Melania G. Mazzucco’s Vita is a book about what history does to people. It is also a book that blends fiction and autobiography, using photographs as touchstones to the past, making it a cousin of W.G. Sebald’s book The Emigrants. Vita is the story of Vita and Diamante, two young Italian immigrants thrust into the Lower East Side largely on their own in 1903. It is also, in part, the story of Italian writer Melania Mazzucco’s search to understand her family history; Diamante was her grandfather.
On shipboard to America, nine-year old Vita and her slightly older friend Diamante sneak up from steerage and spend a night in one of the lifeboats, a night that becomes transformed in their minds as the closest they will ever get to love or to the dream they thought they were emigrating to. As Vita recalls:
We were so close that night, Diamante and I – inside an empty universe, full of possibilities and space, the two of us inside that universe, whole and untouched – and I wished we’d never been discovered…
But from the moment the two land at Ellis island until 1912 when Diamante re-emigrates to Italy, they are subjected to a world of intense cruelty, prejudice, and hardship that crushes every hope they had for the future. Diamante is ultimately defeated, his only hope for dignity is a return to the country of his birth, while Vita withdraws entirely from the “burdens” of other people’s lives.
For Mazzucco, history is one inescapable tragedy after another, a process from which no one escapes. People only survive their disillusionment through lies and self-deception. Cruelly, history doesn’t even reward heroism, idealism or love any better than it does treachery or indifference.
And as Mazzucco the researcher discovers, history’s traces can be just as cruel as history itself. Often the only clues and facts that remain behind after lives of poverty, struggle, and vanished dreams are a few postcards, newspaper clippings, a set of fingerprints in the police files. Instead, what remains in quantity are statistics, lists, and other faceless facts that shed some light on the terrible lives of Italian and other immigrants to the New World at the start of the twentieth century, but which do little to illuminate individual lives.
It is into this void that Mazzucco the author steps, imaginatively filling in the gaps in the historical record. Mazzucco is a confident, intelligent writer who never fetishizes the past, never gratuitously converts history into ambiance.Written mostly in present tense, Vita shows off Mazzucco’s ability to propel the story through vivid sections of condensed, impressionistic, almost cinematographic writing, which is especially well-suited for the book’s many scenes of violence, crowds, flight, and the like. There is a terrific section that centers on Vita’s son, who volunteers to participate in the Allied invasion of Italy in 1944 in order to see what is left of his ancestral village. This, along with Ian McEwan’s description of World War II in Atonement, are two of the best pieces of war writing I have encountered recently.
Mazzucco rarely distinguishes between those parts of her story which are built around the factual record and those which are pure imagination (did Diamante really meet Charlie Chaplin in Denver?). I think her point, which is reinforced by her use of visual elements, is that the paucity and randomness of historical records perfectly symbolizes history’s utter disregard for individuals. She doesn’t overdo the deployment of photographs (there are only nine in a book that is 430 pages long). Like Sebald, the images she has chosen are mundane and often elliptical. It’s the discrepancy between the violence of these lives and the fragile, nearly anonymous traces they leave behind that makes them so powerful.
The American publication of Vita: A Novel. (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005) appears to be the first English-language edition of Vita, which was originally published in Italy in 2003. The English translation by Virginia Jewiss reads beautifully.