Review published on January 14, 2017.
The world has a lot to thank Italy for – pizza, pasta, gelato – oh, and its culture’s not bad either. Indeed, it is historically one of the most culturally rich nations – in fact it is said to have more masterpieces per square mile than any other country in the world. It boasts famous scientists and mathematicians, including Galileo, Volta and Fibonacci. It was home to the world’s first operas at the end of the sixteenth century, and has the likes of Puccini, Verdi and Monteverdi amongst its roster. In addition, the first violin is believed to have originated in Italy in the 1500s and later Antonio Stradivari made his name as one of the most famous violin makers.
In terms of architecture, there is little that surpasses Italy’s unmistakable sights, including the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Saint Mark’s Basilica and the Colosseum. In fact, Italy is home to the most World Heritage Sites, an impressive 51 in total, 47 of which are cultural (18th-Century Royal Palace at Caserta with the Park, the Aqueduct of Vanvitelli, and the San Leucio Complex; Sacri Monti of Piedmont and Lombardy; Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalú and Monreale; Archaeological Area and the Patriarchal Basilica of Aquileia; Archaeological Area of Agrigento; Archaeological Areas of Pompei, Herculaneum and Torre Annunziata; Assisi, the Basilica of San Francesco and Other Franciscan Sites; Botanical Garden (Orto Botanico), Padua; Castel del Monte; Cathedral, Torre Civica and Piazza Grande, Modena; Church and Dominican Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie with “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci; Cilento and Vallo di Diano National Park with the Archeological Sites of Paestum and Velia, and the Certosa di Padula; City of Verona; City of Vicenza and the Palladian Villas of the Veneto; Costiera Amalfitana; Crespi d’Adda; Early Christian Monuments of Ravenna; Etruscan Necropolises of Cerveteri and Tarquinia; Ferrara, City of the Renaissance, and its Po Delta; Genoa: Le Strade Nuove and the system of the Palazzi dei Rolli; Historic Centre of Florence; Historic Centre of Naples; Historic Centre of Rome, the Properties of the Holy See in that City Enjoying Extraterritorial Rights and San Paolo Fuori le Mura; Historic Centre of San Gimignano; Historic Centre of Siena; Historic Centre of the City of Pienza; Historic Centre of Urbino; Late Baroque Towns of the Val di Noto (South-Eastern Sicily); Longobards in Italy. Places of the Power (568-774 A.D.); Mantua and Sabbioneta; Medici Villas and Gardens in Tuscany; Piazza del Duomo, Pisa; Portovenere, Cinque Terre, and the Islands (Palmaria, Tino and Tinetto); Prehistoric Pile dwellings around the Alps; Residences of the Royal House of Savoy; Rhaetian Railway in the Albula / Bernina Landscapes; Rock Drawings in Valcamonica; Su Nuraxi di Barumini; Syracuse and the Rocky Necropolis of Pantalica; The Trulli of Alberobello; The Sassi and the Park of the Rupestrian Churches of Matera; Val d’Orcia; Venice and its Lagoon; Villa Adriana (Tivoli); Villa d’Este, Tivoli; Villa Romana del Casale; Vineyard Landscape of Piedmont: Langhe-Roero and Monferrato), and four natural (Isole Eolie – Aeolian Islands; Monte San Giorgio; Mount Etna; The Dolomites).
Italy has also been responsible for some of the greatest artistic periods and personages in history, being the birthplace of the Renaissance, which boasted painters including Michelangelo and Da Vinci, but also writers including Dante and Ariosto whose influence resonates even today. Indeed, Dante perfected the terza rima – a stanzaic form consisting of three lines in which the first and third lines rhyme, and has been used throughout literature by the likes of Robert Frost and Sylvia Plath. But perhaps the greater, but lesser well-known contribution was that of Francesco Petrarch, whose sonnets introduced one of the main poetic forms – the Petrarchan sonnet – and their conceit into literature. Boccaccio too is a name worth significant merit, whose masterpiece, The Decameron, is believed to have been a significant influence for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Indeed, these three luminaries – Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio – are known as the Three Fountains, and even today their work is definitely worth reading, particularly for those interested in the foundations of modern literature. Other Italian writers of note include: Tasso, Machiavelli, Primo Levi, Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco.
As well as being the birthplace for some of the most influential writers in history, Italy has also served as the backdrop for numerous other writers, including notably Shakespeare, of whose 37 plays, 13 are set at least in part in Italy. Writers from Keats to Melville, Dostoevsky to Joyce have all found inspiration in Italy.
