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A love story to Honour, and to Naples

downloadThe Day Before Happiness is a short novella, by Neapolitan author Erri de Luca, first published in Italian in 2009, but here in a new translation by Jill Foulston. And I assume a fine one, as the various voices seemed to have their unique personalities, and I had a sense of rhythm and flow which felt vernacular, easy, assured. This felt particularly commendable, as something running warmly through the book is humour, provided by a rather volatile character who is prone to Malapropisms and has pronunciation problems I think it takes great skill to translate humour born out of wordplay:

The other evening they performed False Daft at San Carlo”
What do you mean, False Daft? Which was it, False or Daft?”
“Don Gaetano, the opera: False Daft”
But what do you mean, False Daft? Was it really silly?
“No, False Daft. That’s it’
But what are you going on about? Did you laugh?”
Don Gaetano was scared of La Capa, but he wouldn’t let him get away with it. La Capa couldn’t say Falstaff

There are a couple of layers of narrative voices, and a couple of time settings.

The central character, now a young man, whose name we never learn, is preparing for a cataclysmic change He is looking back to the moment which set the change in motion : he was a young boy, an orphan, aged eight, when he saw a young girl, a few years older, looking out of a tenement window, and fell in love, secretly, though he never spoke to her, and only saw her behind her window, a few times after that.


Without family, he is befriended by Don Gaetano, porter/concierge/repairman in the tenement. Don Gaetano tells the young boy stories from the German Occupation of the city. Don Gaetano is salty, pithy, profound and wise, a kind of transforming philosopher for the young boy. He also has other wise teachers – books, he is a greedy reader, and also the kindly Don Raimondo, a second hand book seller

Books retain someone’s imprint even more than their clothes or shoes. Heirs get rid of them as a kind of exorcism, a way of banishing the ghost, with the excuse that they need the space, they’re being suffocated by all the books……..the emptiness you feel before a bare wall after its collection of books has been sold off is the most profound one I know. I take those banished books away and give them a second life

The narrator looks back on his own life, and tells himself the profound stories Don Gaetano told him, about his own childhood, youth and manhood. Don Gaetano will also reveal some secrets about the narrator’s origins, and, for the reader, there are satisfying patterns, repetitions and resonances which play out.

The book is extremely charming, the story telling and the story tellers seduce with their language and their reflections, but the tale does more than just charm. In some ways, it seemed far more Spanish than Italian, a sense of some deep, dark, mysterious, but necessary fate/rite of passage playing out. I thought, as the end neared, of Lorca, and of the raw, pain and joy mix of Spanish flamenco music and singing

Recommended, a good combination of playfulness and deadly punch

I received this as a review copy from Amazon Vine, UKErri de Luca

The Stateside version is an older translation by Michael Moore. To my mind, looking at the look inside facility on the Moore, version, and reading both aloud, Foulston has a more lyrical, measured flow, and the Moore seemed to have the quality that a more literal translation has.

The Day Before Happiness Amazon UK
The Day Before Happiness Amazon USA