I am a book hoarder, I have to admit it.
One of my favorite pastimes is browsing books in a bookstore and every time I do so it is really hard for me not to bring a book home.
If you add to that the fact that I also adopt books from friends or bring stacks home from the thrift store, the result is that my bookshelves are literally overflowing. Needless to say, since I am constantly buying new books, I tend to forget what’s in my bookcase (ok, I have an addiction but it’s healthier than smoking, isn’t it?).
But this habit of accumulating books comes in handy when I have just finished a book and I have no new titles to read: my bookcase is literally a personal bookstore of previously selected titles where I can choose my next read.
That’s exactly what happened with the book I’d like to tell you about today. I was looking for something new to read and I’ve come across this old book – I think my aunt gave it to me ages ago – that had always fascinated me but somehow I had never found the inspiration to read.
The book is La chimera by Sebastiano Vassalli (you can find it in English as The Chimera but it’s an old book and I fear it might be out of print in the English version), winner of the prestigious Strega Prize in 1990.
I have kept the book on my shelves for years because I was a bit scared by it: it’s a historical book and in most cases, I have to admit it, I find this kind of book a little bit boring, or better, a bit difficult to read. But then I read some very enthusiastic reviews and I decided I would give it a try one day. And that day came, a couple of weeks ago.
What can I say? It is probably one of the best books I’ve read in my whole life.
The book tells the story of Antonia, a girl who lived in Italy between 1590 and 1610. She lived near Novara, in a village named Zerbino (the place doesn’t exist anymore), in the plains of Piedmont at the foot of Monte Rosa, a beautiful area whose scenery is characterized by the mountains in the distance and the infinite view of rice paddies.
There lived Antonia, an orphan girl who was raised by the nuns and then was adopted by a couple of very good farmers, who brought her to Zerbino – where all her misfortunes began. In fact, there she grew up and became an incredibly beautiful woman, raising the interest of young men and the enmity of older women.
This – and a series of misfortunate events – led her to be accused of being a witch and to be burned at the stake, after suffering terrible tortures.
This is basically the plot of the book but I don’t think I have spoiled you anything because it’s something else that makes this book great. What I really appreciated is the description of life in rural Italy in the 1600s. Daily life is depicted in great detail and Sebastiano Vassalli has a great gift for telling historical facts in a very compelling and interesting way.
This book is a real page-turner, even when the focus is on less entertaining topics such as the life of poor people working in the rice paddies or the careful explanation of how things worked inside the Catholic church at the time. Vassalli is a master at describing characters and events, which will remain in your mind as clear pictures. Plus, there is constant humor in his writing and this makes the read even more enjoyable.
Finally, I’d like to quote a few sentences from Joseph Farrell’s review on The Independent: “The past may have been dominated by the church and the present by politics, but the inhumanities, the cruelties, the compromises, the bureaucracies, the squabbles between provinces and capitals remain unchanged. This novel has a remarkable feeling for the fictional time it describes, as well as a sharp eye for matters which are not limited to any time“.
As a matter of fact, the story is a perfect description of a past society whose bad aspects are still very much alive today and this makes the novel very modern as well.
This book reminds me, for some reason, of two other Italian books: Il nome della rosa by Umberto Eco, for its dark atmosphere that involves the church, and I promessi sposi by Alessandro Manzoni, for its 17th-century setting, but I have found it a much more entertaining read – but those are masterpieces, I’m not denying that!