Evelina e le fate (Evelina and the Fairies), shortlisted for the prestigious Calvino prize in 2013 and awarded the John Fante literary prize in the same year, was the debut novel of Simona Baldelli, a talented Italian writer from Pesaro, in the Marche region. After this promising beginning, Baldelli has published five critically-acclaimed novels that tackle diverse and challenging themes such as pedophilia (in Il tempo bambino, 2014); homophobic prejudice (La vita a rovescio, 2016; the real story of Caterina Vizzani who lived for 8 years disguised as a man in 18th-century Tuscany); musical genius (L’ultimo spartito di Rossini, 2018); female emancipation and social unrest between Italy and Portugal (Il vicolo dell’immaginario, 2019); and the struggles of the first Italian woman cyclist (Alfonsina e la strada, 2021), currently available in eBook format.
Baldelli’s inventiveness and skillful stylistic prowess are already noticeable in Evelina e le fate, with its vivid language adhering to a world of objects in which the characters come alive through a meddling of voices, each with its own substantive body: a language of nouns rather than adjectives; of verbs rather than adverbs. The story is gripping from the first epic pages, as the five-year old protagonist, Evelina, who lives in the small village of Candelara during World War II, witnesses the arrival of twelve refugees [sfollati] – members of Italian families who had to leave their own homes for fear of Fascist and German raids. The newcomers emerge from the whiteness of snow, in the fluorescent light of dawn, bursting into the enchanted world of Evelina who, like many young children, believes in fairies.
That morning, the houses towards the village had disappeared into the whiteness. Suddenly, halfway down the long road, it seemed to her that the snow was moving in one place. […] she saw a ball of rags surfacing, turning on itself and disappearing again. Evelina thought she could not see properly, and that the ball was rather a hare or a wild rabbit looking for its den. Then a tire popped out of the ground. For a while, everything was coming out in bits and pieces. A hand turned up, second came a shoe, and then, even the handlebar of a bicycle. Later, when the noise in the snow reached past the gate of the path leading up to her home, she saw that the ball was a head wrapped up in rags, with a hat on top. (my translation)
[Quella mattina le case verso il paese erano sparite nel bianco. Poi, in un punto, a metà dello stradone, le sembrò che la neve si muovesse. […][…] vide spuntare una palla di stracci, che fece mezzo giro su se stessa e sparì di nuovo. Evelina pensò di averci visto male e che la palla fosse piuttosto una lepre o un coniglio selvatico che cercava la sua tana. Poi, dalla terra sbucò una ruota. E per un po’ fu tutto un venir fuori di cose e di pezzi. Spuntò una mano, per seconda una scarpa, più avanti anche il manubrio di una bicicletta e, quando il tramestio nella neve oltrepassò il cancello del vialetto che portava verso casa, vide che la palla era una testa avvolta nelle pezze e con un cappello in cima.]
The brilliance of this scene is in its slow magical dissolve, the appearing and disappearing that has the quality of a mirage, with the concrete fragments of reality coming to life through the gaze of Evelina who looks at them as if she sees the world for the first time. The displacement that this candid and fairy-tale gaze generates in the readers reminds us of cinematic masterpieces such as Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) by Guillermo del Toro or Nuovomondo (Golden Door, 2006) by Emanuele Crialese. In a scene in the latter, the Italian migrants landing in America at the beginning of the 19th century are shown as they come afloat and sink back into a river of milk – a mythical symbol of abundance – their rags half visible in the whiteness, funny bowler hats on their heads, like in Evelina’s vision.
In the literary sphere, one important forerunner of Evelina e le fate’s narrator, recounting the horrors of the war from a liminal perspective imbued with magical sense of discovery and a child-like innocence, is Pin, the young protagonist of Italo Calvino’s debut novel The Path to the Nest of Spiders (1947, trans. Archibald Colquhoun). This time, however, the narrative voice belongs to a girl. It is a crucial innovation in Baldelli’s story, which brings to the foreground, through the character of Evelina, the intersecting vulnerabilities of children, peasants, and women: three neglected viewpoints allowing to cast a new light onto the partisan war, the alliance between Italians and Germans, and the forgotten story of the persecuted Italian Jews. A Jewish girl is, in fact, the co-protagonist of Evelina e le fate: hidden in a secret cell that can be accessed through a hatch in the stable, Sara is found by Evelina thanks to a fortunate series of coincidences, including the help of two fairies – la Nera and la Scepa – who seem to accompany the child everywhere, looking after her in a world riddled by death, violence, and rape. From this magical hideout that reminds us of a few other liminal places such as Anne Frank’s annex, Ammaniti’s hole in I Am Not Scared (2003, trans. Jonathan Hunt), and Don Achille’s cellar in Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (2012, trans. Ann Goldstein), adult life is seen as if through the prism of an enchanted kaleidoscope or a distorting lens, allowing the reader to acquire a novel perspective on reality.
As the writer revealed in a 2013 interview, she strongly believes in the entanglement of narrative and performance. In Baldelli’s opinion, what lends credibility to literary language is not the shape but the sound of words: “If someone promises you to do something, you don’t believe only the statement ‘I promise,’ but also the sound of their words” (my translation). Baldelli’s commitment to “save the sounds and their truth” helps explain her decision to sprinkle her prose with vernacular sentences that don’t really coincide with the dialect of one particular town but rather intend to compose a “cheerful pastiche” of voices originating in the hills between two regions, Emilia Romagna and Marche.
Following a long tradition of plurilingual writers, combining Italian standard and regional variations of the language, Baldelli’s work may be situated alongside that of authors such as Manzoni, Gadda, Pasolini, and Mari – to name but a few influential Italian writers who may be seen as distinguished representatives of plurilingualism. However, Baldelli raises the bar even higher through the use of a little-known dialect that increases the sense of displacement, bringing more into focus the distinctive female voice she is inflecting through the dialogues of Evelina.
While only a tenth (or so) of the text is written in dialect – certainly less than you would find in a novel such as, for example, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Ragazzi di vita (1955) re-translated by Ann Goldstein as The Street Kids in 2016 – the practice of code-switching presents always an additional challenge to literary translators who might be hesitant to select powerful pieces of literature such as Evelina e le fate due to this particular linguistic aspect. However, as demonstrated by the well-crafted Spanish edition of this novel, that came out in 2015 as Evelina y las hadas in Jorge Rizzo’s translation, it is certainly possible to render the wonderful polyphony of Baldelli’s invented jargon (like the invented Roman pastiche employed by Pasolini) by modulating its sounds in a language that imitates as much as possible oral speech.
A writer that Rosi Braidotti would certainly define as a cultural nomad, as she challenges herself and her writing with new themes, voices, genres, historical periods, and styles, Simona Baldelli is an author that translators should have on their radar, beginning with the wonderful Evelina e le fate.
Baldelli, Simona. Evelina e le fate. Giunti, 2013.
Simona Baldelli (1963-) has worked for many years in the performing arts field as an actress, director, playwright, and cultural events manager. She is also a presenter and author for the Italian radio. Her debut novel, Evelina e le fate (Giunti, 2013), was shortlisted for the Calvino Prize and was awarded the John Fante Literary Prize in 2013. Her second novel, Il tempo bambino (Giunti, 2014) was shortlisted for the Onor d’Agobbio Literary Prize. Her subsequent novels are La vita a rovescio (Giunti, 2016), winner of the Città di Cave Literary Prize; L’ultimo spartito di Rossini (Piemme, 2018), and Vicolo dell’immaginario (Sellerio, 2019). She is the author of the audio series La notte che caddero le stelle (Emons, 2020). Her forthcoming publications are the fairy tale Fiaba di Natale (Sellerio, 2020) and the novel Alfonsina e la strada (Sellerio, 2021, already available in eBook), based on the true story of Alfonsina Strada (1891-1959), the first and only woman cyclist to compete in the Tour of Italy in 1924.
Enrica Ferrara is an assistant professor of Italian at University College Dublin, as well as a writer of non-fiction, translator, and poet. Enrica is working on the last draft of her debut novel.