A documented eye on America
By Barbara ALFANO
The history of the Italian migration to the United States has received renewed and particular attention in some Italian artistic productions of the 2000s. A novel and two films in particular stage that history as their main character, and not merely as the backdrop of the story: Melania Mazzucco’s novel Vita (2003), Nanni Moretti’s documentary The Last Customer (2002), and Emanuele Crialese’s film Nuovomondo (2006). These three artistic productions are rooted in a narrative space where the stories of the individuals and history are inseparable, where the Italian tradition of narratives of the self recounts history with a clear intent, and in so doing reappropriates the phenomenon of migration to the United States.
“Migration represents a topic that Italian writers at large have considered marginal,” writes Stefania Lucamante (Lucamante, 2009, p. 294). For paradoxical as it may seem, the Italian writers’ lack of attention to the phenomenon of the great migration (ca. 1870–1921) is directly proportional to the large space that the American myth occupies in Italian literature, in its positive and negative representations, as well as in its problematization. These seemingly irreconcilable aspects are the two sides of the same coin – the Italian intellectual’s modus operandi. Martino Marazzi, in commenting about the failure of Italian intellectuals to pay attention to the migration experience, which he calls “the long standing unease of the Italian intellectual toward another Italy” (Voices 292), explains that this other Italy, so far from home, is not “easily defined using the tools of abstract ideology, an Italy, therefore, that is not easily compatible with the ritual apologias and curses uttered in relation to the New World” (Marazzi, 2004: 292). Echoing Marazzi, Lucamante writes, “[…] Italian writers and their literary products are firmly tied to their social and political context, often driven by an ethical and ideological pursuit in their endeavors” (Lucamante, 2009: 295). It helps to quote Giaime Pintor’s essay on Elio Vittorini’s anthology of American writers, Americana (1943), as an example of what Marazzi and Lucamante state:
In our words dedicated to America much may be ingenuous and inexact, much may refer to arguments extraneous to the historical phenomenon of the United States as it stands today. But this does not matter because if the continent did not exist our words would not lose their significance. This America has no need of Columbus, it is discovered within ourselves; it is the land to which we turn with the same hope and faith of the first immigrants, of whoever has decided to defend at the price of pains and error the dignity of the human condition. (Pintor, 1945).
Pintor’s America is an ideological mirror. As he admits that “the historical phenomenon of the United States” may be extraneaous to his discourse, he reclaims America as an object of desire charged with political significance, for he was writing in 1943, at the end of Fascism. The “hope and faith of the first immigrants” are thus removed from the historical, geopolitical context of the United States to become an analogy that illustrates and better explains the hope and faith of the Italians moving towards freedom. The historical habit of Italian intellectuals to rely on abstract ideology, together with the conspicuous role that such abstract ideology played in the building of the nation soon after the Risorgimento, have made it difficult for those intellectuals to take into consideration that distant, “other Italy” (Lucamante, 2009: 295),2 until recent times.
In terms of narrative modes, the shift has happened at the level of the perspective, leaving untouched that solid Italian tradition of narratives of the self in search of identity, which means that there has been no abrupt movement from using images of America in order to talk about oneself to looking at history tout court. The American dream remains central to all these narratives that involve matters of identity and America. What shifts is the attention to who is dreaming the dream – and in these latest literary and filmic productions, the dreamers are the Italian emigrants. n
Endnotes 1 This article is an extract from “Chapter Five” of: Barbara Alfano (2013), The Mirage of America in Contemporary Italian Literature and Film. © The University of Toronto Press, 2013. Toronto Buffalo London. Www. utppublishing.com. Printed in Canada. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. The text has been slightly modified for this venue.
2 Lucamante writes, “In an effort to build the young nation of Italy in the late nineteenth century and years thereafter, Italian intellectuals could not bring the displaced other Italy into their ideological paradigm – that Italy settling in the States and other foreign nations by the 1870s. For some, those Italians who migrated were not even conational. It appears that the mere discussion of migration during that time would have greatly damaged the ideology and construction of a unified nation.” (Lucamante, 2009: 295).
Alfano, Barbara (2013), The Mirage of America in Contemporary Italian Literature and Film. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. Lucamante, Stefania (2009), “The Privilege of Memory Goes to the Women: Melania Mazzucco and the Narrative of Italian Migration”. Modern Language Notes. Vol. 124 No 1 pp. 293–315. Marazzi, Martino (2004), Voices of Italian America: A History of Early Italian American Literature, with a Critical Anthology. Trans. Ann Goldstein. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. Mazzucco, Melania (2003), Vita. Milan: Rizzoli. Moretti, Nanni (2002), dir. The Last Customer, documentary. Sacher Film. Pintor, Giaime (1945). “Americana”. Aretusa. Vol. 2 March pp. 5-14.
About the Author
Barbara Alfano, a native of Italy, is professor of Italian at Bennington College. Her first publication, the collection of short stories Mi chiedevo (I Was Wondering), came out in Italy in 2009 (Manni Editori). Alfano completed her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, in 2004. Her academic work, mainly on contemporary Italian narrative, stands at the intersection of literature and ethics, and focuses on identity, love, travel, and first-person accounts. She was published in Italica, Forum Italicum, Variaciones Borges, L’anello che non tiene, and Storie: All Write. (Photo by Briee Della Rocca.)