Turning to more recent times, Elena Ferrante and Andrea Camilleri are perhaps the most well-known of the contemporary generation of Italian authors, but there are numerous others to explore, including, of course, a wealth of crime writers – Antonio Manzini, Maurizio de Giovanni, Mario Giordano, Nadia Dalbuono, Valerio Varesi, Gianrico Carofiglio, Massimo Carlotto, Michele Giuttari, Donato Carrisi, Giorgio Faletti, Roberto Costantini. Several winners of Italy’s most prestigious literary award, the Strega Prize, are also available in translation, including Paolo Giordano, the youngest winner of the prize, Nicholas Ammaniti, Sandro Veronisi, Tiziano Scarpa, Antonio Pennacchi, Edoardo Nesi, Alessandro Piperno, Domenic Starnone, and Nicola Lagioia’s Ferocity will be published in May 2017. Viola di Grado’s 70% Acrylic 30% Wool was the winner of the 2011 Campiello First Novel Award. Valerio Massimo Manfredi is one of the biggest names in the epic history genre. Other writers of note include Giuseppe Catozzella, Alessandro Baricco, Margaret Mazzantini, Fabio Geda, Francesca Marciano, Nicola Gardini and Giorgio Vasta.
So far in my literary world tour I’ve noticed that, aside from crime, it is more literary fiction that tends to be published and as such manyof the books I’ve read have fallen into that genre. This in itself poses a number of questions including why the emphasis on literary and crime fiction? Where is all of the sci-fi, commercial and historical fiction, to name a few other genres? And is the tendency towards certain genres reflective of the publishing industry in the native country or the country importing the novels? And what, as readers, does this mean we’re missing out on? Those questions are for another time, but with more choice available in the fiction translated from Italy than a few other countries I’ve ‘visited’ so far, I decided to test the waters, with one of my favourite genres, commercial fiction.
Cristina Caboni’s The Secret Ways of Perfume was published in translation in August 2016 and is very much in keeping with popular British writers like Santa Montefiore and Tasmina Perry. The story focuses on Elena Rossini, who comes from a long line of female perfumiers, dating back centuries. Although Elena herself has the gift of being a ‘nose’, she decided to turn her back on perfume to set up a restaurant with her boyfriend Matteo, but as the novel opens Elena’s relationship and business have reached a rocky end and Elena is having to start over. Cue best friend and fellow perfumier Monique coming to the rescue, with the offer of a job working for one of Paris’s most prestigious perfume houses, Narcissus. With very little in the way of an alternative, Elena leaves behind Florence and enters the world of perfume she has long removed herself from.
Commercial fiction is by its very nature comfortable and easy reading. So there are no great plot surprises in this one and the story follows a typically predictable arc, but in a sense that is what you expect, even rely on, in this type of fiction. However, the plot did feel a little too smooth, with the potential drama of a couple of the storylines never materialising, making for a very straightforward and painless journey for Elena to her happy ever after. It was a shame too that more was not made of the Rossini family history and the generations of Rossini perfumiers. There is a brief sideline in this, which is dipped into now and then, somewhat sporadically, but I couldn’t help but feel that a dual timeline, with more of a focus on this past story, would have made the novel much more compelling. I felt a little disappointed too that rather than Florence where the story begins, the majority of the novel is set in Paris. Admittedly the connection between Paris and perfume justifies this, but, for me, switching the setting to the more clichéd Paris lost the novel individuality. However, I enjoy books that are built around an idea or a theme and I loved the way that this novel takes perfume as its central motif and spins the story out from this. There were some really lovely and evocative moments in the novel and on the whole the story was a cosy, pleasant read.
Perhaps more so than the literary fiction that I’ve read so far in this project, this novel felt much more universal and generic, as if it could have been written by a British author, but in part I suspect that that is a feature of the commercial genre. In many ways reading something of a more commercial nature was a pleasant break and it was nice to be able to slip into a book so easily, but on the other hand, the novel certainly lacked the sense of place, identity and individuality that has defined some of the literary fiction I’ve read from the other countries. All in all, whilst I’m a huge advocate of there being more done in the way of translating all genres of fiction, not just literary and crime, and whilst I enjoyed the familiarity and comfort of this novel, I felt as if I missed out a uniquely Italian experience. As commercial fiction it’s solid, but as ‘Italian fiction’ it’s lacking.
The Secret Ways of Perfume by Cristina Caboni
Black Swan 978-1784160500 pbk Aug 2016
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