these people’s money comes from the hunger of others, this car was bought by selling bread adulterated with marble dust and rotten meat on the black market, that butcher shop had its origins in stolen copper and vandalised freight trains, behind that bar is the Camorra, smuggling, loan-sharking…” [1; p. 137].
Each person, place and thing has a story behind it that influences the relationships between the characters and how their lives play out in the Neapolitan series.
Sarah Begley, with the knowledge of Rutgers University Associate Professor Paola Gambarota, provides a general outline of Naples during and after the war , which I will briefly summarise here. WWII left Naples in a state of destruction and instability. During the war, power and water supplies were destroyed due to persistent bombing, and with a ruined port, food supplies were also limited . All this destruction left an already poor city in even worse condition, where many could not afford an education and you would be lucky to find yourself in Elena’s position, able to continue your education . Although Allied forces helped to restore infrastructure after landing in 1943, many of the supplies the Allies imported were stolen and sold illegally under the black market . It is likely that it was this black market that the Solara family and Achille family in the novel benefited from .
During WWII, the U.S. made deals with organised-crime bosses in Naples in exchange for intelligence and protection of their shipyards, leading to “a huge amount of military materials” going missing . The Camorra, or the Italian Mafia, had existed in Italy for centuries, but it was at this time, right at the beginning of Elena and Lila’s story, that the Camorra began to thrive . In My Brilliant Friend, both the Achilles and the Solaras were affiliated with the Camorra. Elena and Lila learn from Pasquale Peluso, the son of the man blamed for Don Achille’s murder, that “the Bar Solara had always been a place for loan sharks from the Camorra, that it was the base for smuggling and for collecting votes for the monarchists. He said that Don Achille had been a spy for the Nazi Fascists, he said that the money Stefano was using to expand the grocery store his father had made on the black market” [1; p. 136]. It’s also possible, as Lila and Elena theorise later in the series [4; p. 236], that the Solaras were responsible for Don Achille’s murder, as his death makes room for the Solaras to have uncontested control over the neighbourhood. In the novel, the Solaras’ bar is a source of reproduction of the forms of violence seen in the neighbourhood:
“At the bar Solara, in the heat, between gambling losses and troublesome drunkenness, people often reached the point of disperazione – a word that in dialect meant having lost all hope but also being broke – and hence of fights. Silvio Solara, the owner, a large man, with an imposing belly, blue eyes, and a high forehead, had a dark stick behind the bar with which he didn’t hesitate to strike anyone who didn’t pay for his drinks, who had asked for a loan and didn’t repay it within the time limit, who made any sort of agreement and didn’t keep it, and often he was helped by his sons, Marcello and Michele, boys the age of Lila’s brother, who hit harder than their father. Blows were given and received. Men returned home embittered by their losses, by alcohol, by debts, by deadlines, by beatings, and at the first inopportune word they beat their families, a chain of wrongs that generated wrongs” [1; p. 68]
The violence here is generational, passed down from father to sons, and disseminates to men in the neighbourhood who then pass it on to their wives and children. The Solaras’ power comes from the rise of the Camorra post-WWII and is maintained with violence.
Political Unrest: Fascists and Communists
“Who are the Nazi Fascists, Pascà? Who are the monarchists? What’s the black market?” [1; p. 136]
Throughout the book references are made to Fascists and Communists. Our understanding of the context in which these terms are used is limited by Elena, the narrator, and her understanding of these terms:
“I turned the word over and over in my head, Communist, a word that was meaningless to me, but which the teacher had immediately branded with negativity. Communist, Communist, Communist. It captivated me.” [1; p. 107].
As mentioned previously, Elena learns from Pasquale that Don Achille was “a spy for the Nazi Fascists”. Elena learns from her teacher, Maestra Oliviero, with negative connotations, that Pasquale and his father are Communists. Some characters, such as Pasquale and Maestra Oliviero, have strong feelings one way or the other about political affiliations, whilst others, such as Lila’s parents, are ignorant. Lila attempts to talk to her parents about these topics, yet:
“They didn’t know anything, they wouldn’t talk about anything. Not Fascism, not the king. No injustice, no oppression, no exploitation. They hated Don Achille and were afraid of the Solaras. But they overlooked it and went to spend their money both at Don Achille’s son’s and at the Solaras’, and sent us, too. And they voted for the Fascists, for the monarchists, as the Solaras wanted them to.” [1; p. 146]
Italy was one of the more extreme cases of the polarisation between anti-Fascism and anti-Communism sentiment post-WWII . This social tension had its origins from the end of World War I (WWI), where high unemployment and unfavourable conditions for small businesses led to class conflict . The Italian Socialist Party gained traction during and after WWI, likely due to their anti-war sentiment, and took the largest vote percentage of any party in the 1919 election (32.3%) [6, 7]. The subsequent consequence of the rise of socialism and radicalisation of the working class was fear amongst the upper and middle classes and a rise in anti-Communist and pro-Fascist sentiment . After WWII, the Christian Democrat party surfaced as the major Italian party, and, influenced by Western propaganda and the Red Scare, took a position against Communists, who were seen to be “a direct consequence of an international conspiracy led by Moscow” .
Another source of the anti-Fascist/anti-Communist polarisation was the anti-Fascist resistance and civil war that occurred between 1943 and 1945 . Italian authorities had fled Naples, leaving it under German command . Consequent violent clashes between protesters and the German military ensued, ultimately leading to hundreds of casualties and the evacuation of German troops from the city .
It is with this historical context that we can begin to understand the tension and violence that occurs between characters of various classes and backgrounds: Pasquale Peluso, the son of a carpenter, labelled a communist; Don Achille Caracci, the grocery store owner, affiliated with the Camorra and Nazi Fascists, the Solara family, owners of the Solara bar and also affiliated with the Camorra; Elena and Lila, daughters of working class parents growing up amidst it all.
The historical context provides a rich backdrop for equally rich characters and stories to evolve, the first book being just the beginning of a period of fascinating cultural change. While this background of political unrest, violence and war is in itself a compelling story, it is not the story My Brilliant Friend seeks to tell. Elena and Lila are living in the eye of a perfect storm, and it is their experiences growing up in this environment that is at the heart of My Brilliant Friend.
- My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante
- Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Elena Ferrante