By Moreno GiovannoniFiction Black Inc. Books
The Fireflies of Autumn: And Other Tales of San Ginese
San Ginese is a village where God lingers in people’s minds and many dream of California, Argentina or Australia. Some leave only to return feeling disheartened, wishing they had never come back, some never leave and forever wish they had.
The Fireflies of Autumn takes us to the olive groves and piazzas of this little-known Tuscan village. There we meet Bucchione, who was haunted by the Angel of Sadness; Lo Zena, his neighbour, with whom he feuded for forty years; Tommaso the Killer, the Adulteress, the Dead Boy and many others.
These are tales of war and migration, feasts and misfortunes – of a people and their place over the course of the twentieth century.
The Fireflies of Autumn is a tough and charming book, with echoes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Italo Calvino in its blend of the fantastic, the superstitious, the bawdy and the violent. It’s a collection of interconnected stories – novelistic and written with a refreshing, straightforward sense of humour. It is also, in a sly way, a deeply personal but bracingly unsentimental history of migration - of both its burdens and gains. ‘What if,’ one of the narrators notes early on, ‘after a lifetime you still wonder whether you made a monumental, irreparable mistake by emigrating to Australia?’
Based largely in the Italian village of San Ginese and broken down into a number of sections, we meet a cast of memorable characters such as Tommaso The Killer, The Angel of Sadness, The Imbecile Daughters and The Adulteress. Moving backwards and forwards in time – from World War I to post-World War II and back again – the chronology is as disjointed as memory and offers a comprehensive portrait of the life not only of a particular village but of a generation of Italians who often endured great hardship, especially during the Mussolini years, and dreamed of better lives in America or Australia. There is a wonderful sense of the complexity of the relationships between family members and the other villagers. A sense, in fact, of the village as a single, constantly evolving organism.
Tommaso the Killer
At the start everyone insisted that although Tommaso Giovannoni had the same surname as almost everyone else in San Ginese, he was not related to them. There were no murderers in their family, they would say. Later, everyone would proudly point to their family relationship with Tommaso the Killer.
Anyway, here’s the story.
Tommaso Giovannoni and Folaino Dal Porto were the best of friends. They went to America, worked together on a ranch in California and made a lot of money. One day when Tommaso went into the town for some business, the boss rancher handed over their year’s earnings to Folaino to be split between the two of them. Folaino up and left, taking it all with him to Canada. The news slowly made its way back to San Ginese.
Seven years later and within three months of each other they returned to San Ginese. Folaino arrived first, and always denied that he and Tommaso had had a falling out. ‘Vaffanculo, pezzo di merda!’ he would say to whoever asked him. The matter always seemed to get him more excited than it should have if there had been no truth to the rumours.
Everyone remembers the day Tommaso returned to San Ginese. His two sisters were waiting for him in front of the house, wearing their good Sunday dresses, although it was a Tuesday. Giorgio della Rana, riding his horse back from the market, had seen him walking along the road from Lucca, detoured to San Ginese and knocked on their door mid-morning to tell them Tommaso was on his way. He had ridden past him at Pieve San Paolo, so it would probably be another hour before he got home.
His sisters had been expecting him after receiving his letter. They said Tommaso had caught the train across America from San Francisco, and when he got to New York he wrote to say he was disembarking at Genoa in about a month. Some people wondered what he was going to do in New York all that time, given that a transatlantic crossing took less than a week. Ugo’s cousin Gino said Tommaso was probably hanging around Manhattan going to whorehouses. As we found out later, he wasn’t visiting houses of ill repute. He was buying a gun.
Soon after Giorgio’s visit the whole village knew that Tommaso was back and on his way to San Ginese and a possible confrontation with Folaino. A kind of relay system was set up to monitor Tommaso’s progress. Sandrino the postmaster at Castello had the only telephone in the district, so when the postmaster at Carraia rang him and told him that Tommaso was just then walking past, Sandrino sent his son Federico quickly down the hill to Villora to tell the sisters where their brother was.
Pretty soon all the surrounding villages heard the news of Tommaso’s walk. It seemed to precede him, on horseback and in handwritten notes gripped in grubby hands by small children who were told to run, or ride bicycles, to tell so and so that Tommaso, the enemy of Folaino, was on his way.
When Folaino was given the news by Michelino, the son of the local butcher, who had been told by Federico, who had ridden his bicycle to Il Porto after visiting the sisters, Folaino stood just inside his door and called Tommaso a figlio di puttana (son of a whore), loudly proclaimed that he was innocent of any wrongdoing, said Tommaso could get fucked (lo mando affanculo) and that there was no money owed to anyone and he could stick it up his arse (se lo ficchi nel culo), and so on.
Folaino prefaced his outburst against Tommaso with another outburst, calling Our Lady a whore too (puttana la Madonna), and God a dog (Dio cane). This was quite common in these parts, and no-one really meant anything by it, but if Tommaso had heard him speaking like that he would undoubtedly have laid into him. Tommaso had a horror of that kind of language.
When the first villagers saw him, he was walking along the bottom of the long San Ginese hill in bright sunshine. Soon a crowd was lining the road in silence. A flock of sparrows flew overhead and performed acrobatics, and a cow mooed at its calf in a stable next to the dairy cooperative.
In about twenty minutes Tommaso would be at the crossroads. To get to Il Porto, where Folaino lived, he would have to keep walking straight, passing the turn-off, which was on the right. Everybody was waiting to see what he would do.
There was talk that he and Folaino had fought, not over money, but over a woman or a horse. It was even suggested that Tommaso had made inappropriate advances to Folaino and been rejected. Whatever the reason, it was accepted that Tommaso bore a mighty grudge and felt justified in exacting his revenge.
What form this might take was also the subject of much speculation. Someone said that in California Tommaso had become an expert knife wielder, having worked on a big ranch where he castrated thousands of calves. Some were certain this was what he intended to do to Folaino. Others who had seen too many Tom Mix movies at the Palazzo Cinematografico in San Leonardo believed he carried a six-gun inside his belt under his collarless peasant shirt, and indeed you could see people peering at him from a safe distance to see if he was carrying any concealed weapon.
The crowd grew. Women who were sweeping, spreading corn out to dry in the sun, shelling peas and hanging out their flaxen bedsheets, which flapped gently like pale gold sails in the wind, left their courtyards and made their way to the roadside. Men dropped their scythes or tethered their working cows and ran to join the women.
Only the occasional ‘Salve, Tommà!’ and ‘Bentornato, Tommà!’ broke the silence. ‘Hello! Welcome back!’
Everyone was thinking about the horrible fate that awaited Folaino. Tommaso was known to be a deeply religious man, quiet and hard-working. Religion can make some people kind and forgiving. They’re the ones who read the New Testament. Tommaso was one of those who only read the Old Testament, believed in an eye for an eye and was hard and unforgiving, like you can imagine Abraham was, who was prepared to slit his own son’s throat.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist