There is a photo taken by the Danish photographer Jacob A. Riis in 1888 that entered the collective imagination of Italian emigration to the United States. It depicts a group of unsavory thugs in a dark alley on the Lower East Side when it was one of the worst slums in Manhattan. That image was published in a volume with the explanatory title: “How the other half lives”: a denunciation of the living conditions in the crowded and dilapidated apartment blocks in which families of 10 people shared a single room. But if what was given to us by Riis’s work is the less fortunate half, who was the other half made up of?
Literature and cinema have given us many stories of misery and emancipation – often criminal – of Italian emigration, but they tend to forget another reality, that of the Italians who left the ports of a country torn apart by wars of independence not for poverty, but to make their talents fruitful in a place that offered legendary opportunities: America.
And the story of one of these families, the Montaltos, is told in the novel ‘I Malarazza’, by Ugo Barbàra (Rizzoli, 496 pages, 19 euros) in the parable that takes them from Castellammare del Golfo, in Sicily, to New York of the second half of the nineteenth century.
It is May 1860 and while Garibaldi prepares to land in Sicily, Antonio Montalto has an intuition: to give up part of the lands that made his family’s fortune – which has always produced oil and wine – in exchange for a small sailing ship. To the whole town he seems like a madman but he doesn’t care; he understood before anyone where the wind of change is blowing and he cannot stand by and watch. He knows that if he wants to realize his ambitions he must leave the land of his fathers to look overseas.
Thus begins the adventure which, between the heat of Castellamare and the roar of New York, will cross paths with great history and give life to an empire founded on the visionary enterprises of Antonio, but above all on the stubbornness of his wife Rosaria, capable of laying the foundations for a project that goes beyond their time: the founding of an American bank with a female president. Around them and their six children, the lives of a host of memorable figures intertwine, including the young Bianca who, having left her Sicilian existence to follow her mistress Rosaria, starts a new life as an apothecary in the American city. And Nicola, his secret love, who discovers how ghosts can chase him even beyond the sea.
The one narrated by Barbàra is fiction, but it is the result of in-depth research and an excavation into the personalities of the protagonists who transform it into a paradigmatic story of those of many who left Italy driven not by hunger and poverty, but by their own ambitions and the ability to imagine an elsewhere where one can give substance to one’s dreams. A narrative that, crossing the greats of history, from Garibaldi to Lincoln, and events that have shaped peoples, from the landing of the Thousand to the American Civil War, chisels in a pressing rhythm a story that has within it the ingredients of every great novel: very human characters, loves and destinies to subvert.
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