(4.5 stars) Described by Milan's daily newspaper Corriere della Serra as "the only true first-rate writer that the new millennium has given us for now," Erri De Luca writes a story of Naples, filling it with well-developed characters who live through three different time periods - 1943, as Naples has its popular uprising against their German occupiers; the early 1950s, when the unnamed narrator, a young orphan of about seven, is growing up; and the early 1960s, when the young man is now finishing school and about to set out on his own. The novel moves back and forth in time, as the author writes an often lyrical novel full of noble sentiments and wise observations, at the same time that it is packed with details about life and behavior.
The young orphan grows up in the early 1950s without any real supervision, living in a back room belonging to Don Gaetano, the doorman of an apartment building. As a child soccer player famous for his monkey-like ability to retrieve the ball when it goes awry, he discovers a secret passageway into a grotto behind a statue. Lovely descriptive passages make the depths of the city, its sponge-like tufo substratum, and its coolness come alive, and when the boy discovers some books there, he also discovers a whole new world of reading. Another time, he also sees a beautiful young girl through the upstairs window, and she haunts his life, even after she disappears.
The author uses numerous flashbacks to describe wartime life in September, 1943, and as Don Gaetano emphasizes the lessons he has learned through this and other experiences, he creates a kind of daily catechism of his own, declaring: "The worst things happen under sunny skies. When the weather is bad, a person prefers to postpone an evil deed." and "A writer has to be smaller than the subject he is describing. You have to sense the story running away from him every which way, and him capturing only a part of it." The author reveals information slowly, always showing Don Gaetano's concern for the boy, and when the boy is seventeen or eighteen, the beautiful Anna, about whom he has dreamt for years, returns, and their meeting becomes the final dramatic step in his coming-of-age.
De Luca provides much information in few words, selecting perfect details, rather than numerous details, which elevate the novel. The observation that the day before happiness (when bad things often happen) is even more important than the happiness which follows; that Christianity is like a belt around the world; that heirs get rid of the books accumulated by the dead in order to exorcise their ghosts; and that Naples is "Spanish" (and anarchistic) in tone and is located in Italy "by mistake," all suggest much more than they actually say, a wonderful change from the overly specific and self-conscious style of much modern writing. Intense in its imagery and emotion, this novel reflects the universal longings of the main character as he grows on his own. Exciting on the level of theme and style, it is hard to imagine any reader not responding to the young orphan with empathy and warmth as he learns to understand people and to "read their thoughts." Mary Whipple