My Brilliant Friend: Italian History In A Saga

Do you want to learn about Italy’s recent history? Read this book.

Do you want to learn about Italy’s recent history? Read My Brilliant Friend

Few Italian novels have recently been able to cross national borders, without losing their expressive power. The so-called ‘Neapolitan novels’ written by Elena Ferrante — on which the successful TV series produced by Rai and HBO is based — have certainly been capable to do so.

My Brilliant Friend’s tetralogy’s uniqueness lies not only in the powerful personal story of the masterfully psychologically deepened characters, but also in being able to follow them in a period of time ranging from the ’50s to the present day, mixing their personal events with Italy’s recent history.

The books tell the story of the bittersweet friendship between Elena ‘Lenù’ Greco, the main character and narrator, and Lila Cerullo. Each one being the brilliant friend to the other, the two girls are born and raised in a popular district of Naples and maintain a special bond throughout their lives while following very different paths.

Their brilliant intelligence unites them since elementary school: while Elena is lucky enough to study, emancipating herself from a stunted economic situation and a culturally stagnant environment, Lila is forced to leave school very early, to help her father in the shoemaker’s shop.

While the former travels and marries a rich, well-educated man, the latter does not cross the city borders, marries a dishonest and aggressive shopkeeper and seems to waste her potential by allowing herself to be swallowed up by the violent regurgitations of a hostile Naples.

Yet nothing in their destinies is predictable or expected: the life of these two women guides us in the intricate plots of Italian history of the second half of the twentieth century.

One of the central elements, of both the personal events of My Brilliant Friend’s main characters and Italian social history, is conflict.

It comes out, first of all, between the walls of the house of the popular district, the so-called rione, where Lenú and Lila learn to familiarize with the beating and the arbitrary violence of husbands on wives and fathers on children — Lila herself is thrown by the window by her furious father, after an argument.

This violence regulates life in an environment devoid of other forms of legitimization of power. In an Italy that is still heavily divided into non-communicating classes, poverty generates abuse and enrichment becomes the only contemplated form of emancipation.

It is precisely from this link between violence and misery and between misery and longing for enrichment that the theme of mafia power emerges, represented in the district by the Solara family.

The young members of this Camorra family, Michele and Marcello Solara, rule the district with interest-led favors and veiled threats, usury and drug dealing, rape and beatings.

The author manages to draw a very close portrait of the young Camorra men: she follows them, as she does with Lina and Lenú, from their early adolescence to their death, recounting their shadows and violent acts, often hidden behind an aura of power that subdues those who see in them the only authority they have ever known. 

From this underground violence that devours everything, we move on to the political connotated one of the ’70s. Elena and Lila find themselves catapulted into the struggles between communist and fascist militancy, massacres and beatings, protests in front of the factories and rallies of students, professors and trade unionists.

This conflict, far from being dichotomous — right-wing extremist against left-wing’s ones — reveals itself in its infinite facets: within the left itself, in fact, the opposition emerges between an educated upper class, full of good intentions and theories about the emancipation of the working class proletariat, and a working-class grappling with survival, whose real difficulties are often misunderstood by revolutionary theorists.

None of the friends or relatives who have studded Lila and Lenù’s life since childhood manage to escape the turmoil of the time: some are killed, some are those who kill, some even kill themselves and some, while trying to stay out of it, have to witness the collapse of an era.

If in many ways that very period has contributed to the affirmations of fundamental rights, which were conquered in the streets and universities, it has also been able to show the worst side of Italy’s political extremism: from the massacres of a fascist matrix to the assassination of Aldo Moro, a Christian Democrat deputy killed by the Red Brigades, a dissident group of the extra-parliamentary left.

Another subject very important in the tetralogy of My Brilliant Friend that follows the trails of a changing Italy, concerns the female condition.

From the total inferiority of status of Lila and Lenú’s mothers, docile wives dedicated to the household chores, the two young women attempt to emancipate themselves in the most disparate ways. 

The theme of marriage and its inevitability as well as its duration ‘until death do us part’ emerges strongly in their early youth. However, this never-doubted-paradigm begins to falter when, in the 1970s, after the approval of the divorce law, women began to see a chance of rebirth after a disastrous marriage.

The tasks of women themselves are radically questioned: they are no longer just mothers and wives, but they are now working, intellectual, politically and sexually free individuals.

Despite becoming a feminist, Lenù still struggles to get the freedom and independence she needs. Yes, there is a complicated net of love-stories behind that struggle, but you will have to read the books, starting with My Brilliant Friend, to get angry, sad and happy as I was.

And if you do you won’t be just submerging yourself into Lila and Lenù’s regular yet incredibly adventurous lives, but you’ll also be learning something new about our history in the meantime.

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