Dacia Maraini, Darkness (Steerforth Press, 2002)
The twelve stories in Dacia Maraini’s Darkness are documents of horrendous crimes: rape, forced prostitution, physical abuse, murder. Throughout, Maraini takes a dispassionate tone; there is very little sympathy for the characters, including Adele Sofia, the police commissioner who threads the stories together. This dispassionate style serves to remind us that in our daily lives there are terrible things happening every moment, as we buy a cup of coffee, wash the dishes, or talk to a friend on the phone—and for someone like Adele Sofia, this is nothing to get excited about.
Underneath these heinous crimes there is another layer, not of crimes, but of the small wrongs that we commit against each other. The parent who isn’t watchful enough; the family that keeps a pact of silence; the husband who gets tired of his wife. In "He Is Eleven Years Old, His Name Is Tano," Tano visits the police ineffectually over the course of three years to report his father for raping him and his siblings; the story culminates in the murder of Tano’s younger brother—by his father, of course. What could possibly keep a child from getting the help he was brave enough to seek, for three years? For starters, the police inspector sees his own son in Tano, so he fits him into a mold that he can understand—that of the rebellious son. Add to that Tano’s family: his younger brother is so traumatized that he can only cry when Tano urges him to tell the police what their father does to him, while his older siblings and his mother observe a pact of silence. It is through the combined inaction of those around Tano that his father continues his monstrous crimes, which I find to be more depressing than the actual crimes themselves. This is the crux of the collection: the way we let each other down, the way we betray those we could protect.
In the end, Darkness is really a collection of detective stories, albeit told from the inside out. The hope for such a collection is that it will transcend its genre. (Witness Conjunctions: 39, the science fiction issue guest-edited by Peter Straub, or certain issues of Granta.) Culled from the pages of the Italian daily papers, Maraini’s stories are perhaps meant to imitate journalism; however, this does not excuse oversimplification. Too often, the conclusion of the investigation is also the conclusion of the story, as if that is where the story really ends. There tends to be a hollowness to the stories: a raped nun is forced to give her baby up for adoption, then dies unexpectedly—of sorrow? In "Macaque," a wife cuts her abusive husband’s penis off, and you almost roll your eyes. And in "A Number on Her Arm," Maraini has committed what for me is the most inexcusable sin: she has written a stock account of an Auschwitz survivor who runs into an S.S. guard in Buenos Aires. Maraini herself spent two years in a concentration camp in Japan as a child. Her family had fled Mussolini’s Italy for Northern Japan (her father, Fosco Maraini, was a well-known scholar who wrote about Japan); and in 1943 her parents refused to sign a petition in favor of the Italian government, causing the family to be placed in concentration camps in Nagoya and later Kobe, for the duration of two years. This experience, however, does not give Maraini sanction to write about a death camp survivor.
Maraini became known in the seventies as a feminist and activist; her work often addresses feminist issues. In "Walls of Darkness," a woman is awoken one night by an attacker armed with a kitchen knife, only to realize after she’s killed him with a blow to the head that he is her husband. After his death, the widow continues to act as her husband’s secretary as she did before his death, an occupation that takes up all her time. She believes she is visited by his ghost: "He sits on the bed and tells me things to do." When Adele Sofia tries to persuade her that it is unhealthy to continue on as if her husband had not tried to kill her, she gently says to the widow: "Do you want to become a ghost, too?" To which the widow replies, "I’m already a ghost."
Maraini is extremely prolific, having published more than fifty books, including novels, poetry, plays, and critical essays. In 1962, her second novel, The Age of Malaise, a disarming, brilliant story about a 17-year-old girl trapped in a cycle of sexual dependency, won the prestigious International Formentor Prize. Her 1990 novel, The Silent Duchess, won the Premio Campiello, Italy’s equivalent of our National Book Award. The Silent Duchess is a feminist treatise disguised as a historical novel; the conceit is that the duchess of the title was made mute in her childhood by a terrible crime but learns to use her silence as a tool; she is less "silent" than women in eighteenth-century Sicily are expected to be. The Silent Duchess succeeds where Darkness doesn’t: in breaking clean of its genre. While Darkness does have its pleasurable moments, it is mostly simple, surface reading— a little like reading the morning paper.
ANNE MCPEAK is the managing editor of the Brooklyn-based magazine A Public Space.