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main index   © Jeff Matthews   entry July 2008


Domenico Rea (1921-1994)  


My friend, Warren, has reminded me of something that Eric Hoffer once said: “Too many words blur and dilute ideas…there is not an idea that cannot be expressed in 200 words.” By a pleasant coincidence, I was at the same time paging through Diario napoletano by Domenico Rea, a collection of short “postcard”-type observations on Naples, published in 1971.

While there may be many reasons for admiring virtuosity in prose—words for the sake of words, or words that provide distance from the subject, or spectacular psycholinguistic fun such as Finnegans Wake—I think I would rather curl up with the opening of Hemingway's The Snows of Kilimanjaro—"No one was able to explain what the leopard was seeking at that altitude" than this line from Daisy Miller by Henry James: “The child, who was diminutive for his years, had an aged expression of countenance, a pale complexion, and sharp little features.”

Italian literary critics usually tend to describe Rea’s prose as “robust,” “direct” and “neo-realist.” I have even read one English-language comment that his is “… harsh, jagged prose, adept at getting straight to the point without fussing around with stylistic round-about expressions.” Whatever the case, at least one prominent Italian critic, Benedetto Croce (who was a friend of direct language), said that "Neapolitan literature would be a lamentable affair were it not for Rea.”  Thus, if you struggle with reading foreign languages across a broad spectrum of styles—somewhat equivalent to my juxtaposition of Hemingway and Henry James in English—your struggle with Thomas Mann in German will be relieved when you read the clear prose of Franz Kafka, and in Italian if you gnash your teeth at Gabriele d'Annunzio, you can send your dentist to the Bahamas while you read Domenico Rea.

Rea was born in Naples and spent most of his life in nearby Nocera Inferiore. Although his writing broadly fits into the genre of Neo-Realism, it has much less of an in-your-face attitude than much of that genre of Italian literature from mid-century. There are few stereotypes and caricatures—just ordinary people and places, leaving you to draw your own conclusions.
 
Rea published 16 books between 1947 and his death. Here is one of the “postcard” observations from Diario Napoletano. It pretty much fits the 200-word limit. The translation is mine, and I accept responsibility if it is no good:


Via Caracciolo, Kaput [sic]

An English writer once said that via Caracciolo is the most beautiful street in the world. His exact words were "Via Caracciolo is an abstraction" in the sense of a celestial road, a road on the verge of taking off into the heavens. That may sound a bit like D’Annunzio, but when you’re talking about via Caracciolo, it fits. That’s why many years ago we were all aghast at the street-lamps that lit up the night road as if it were broad daylight. Via Caracciolo was meant to be in the shadows and let passers-by see what was going on around and just above the darkness and let them take in the intimacy of a myth.

You can call today’s modern street-lighting a mere venial sin. Via Caracciolo was bound to turn into the most heavily trafficked road in Naples, anyway, but this summer the decay of the road has passed all limits. The roadway itself is pounded day and night by cars, and the spacious sidewalks are disappearing under the weight of parked cars. There are hundreds, thousands of them stopped, stuck like flies on fly-paper. Why? Because via Caracciolo is no longer a road, but rather a four-kilometer-long terminal, a place where you wait for ferry-boats, hovercraft, hydrofoils and helicopters.

There are a few flashes of poetic license. One is the use of the German kaput [sic] in the title, common knowledge to any Neapolitan from its WWII usage. The word carries the gloomy war-time connotation of “really and truly destroyed and you’d better believe it, pal.” It is also misspelled; the correct German is kaputt (with two t's). It is clearly a reference to Malaparte's 1944 novel, Kaputt. I don't think it is a purposeful misspelling just to drive literary critics to deconstruction (but what do I know?) as in, "Hmmm—yes, it represents the dichotomy in the presumptive half-destruction of the Neapolitan psyche." (Naah! He just couldn't spell German. That is par for Neapolitans when it comes to other languages. I have a friend here named "Chanowitz." He is commander-in-chief of his own shadow army of aliases, all the result of lax spelling. He could probably refuse to pay his phone bill all because they send it to someone named "Kahnowtis" ) The reference to D’Annunzio (Rea used one adjective for it, dannunziano) is also a common reference to language that is lofty and even arcane. The only “poetic” phrase, “…in the shadows…intimacy of a myth” stands out from the rest, the “myth” being the “celestial road” mentioned at the beginning or even the fabled bay of Naples, itself.



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