New translations of older, neglected works by Italian women are having a moment. Happily, new women authors from Italy are also beginning to take their rightful place among the writers who define our age. Lorenza Pieri, a journalist and translator originally from Tuscany, is one of a handful of new Italian female voices adding mass to an already fertile archipelago. Lesser Islands (Isole minori) is Pieri’s second novel to be translated into English. Her previous novel, The Garden of Monsters, also published by Europa Editions and shortlisted for the 2021 Italian Prose in Translation Prize, introduced her as a major upcoming voice in contemporary Italian literature. Lesser Islands will further establish her reputation as a resonant voice.
Lesser Islands takes place mostly on Giglio, a small island off the coast of Tuscany, and covers nearly 40 years of the lives of its inhabitants, focusing particularly on one family. Divided into four parts, the novel covers the years 1976-2012. The narrator, Teresa, is the younger of two children, both girls. Her older sister, Caterina, is the more outgoing of the two, the more adventurous. Teresa’s father Vittorio exists mainly on the margins of the family, and is certainly quieter than his wife, and the mother, Elena, called the “Red” because of her red hair and her outspoken political opinions. Rounding out the family is Elena’s mother, Nonalina, a veteran of the Italian resistance during the Second World War. The family are surrounded by several of the island’s inhabitants who appear like shadows and fade into the background over the course of the novel.
Lesser Islands is much more than a family drama. The novel’s themes are deeply rooted in an Italian culture that is simultaneously explosive and evolving. Teresa’s first-hand account lends an intimacy to the novel that readers might have missed had Pieri decided to narrate the novel in the third person. The title of the novel itself informs us about what is perhaps the most resonant theme: provincialism. The title becomes a metaphor for something too easily defined on the surface, as well as something easily compartmentalized. Giglio is the lesser island to the mainland of Tuscany, only 18 kilometers from Porto Santo Stefano by ferry. Giglio is a holiday island, where most come from the mainland on vacation or for short visits. And yet, for Teresa and most of the islanders, Giglio is the known world, replete with magic juxtaposed with the ordinary. Consider the novel’s first lines: “We saw the dolphins in the morning. We trailed their shiny fins in the boat for a good half hour; then they went too far and Babbo, as people in Tuscany say Daddy, had to turn back.” Teresa tells us that this is the first time she experienced the dolphins, and her childlike sense of wonder is the initial introduction the reader has of her. It is a sense that she will gradually lose, like we all do, only to end up an adult and resigned to something the more romantic minds among us might call fate.
The provincial is not solely geographical. What the novel teaches us is that we imagine our provincialism when we are all alone in and among the world, to paraphrase Hannah Arendt. The island is indeed cut off from the mainland, and its size and scope does not lend itself to the cultural significance of, say, Sicily or Sardinia. Nor is it exclusively a place of exile like Elba. Instead, Giglio is a way of life, often out of step with the rest of the mainland. “In general, the end of other people’s vacations meant the beginning of ours. The tourists went back to their cities and while we waited patiently for autumn in a hot and long season, we had time and space to ourselves” (15). As anyone knows who has worked at hotels or resorts in the summer, off season can become all the lonelier and more secluded, further cutting off the inhabitants of the island from the rest of life.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the provincial as metaphor is the role women play in the novel, as well as the world. Lesser Islands is still a man’s world, and the actions and voices of men are clearly the signifier. We are told early on that Teresa’s mother gives up her doctoral work for life on the island with Vittorio to run a hotel. And yet, Elena is an organizing voice when two neofascists are sent into exile on the island. “The coordination of protests was unanimously assigned to our mother Elena. She was the most combative, the most knowledgeable, the one who brought political consciousness to Giglio and took it upon herself to share it with whomever she could” (16). Elena is a force of nature, something her eldest daughter Caterina inherits, but in a different way.
The relationship between the two sisters is typical of siblings. Caterina is the older, more dominant sister who is unafraid to make her own way in the world, while the younger Teresa can only watch, admire, and perhaps resent her older sister. Caterina is the storyteller, Teresa the audience: “Caterina, the mainland, me, the lesser island” (63). Teresa’s self-view is more than one struggling to emerge from the shadow of an older sister. For Teresa, her entire life has been spent to establish herself ontologically. Like Elena Ferrante’s characters who suffer from “dissolving margins,” Teresa is a woman who struggles to establish those margins in the first place. In what is perhaps the most important view of herself in the book, Teresa declares that “With the passing of the years and prolonged absence I found it harder and harder to be recognized.” And later, “I believe that this really is my most characteristic trait: a lack of a clear outline” (136). Toward the end of the novel, Teresa seems to become more resigned to her status as “lesser” sister. “Of the two of us, I remained the second, the youngest in every way, the one who had lost the battle to establish herself, to escape provincialism, to emancipate herself, trapped as I was by needs, but I was still happy, for the umpteenth time in my life, that I wasn’t her” (192). Teresa accepts her provincialism, but fails to realize that she is, in fact, the protagonist in her own life, that she’s living the story we are reading.
When I first opened Lesser Islands, I was a bit concerned seeing that it was translated by six people. I wondered how the translators would be able to keep to a single voice and maintain the integrity of a rhythm. What I discovered after several pages was an almost flawless, smooth, and wonderful translation. I was pleasantly surprised when I read the following on the copyright page: “The translation of Isole minori by Lorenza Pieri has been completed as a class project by students of Italian Translation (Fall 2020) taught by prof. Donatella Melucci [also one of the translators] at Georgetown University.” We should applaud Dr. Melucci and her students for a project that has transferred so wonderfully a fantastic novel into English. We should also applaud Michael Reynolds and Europa Editions for publishing this particular translation.
“The truth is that great novels are great fairy tales,” writes Nabokov in his “Good Readers and Good Writers.” Lesser Islands is indeed a kind of fairy tale, but one that doesn’t quite end happily, but more with a sense of resigned contentment, which may be the greatest obstacle of fairy tales. What the reader (this reader anyway) comes away with is the realization and reminder of how the stories of our lives form who we are, even when, and most importantly, we are not paying attention. Lorenza Pieri has created a world not quite our own and not quite foreign, and this is a testament to her talent as a writer. As readers we are all searching for something, whether it’s escape, enjoyment, information, or validation. Lesser Islands reminds us that even though we all suffer times of remoteness and provincialism, the opening of a book can be a magical way to connect without leaving the comfort of one’s chair.
Pieri, Lorenza. Lesser Islands. Translated by Peter DiGiovanni, William Greer, Donatella Melucci, Jenna Menta, Christopher Paniagua, and Kira Ross. Europa Editions, 2023.
Andrew Martino is Dean of the Glenda Chatham & Robert G. Clarke Honors College at Salisbury University where he is also professor of English. He has published on Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, and Luigi Pirandello, among others. He is a regular reviewer for World Literature Today, and is currently finishing a manuscript on Paul Bowles.