America does not exist
In his latest novel, Italian journalist Antonio Monda celebrates the many and most known faces of the American dream.
“It’s best to keep America just like that, always in the background, a sort of picture post card which you look at in a weak moment. Like that, you imagine it’s always there waiting for you, unchanged, unspoiled, a big patriotic open space with cows and sheep and tenderhearted men ready to bugger everything in sight, man, woman or beast. It doesn’t exist, America. It’s a name you give to an abstract idea.” With these words, taken from the Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller captured the elusive essence of a country traditionally celebrated as the land of opportunities, the land of the Free. Starting from Miller’s profound insight, Italian journalist and writer Antonio Monda takes a journey into the country that “doesn’t exist”, to reveal the many faces of America, a land that – to quote another literary master of global repute, Luigi Pirandello – seems to be “one, no one and a hundred thousand”, according to the ideas that people have of it. The protagonists of Monda’s novel, provocatively entitled “L’America non esiste” (Mondadori 2012, 272 pages), are Nicola and Maria, two siblings of 23 and 18, who in the early 1950s lose their parents in a car accident and are forced to leave their home town, a small city in the South of Italy, near Naples, and move to New York, where a distant cousin of their father, uncle Sabatino, welcomes them into the New World. Not before long, uncle Sabatino becomes involved in some illegal business and disappears, and the two are left alone in the big city, discovering two diametrically opposed sides of New York. “Full of grace” like a Madonna, Maria is a dreamer imbued with religious ideals and positive thoughts; she lives closed off in a small apartment in Brooklyn, occasionally meeting the other tenants and taking care of her uncle’s affairs in the building. When she meets Nathan, a failed actor who lives in poverty as a tramp, she falls for him and lives a passionate but somehow mystical love story that will change her life forever. Unlike his sister, Nicola is constantly restless and selfishly ambitious. Choosing Manhattan as the center of his world, he strives to make the most of his new life in America, working his way up to success; he first enters the world of boxing, becoming a high-level manager, and then moves on to the more profitable and vibrant art field, marrying a rich American heiress and becoming a successful gallery owner. As the two protagonists’ stories unfold, “always in the background” – as Miller would say – is New York, with its many cultures and accents, its most iconic architectural symbols and pulsating artistic and cultural life, only tainted by the specter of McCarthyism. The stories of the two young Italian immigrants are therefore a pretext to recall and celebrate the land of Rocky Marciano’s undefeated records, of Liz Taylor’s violet eyes and Marilyn Monroe’s helpless gaze, which are closely intertwined with the memories of a distant but ever-present Italy. Readers who approach this novel eager to discover unexpected views and perspectives of America, or to explore the dark side of the American dream, might be disappointed. However, although Antonio Monda’s novel does not venture far from the comfort zone of “common places”, it provides the contemporary reader with a pleasant “Midnight in Paris” – or “in New York”, we should rather say – experience. As the protagonist of the great Woody Allen’s 2011 movie stumbled into a car and was transported back to a golden age, hanging out with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Picasso and Hemingway, so the reader of Monda’s novel slips into a dreamlike and yet real 1950s New York, where your acquaintances might very well be Peggy Guggenheim or Arthur Miller, J.D. Salinger or Tennessee Williams, and you might happen to bump into Ella Fitzgerald and Elia Kazan or compliment Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock on their latest creations.