Blood Ties and Colonial Echoes
Berlusconism, fascism, family secrets, Italy’s colonial history, racial laws, the Italian occupation of Ethiopia, Muammar Gaddafi, the Italo-Ethiopian war, racial violence, hidden histories, the harrowing crossing of the Mediterranean, and the ghosts of a denied past that is nevertheless bleeding into the present. These words and themes run through the novel Sangue Giusto (literal translation Legitimate Blood, though I might name the book in English Blood Ties) by Francesca Melandri. Vivid, absorbing, and historically grounded without being pedantic, Sangue Giusto raises questions such as these: How much can we know about how our parents lived before we were born? Can we square the mythologies about those we love with the reality of who they are? How far can we go to fill those gaps? And are we the inheritors of the violence committed by those with whom we share blood?
At once a family saga and a chronicle of contemporary Italian history from the twentieth century to the 2010s, Sangue Giusto was first published by Rizzoli in 2018 and republished by Bompiani in 2022. Interweaving intimate family history with general history, the novel demonstrates that literature often allows for a radical reimagination of our world to allow us to experience it as it really is. In doing so, Melandri maps the contradictions between both histories and suggests that certain truths can only be told through fiction.
At the novel’s beginning, we meet Ilaria Profeti, a 40–year–old Roman middle school literature teacher living in Esquilino, one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Rome.
“Excuse me. Hello. Does Attilio Profeti live here?”
The first thing Ilaria notices in the dim light is his skin color, identical to the old wooden doors that frame the landing. Purplish lips. Legs as long and thin as straws. The jersey of a famous A-list player.
He looks twenty-five. Maybe even younger.
“Who are you?” She asked him.
I’m looking for Attilio Profeti.
Ilaria points to her brother’s apartment across from hers.
“He lives over there.”
“He’s still alive?”
“Of course, he’s alive!”
“He must have eaten his apple a day!”
Slowly and with a smile, he explains, “So he must be very old.”
Yellowish and riddled with capillaries, the young man’s right eye is slightly more closed than the other. However, his stare is an unblinking straight line. It reminds Ilaria of children absorbed in a game or certain healthy elders who neither speak too much nor too little. She has never seen it in such a young Italian.
“My brother is 30 years old. The Atilio Profeti you’re talking about is my father, and he doesn’t live here. But who are you?”
“My name is Shimeta Ietmgeta Attilaprofeti.”
“Shimeta Ietmgeta Attilaprofeti”
Ilaria’s head tilts toward her shoulder. Four horizontal wrinkles appear on her forehead.
“Look, if you want to mess with me-“
“No. I don’t want that.”
His Italian is almost accentless, but the T’s sound hollow, almost drum-like.
Ilaria gathers her few crumbs of patience left at the end of this shitty day.
“I get it. You saw the name on the intercom. I just don’t understand what made you climb up all those stairs. Come on. Leave now.”
“My name is Shimeta Ietmgeta Attilaprofeti,” he repeats patiently, without a trace of offense. “If old Atilio Profeti is your father, then you are my aunt.”
(Translations by Barbara Ofosu-Somuah)
If asked, Ilaria would describe herself as a progressive person with unwavering beliefs about how the world is and how it should be. But her sense of self begins to crumble when she encounters a strange young Ethiopian man waiting for her outside her apartment who claims to be her nephew. This black man, whose name on his Ethiopian passport is Shimeta Ietmgeta Attilaprofeti, was named after her father, Attilio Profeti. He is the son of an Ethiopian brother Ilaria never knew existed and he had traveled across the Mediterranean to arrive in Italy. Unable to confirm the story with 97-year-old Attilio, who suffers from dementia, Ilaria sets out to investigate her father’s sins. Through Ilaria’s eyes, Sangue Giusto traces the blood of family ties and the bloodshed of Italy’s colonial projects in Africa. As Ilaria investigates her father’s past, the novel reveals the truth of Italy’s fascist colonial history.
Francesca Melandri’s almost surgical ability to interweave two narratives and periods in Sangue Giusto makes the book an excellent candidate for translation. Melandri’s book is in the company of very few novels which speak to Italian colonialism. In its treatment of the lingering effects of secrets and hidden histories, Sangue Giusto is a direct descendant of Ennio Flaiano’s 1947 novel Tempo di Uccidere (translated into English under various titles: Miriam, A Time to Kill, and The Short Cut). Though not an exhaustive list, other novels that speak Italian colonialism in Africa include The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste (written in English), Igiaba Scego’s Adua (translated into English by Jamie Richards), Gabriella Ghermandi’s Regina di fiori e di perle (Queen of Flowers and Pearls,translated into English by Giovanna Bellesia-Contuzzi and Victoria Offredi Poletto), Giulia Caminito’s as-yet-untranslated La grande A, and Ethiopian-Canadian journalist Aida Edemariam’s The Wife’s Tale, written in English.
Thoroughly researched and compellingly executed, Melandri’s Sangue Giusto artfully combines an Italian past that is always present, even if many white Italians prefer to forget it, with a contemporary moment plagued by Italian anxieties about the refugee “crisis” and by virulent xenophobic rhetoric and politics. The book’s characters are dynamic and humanly flawed. Sangue Giusto is an excavation. It forces the reader to confront the hidden histories, atrocities, and scientific racism of a period of Italian history that is, perhaps intentionally, overshadowed by the German occupation and the partisan struggle. This shadow hides truths about the genocides, rapes, and illegitimate children born during the colonial expansion of the Italian Empire. In Francesca Melandri’s novel, readers see how Italy’s colonial legacy still affects the Africans who experienced or inherited this trauma while continuing to echo in the lives of those who committed or inherited the sins of these atrocities. Suspenseful and kaleidoscopic, Melandri jumps through time and space with an agility that is particularly surprising given the novel’s slow start. Ultimately, Sangue Giusto offers an extraordinary new way of looking at the social and psychological ramifications of Italy’s colonial past.
At a time when fascism is again on the rise worldwide, the translation of Sangue Giusto into English is urgent. This novel is a poignant examination of Italy’s often overlooked or denied colonial legacy. While some writers have written fiction that seeks to reveal Italy’s colonial legacy on the Africans who experienced or inherited that trauma, Melandri’s novel urges the reader to sit with the lingering echoes of that same history in the lives of those who committed or inherited the sins of those atrocities. Its translation into English offers an opportunity to address the collective amnesia that exists on an individual and national level in many Western nations.
Barbara Ofosu-Somuah is a first year Ph.D. student at Duke University in the Romance Studies program. She is interested in exploring Italy’s colonial past and how Black Italians’ radically imagine belonging in Italy’s present through their writing and other cultural productions. Ofosu-Somuah’s writing and translations have been featured in Words Without Borders, Public Books, Lampblack Magazine, the translation anthology Violent Phenomena by Tilted Axis Press, and elsewhere. In 2020, her introduction accompanied the Italian translation of Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother.