Authors: Laurent Gaudé
The House of Scorta
Translated from the French by
Stephen Sartarelli and Sophie Hawkes
ebook ISBN: 978-1-59692-827-5
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Copyright © 2002 by Laurent Gaudé ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data:
Gaudé, Laurent. [Soleil des Scorta. English] The House of Scorta / by Laurent Gaudé;
translated from the French by Stephen Sartarelli and Sophie Hawkes.
57 'chapters' 10 parts
ISBN1-59692-159-5(hardcover:alk.paper) I.Sartarelli, Stephen,1954-II. Hawkes, Sophie. III. Title.
Book design by Dorothy Carico Smith
Publisher’s Note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
A bit of the sun of these lands
flows in your veins.
May it light up your eyes.
When I finished this book, my thoughts went out to all those people who, by opening the doors to these lands for me, made it possible for me to write it. My parents, who passed on to me their love of Italy. Alexandra, who led me to discover the South of the peninsula and afforded me the pleasure and honor of seeing it through her loving, sunlit eyes. Renato, Franca, Nonna Miuccia, Zia Sina, Zia Graziella, Domenico, Carmela, Lino, Mariella, Antonio, Federica, Emilia, Antonio, and Angelo, for their hospitality and warmth; the stories they told me; the dishes they allowed me to savor; the hours spent in their company on fragrant summer days; and for what they conveyed to me, without even realizing, about a way of belonging to life that I find only in these lands and which always overwhelms me. I hope they will all recognize a bit of themselves in these pages. It would only be right, since they were there with me during all those hours as I struggled alone with each page. These lines were written for them. My only wish is that my words express how precious those moments under the Apulian sun were to me.
Winner of France’s most prestigious literary award, Laurent Gaudé’s
The House of Scorta
spans five generations in a small village in southern Italy.
Beginning in 1870 with Rocco Scorta Mascalzone, a notorious brigand who leaves his children penniless, the saga of the Scortas is one of infamous crimes, forsaken loves, and lifelong secrets. Years of struggle produce only a small family-owned tobacco shop, but the family’s real wealth lies in a storehouse of memories and a stubborn pride in its own power.
Presented in a stunning, stark style, this epic tells the story of a family slowly rising from ruin.
Camminiamo una sera sul fianco di un colle,
In silenzio. Nell’ombra del tardo crepuscolo
Mio cugino è un gigante vestito di bianco
Che si muove pacato, abbronzato nel volto,
Taciturno. Tacere è la nostra virtù.
Qualche nostro antenato dev’essere ben solo —
un grand’uomo tra idioti o un povero folle—
per insegnare ai suoi tanto silenzio.
We’re walking one evening on the flank of a hill
in silence. In the shadows of dusk
my cousin’s a giant dressed all in white,
moving serenely, face bronzed by the sun,
not speaking. We have a talent for silence.
Some ancestor of ours must have been quite a loner —
a great man among fools or a crazy old bum —
to have taught his descendants such silence.
—CESARE PAVESE, from “I mari del Sud” (“South Seas”), in
English translation by Geoffrey Brock (Copper Canyon Press).
Part 1 The Hot Stones of Destiny
Part 2 Rocco’s Curse
Part 3 The Paupers’ Return
Part 4 The Silent Ones’ Tobacco Shop
Part 5 The Banquet
Part 6 The Sun-Eaters
Part 7 The Sinking Sun
Part 8 Tarantella
Part 9 Earthquake
Part 10 The Procession of Sant’Elia
he heat of the sun seemed to split the earth open. Not a breath of wind rustled the olive trees. Nothing moved. The scent of the hills had vanished. The rocks crackled with heat. August weighed down on the Gargano massif
with the self-assurance of an overlord. It was impossible to believe that rain had ever fallen on these lands, that water had once irrigated the fields and quenched the olive groves. Impossible to believe that any animal or plant could have ever found sustenance under this arid sky. It was two o’clock in the afternoon, and the earth was condemned to burn.
A donkey trudged along a dusty path. Resigned, it followed every curve in the road. Nothing could impede its progress. Not the burning air it breathed, not the jagged stones mangling its hooves. On it went. Its rider was like a shade condemned to an ancient torment. Dazed with heat, the man didn’t move. He left it up to his mount to lead them both to the end of that road. The animal performed its task with a blind force of will. Slowly, step by step, lacking the strength ever to quicken its pace, the donkey ate up the miles. The rider was muttering, his words evaporating in the heat. “Nothing can stop me… The sun can kill all the lizards in these hills, but I’ll hang on. I’ve been waiting too long… The earth can hiss and my hair catch fire, but I’m on my way, and I won’t stop till I’ve reached the end.”
Thus the hours went by, in a furnace that consumed all color. At last, behind a bend, the sea came into view. “Here we are, at the ends of the earth,” the man thought. “I’ve been dreaming of this moment for fifteen years.”
The sea lay motionless, like a puddle, as if its only purpose were to reflect the sun’s power. The road had not passed through any villages or intersected any other roads, but only plunged further and further into the land. The sudden appearance of that immobile sea, sparkling with heat, made it clear that the path led nowhere. Yet the donkey went on at the same slow, decisive pace, ready to plunge into the water if his master asked him to. The rider didn’t move. He felt dizzy. Perhaps he had made a mistake. There was only a maze of hills and sea, as far as the eye could see. “I took the wrong road,” he thought. “I should already be able to see the town. Unless it moved away. That must be it. It must have sensed I was coming and moved, into the sea, so that I couldn’t get to it. I’ll dive into the waves if I have to, but I won’t give in. I’ll go on till I’ve reached the end. I want my revenge.”
The donkey reached the top of what seemed like the last hill on earth. That was when they saw Montepuccio. The man smiled. He could take in the whole town at a glance. A small, white town, with houses huddled together high on a promontory overlooking the deep calm of the sea. This human presence in so barren a landscape must have seemed comical to the donkey, but the animal did not laugh and kept on walking.
When they’d reached the town’s first houses, the man said under his breath, “If a single one of them tries to prevent me from passing, I’ll crush him with my fist.” He carefully studied every street corner, but he was soon reassured. He had made the right decision. At that hour of the afternoon, the village was dead. The streets were deserted, the shutters closed. Even the dogs had vanished. It was siesta time, and were the earth itself to tremble, not a soul would venture outside. There was a legend in town that told of how one day, at this hour, a man returning late from the fields crossed the central square. By the time he’d reached the shade of the houses, the sun had driven him mad. As though its rays had burnt his brain. Everyone in Montepuccio believed this story. The square was small, but to cross it at this time of day was to welcome certain death.
The donkey and his rider went slowly up what, at the time, in 1875, was still the Via Nuova, but would later become the Corso Garibaldi. The rider clearly knew where he was going. Nobody saw him. He didn’t even come across any of the scrawny cats that usually prowl for rubbish in the gutters. He made no attempt to put his donkey in the shade or to sit himself down on a bench. On he went, obstinate and terrifying. “Nothing has changed here,” he muttered. “Same lousy streets. Same filthy houses.”
That was when Father Zampanelli saw him. The village priest, whom everyone called don Giorgio, had forgotten his prayer book in the little plot of land next to the church that he used as a kitchen garden. He’d worked there for two hours that morning, and it had just dawned on him that he’d left the book on the wooden chair near the tool shed. He’d gone outside the way one does during a storm, body hunched, eyes squinting, determined to be as quick as possible to avoid exposing his mortal flesh to the heat that drives people mad. That was when he saw the donkey and its rider making their way up the Via Nuova. Don Giorgio paused for a moment and made the sign of the cross. Then he ran back behind the heavy wooden doors of his church to protect himself from the sun. Surprisingly, he didn’t think to raise the alarm or call out to the stranger to find out who he was or what he wanted (travelers were a rare sight, and don Giorgio knew everyone in town by first name). In fact, once back in his cell, he gave it no further thought. He lay down and sank into the dreamless sleep of summer siestas. He had crossed himself at the sight of the rider as if to dispel an apparition. Don Giorgio had not recognized Luciano Mascalzone. How could he? The man looked nothing like before. He was about forty years old, but had the hollow cheeks of an old man.