When Giuseppe Mundula first sees Michele Angelo Chironi across the corridor of a Sardinian orphanage, the reserved blacksmith realises he has found the son and heir he never knew he needed. And when, a few years later, Michele himself looks down from a church rooftop and sees the beautiful Mercede, the quiet orphan realises he has found the woman he will marry.
So begins Marcello Fois' magisterial domestic epic of the lives and loves of the Chironi family, as they struggle through war and fascism. Deftly endowing familial horrors with mythical resonance, Fois creates a Dantesque triptych that inscribes the history of twentieth-century Sardinia onto a single misbegotten household.
Fois (Memory of the Abyss) focuses on the intersection between personal story and impersonal history in this elegant novel. At the dawn of the 20th century, in a tiny town in Sardinia, perhaps Italy's most cut-off region, two young people Michele Angelo Chironi, plucked from an orphanage and trained as a blacksmith, and Mercede, put to work as a maid fall in love and build a family and a small fortune. The Chironis are not historically important, but their story dreamed, buried, inherited, told, and retold has shape and depth. Repeatedly surviving terrible loss, they grapple with the realization that keeping out of sight of those who might be jealous or oppressive (the neighbors, the state, God) will not guarantee their safety. In fact, there is no safety, but there is storytelling, which can be used to make their lives bearable and even, at times, beautiful. One of the Chironis' sons makes up a family origin story; his mother, undone by grief, creates a narrative that lets her go on living. Using deliberately old-fashioned prose slow, magisterial, omniscient, sometimes myth-like Fois brings gravity to this three-part tale of a brief sojourn in "Paradise" as the lovers meet; a decades-long span in "Hell," as the Chironis are caught in the bloody 20th century; and a purgatory that offers the hope of a new beginning, or at least the story's continuation. This a transportive and striking novel.