Istria: A Franco Fasiolo Novel — Chapter 1

Tomaso De Giovanni

In this second novel of the series, Franco is hired to research the origins of a Malvasia vineyard in northwestern Istria. Catia Piagenti joins him on the job, and the pair carries out its work by examining the vines that they find on the property, moving from one parcel to another as they were planted over time. As they do, they find that the vines reveal stories from the period in which they were planted, as well as from previous periods that were passed down to them, including their origins in Greece and their long voyage to Istria. Initially expecting to write a routine report, Franco and Catia instead find themselves to be the recipients of a story that is at turns adventurous, funny and heartbreaking. The investigative team finds, contained within a single field, the record of a long history of a single variety of the novel’s true protagonist, Vitis vinifera, and the insight they gain into the lives and histories of the vines instills in the partners a new empathy for them, for the place in which they are grown, and for the humans who cultivated them.

Chapter One

In which Franco attempts a new way to communicate with a plant, receives help from Giovanna Squercia, recalls a conversation about pica, learns of a new project, questions the legitimacy of his animist tendencies, and thinks about his relationship with Giovanna. 

Allora? It was Giovanna.

Allora. Franco.

Any luck? Giovanna.

Well, nothing yet, but I am not sure it is about luck. Franco.

Franco looked up and saw a pair of tidy black shoes. His own were wet and muddy, a feeling he did not like, but immersed as he was in his project, he did not notice or mind the discomfort too much. It was funny how this kind of deep concentration created another sphere, another mode, another mood, for him. Words again, thought Franco, words, words, words. There was no chance of resubmerging now that the spell had been broken.

Get cleaned up and come over in half an hour. Lunch is almost ready. Giovanna.

Franco looked up at Giovanna, her soft but square face, her compact body that had kept on going all of those years, through war, through hunger, through the cold and wet. How sturdy and resilient humans are. How the heart keeps beating through all of that, Franco thought.

Franco was not hungry at all, but he knew he would be, once he got out of the hole, cleaned himself up, and, what, received – or sent? – a signal from or to his liver that it was time to eat. Maybe it was his microbiome that told him it was time to eat. Franco liked the idea of mass communications happening inside of his body. Franco Ambiente, he thought, Franco Campo, Campo di Franco, Campo Franco, Francis Fields.

One more taste. Franco.

Okay. Giovanna.

Franco put the end of the root in his mouth and stood still, feeling for a tingle or some sensation. Could it be a shift in taste, he thought. Franco shook his head.

Try with this. Giovanna, handing Franco a half full plastic water bottle.

Franco took the bottle and poured a little bit of water over the end of the root. It was already clean, but not too clean. Franco thought it might help to have a little bit of dirt, a few microorganisms, to help carry the signal, their minerality mixing with the chemistry of his saliva, maybe, but how would that have evolved, Franco thought, thinking of underground humans, Homo ipogeo, Franco Ipogeo.

Franco thought of an Indian woman he knew who ate dirt. Pica, Franco told her.

What, she said. Eating dirt, or clay, is called pica, that practice. Franco. She looked at him. It comes from India, she said. So why do you do it? Franco. We need to do it, she said. Priti was her name.

I know, but why? Franco.

It’s good for us. Priti.

Franco respected her unquestioned faith and stopped asking her questions. More people should be like her, Franco thought, like her and like the people who cannot read, or who read with effort. Franco looked at Priti and Priti looked at Franco, and nothing more was ever said about pica.

Franco felt his first hunger pang. The water was Giovanna’s trick. She knew it would trigger Franco’s appetite. Franco looked up again at her small black shoes, the woolen socks. Giovanna steadied the ladder with one hand, the hand that had made thousands of salads, thousands of soups. Over all those years, the knife may have had three blades and two handles, but it had only one hand. Franco climbed out of the hole and smiled at Giovanna.

12:30? Franco.

12:30. Giovanna.

Franco tromped back to his hothouse, stamping his feat with exaggerated force and shuffling them on the gravel to remove the mud from his shoes. Sorry, stones, he said. Sorry mud, he said, you stay outside.

Once inside, Franco sat down at his computer and typed ‘microbiome and hunger’ into the search field. Thousands of hits appeared immediately, as he expected, as was always the case. They would have to wait for later. He had a new email and he opened it immediately, always anxious to find out what they said. He read it with excited concentration:

Dear Dr Fasiolo

I am a small producer of Malvasia in northwestern Istria. I would like to expand my operation by developing a more complex description of my wine, a narrative that is based on the vines, their origins, and the place in which they are grown. Is this something that you could assist me with?


Paolo Burolino

Burolini, Istria

Malvasia, Franco said to himself, Malvasia Istriana, Malvasia Odorosissima. Profumissima would have been nicer, he thought, but no matter. Odor, profume, aroma, fragrance, scent, smell… Why so many words for that one idea? Taste? No, but yes, we smell with our tongues. More nonsense, more separation, more analysis, Franco thought, such a bad habit, what a bad turn we took, such a long road that took us so far away from ourselves.

Franco stood up and washed his hands in the kitchen sink, so content to have a new prospect, a new thing to think about, a new problem. The origins of a Malvasia vineyard, he thought, in Istria, Malvasia Istriana. So, Venetians maybe, Rome? Giovanna would not know. She would not care. She thought little of white wine, just like everyone in the valley. Nauseating, they would say, debilitating, just a cut above water. Pan, furmài, e vin l’è ‘l maià del cuntadìn, Franco repeated softly to himself. Vin, but never vin blanc? Was it the French who brought Malvasia to Istria? Maybe, but probably not, thought Franco; they never got that far east, or did they?

Franco sat down on one of his kitchen table chairs, always the same one or two, he thought, worrying about the uneven wear he was causing. No, it was something else, another kind of neglect, of the others, he thought, or was this just his hypertrophied sense of order, a baseless animism, that was acting up? He untied his one shoe and kicked it off, and then the other, half bending, half raising his foot and crossing one leg over his knee. Pan, furmài, e vin l’è ‘l maià del cuntadìn.

Clean hands, clean shoes, good enough, Franco thought. Burolino. Funny, Istria, Istria Italiana. Paolo Burolino of Burolini. He was part of the soil. He was the soil. That’s how they named things there then. When? Franco was not sure exactly. Where? That part of Istria for sure, but maybe other parts also. Paolo Burolino of Burolini. Franco Fasiolo of Fasioli? Fasiolo Fasiolei? No, it did not quite work, but why not. No, Franco would not do it. Flesh to flesh and soil to soil. And wears man’s sweat and bears man’s smell. How did the line go? Nor can foot feel, being shod. The wold is too much with us, late and soon.

Giovanna could watch things again while I was away, take care of things, Franco thought. What would I do without her, he thought. What would she do without me? Franco knew that this was a question too, but it was not a question that he allowed himself to ask, not even to himself, not even within his own mind.