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18 April 2024

Oxymorons and quanta:
Italian books in Canada


Part One

Author:
Fulvio Caccia

Fulvio Caccia is both an actor and an observer of the literary scene and how it has changed. Winner of the Governor’s Literary Award for French-language poetry, he explores the transformations of human subjectivity in both his essays and his fiction: Sous le signe du Phénix (1985), La République mêtis (Balzac éditions, 1996) and, more recently, La diversité culturelle: vers l’État-culture (Laborintus, 2017). The novels La ligne gothique, La coïncidence and Le secret explore the identity of migrants in their most intimate tragedies. And what if this were in fact one of the manifestations of love? Ti voglio bene is the title of a long poem written in French (La feuille de thé, 2023). He also runs the www.fulvio-caccia.com website.

 

The Italian book in Canada is not only an oxymoron, but an evanescent object, a ‘quantum’ object: the point of view from which it is appreciated changes its appearance. It first came into contact with this North American space when Canada was still a colony. The people who opened the doors of their libraries to the Italian book were the clerics of the 17th century. The Sulpicians, the Récollets and the Jesuits not only read it but also drew inspiration from it to write their own “Relations”, veritable propaganda tools for colonisation. In so doing, they laid the foundations for what would later become Canadian literature. Translation of literature from elsewhere has remained somewhat limited.

Today, literary translation of foreign works remains the preserve of the old metropolises: London, Paris and New York. There’s a reason for this. With its 40 million inhabitants, Canada does not carry enough weight in the Anglophone or Francophone publishing space. And what’s more, the body of literature and set of institutions are still very young and have long been under the influence of metropolitan models. The creation of their own literature was going to be essential. For the descendants of the French colonists, it was also vital to avoid the fate to which the English Parliament had condemned them, that is, of being “without history and without literature”.

 

The origins. Italian books quickly found their way onto the shelves of colonial libraries. In the Saint-Sulpice library, for example, there were 187 in all, 132 in Italian and 55 in translation. As well as religious books, there were works on medicine, natural sciences, history and philosophy, dictionaries and encyclopaedias, books on art, architecture, technology and music. Vita e costumi dell’antica Bologna nelle stampe di Giuseppe Maria Mitelli (1634-1718) is considered by the colonists to be a treasure of European publishing. Its magnificent engravings reportedly made a strong impression on the natives.

The English conquest in 1759 further strengthened the link with Rome. The high-ranking clergy who trained here throughout the 19th century often learned Italian, bringing back works by Dante, Petrarch, Ludovico Ariosto, Torquato Tasso, Ugo Foscolo and Giacomo Leopardi. The great Latin authors, such as Cicero, Virgil, Caesar and Marcus Aurelius, paved the way for them, providing essential references for the “classical course” in which the new elite from the former colony was trained.

But Italian emigration at the beginning of the last century changed the way Italian books were received. Canada was “the last frontier” for many poor Italian peasants with little education. Information came through the Italian-language press, which was owned by immigration agents who negotiated their arrival directly with the government. L’Italo-Canadese (1893), Il Corriere del Canada (1895), La Patria Italiana (1903), La Tribuna (1908), L’Araldo del Canada (1905) and L’Italia nel Canada (1911) became the channels for fascist propaganda. Canadian politicians turned a blind eye, only too happy to have a counterweight to communism at home. Only the weekly Il Citttadino canadese, founded in 1941 by Antonino Spada, a notorious anti-fascist, stood out. In the decades that followed, Il Corriere Italiano (1952-2023) and La Tribuna Italiana (1963-1980) served as the matrix for local Italian books as well as a promotional channel for books imported from Italy.

The first indigenous Italian book was written by journalist and theatre-maker Mario Duliani. La Città senza donne (1944) is a first-person account of his internment in labour camps during the war, along with 600 of his compatriots. But this book was first written in French, before the author translated it into Italian the following year. The Italian publisher Cosmo Iannone reissued it in 2018.

This linguistic versatility is characteristic of many Italian writers like Giose Rimanelli. The manuscript of his first novel, Il tiro al piccione, a rare example of the “literature of the defeated”, seduced Cesare Pavese just before his suicide. The novel was eventually published by Elio Vittorini with Mondadori. Rimanelli published his other novels in Italy but lived in the United States and Canada until his death. He taught at the leading universities in both countries and took a particular interest in Canadian literature, which was just beginning to emerge. His essay Modern Canadian Stories (McGraw Hill-Ryerson Press, 1966) became a reference for Canadian literature as the last great wave of post-war Italian immigration came to an end.

Slightly better educated than their compatriots at the turn of the century, the immigrants, who now numbered half a million on Canadian soil, remained impervious to the books and literature of their country of origin. Rimanelli exemplifies the ever-present paradox of the Italian writer abroad. By choosing English to write Benedetta in Guysterland, for which he won the American Book Award and the Accademia (Guernica, 1993 and 1997), he is making himself invisible in one or other of the national literatures, even though he is helping to make them better known! Publishing houses that publish only in Italian in Canada are an exception, and often on the initiative of the authors themselves when they do not publish directly in their mother country.

 

Putting Italian books into orbit. In the 1960s, it was the cinema that brought Italian books to Canada. The ground was fertile. This vast and attentive young country had numerous film festivals. Visconti popularised Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo. Bertolucci came to Canada several times, even after Il conformista, which introduced Alberto Moravia’s translated work to a wide audience. Luigi Comencini did the same with La storia by Elsa Morante. Pier Paolo Pasolini also came to promote his films: Teorema was a shock and Il Decameron invited Canadian cinemagoers to a re-reading of Boccaccio. As for his novels, such as Ragazzi di vita, and his poems, such as Le ceneri di Gramsci, they resonated like manifestos and appealed to avid and inquisitive Italian-Canadian young people. Two of his texts were subsequently translated into English: The Savage Father (1999) and Manifesto For A New Theatre (2008), published by Guernica.

It was around his work that a group of Italian-speaking intellectuals, including myself, founded the transcultural magazine ViceVersa (1983). Published in three languages, this bimonthly is considered to be the most innovative Canadian publishing project of the end of the century. Its contents (some in translation, others not) include texts by and interviews with Alberto Moravia, Gianni Vattimo, Francesco Biamonti, Mario Lunetta, Mario Perniola and Italo Calvino. The magazine, which is now published online at www.viceversaonline.ca, can be seen as the last Frontiera spaesata, the title of co-director Giuseppe Samonà’s new book.

Quebec writers are not to be outdone. Anxious to find an alternative to the French model, they are attentive to the novelty expressed by poets from the peninsula. Saba, Ungaretti, Montale, Luzi and Zanzotto nurtured their eclecticism. Allow me to make a personal note here. I owe my discovery of contemporary Italian literature to the great poet Gaston Miron, whom I knew personally. His approval helped to dispel the mistrust that second-generation intellectuals often harbour towards their origins. That’s how intense and exciting the moment was. As the Canadian Pierre Trottier rightly observes, Canada is a baroque country, a country that, as a state, is the same age as Italy, which was also born at the turn of the 1860s.

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