But in the opening pages already, our narrator Elena makes it clear that poverty prevails, and that while there might be a way out through scholarship -- as seen in the fairly limited example of Maestra Oliviero -- this is curtailed even beyond the class constrictions by the clearly delineated expectations of gender. All in the community defer to Don Achille, whose shadowy powers are clearly linked to violence and probable criminality; while the adults grumble about and warn against him, no one dares challenge him, and by Grade Two, Lila and Lenù know that any competition against Achille's son must be negotiated carefully. We will find out before long how broad and deep runs Achille's power over the community, but these first chapters already establish that the current is not a new one. There is a history of violence, of terror, that the girls have imbibed without ever being able to ascertain the details -- in writing about this, the narrator suggests the balance between what is and is not said, or even more, what can and cannot be said, in a primarily oral culture.
And to me, it's so significant that Elena, the writing narrator of the girls' shared story, has emphasised her Writing Self in the prologue, and now focuses considerable attention on the girls' move into literacy from their primarily oral culture. Maestra Oliviero quickly intuits that Lila's mother is illiterate; we will soon suspect that she's not the only non-reader in the neighbourhood. And there is much emphasis in these first chapters on what is acquired through oral knowledge. I'm thinking, for example, of the incident in which Lila's father apologizes to Don Achille "without ever saying what he was apologizing for." The adult Elena tells us that she "didn't see it" or at least doesn't remember it, "but it was said that the apologies were made aloud, and in such a way that everyone could hear."
More generally, all the intricate knowledge Elena offers about the relationships between her neighbours has been gleaned by listening. And to characterise what she was listening to as gossip seems unfair because the knowledge about their community seems integral to their survival. The paragraph about what had happened "in the dark ages" of "Before" -- i.e. before the girls were born, when something had apparently happened in which Don Achille "revealed himself in all his monstrous nature -- and the paragraph which follows it support that argument, as well as illustrating Elena's claim that her childhood was full of violence. As much as she might want to adopt the nicer manners of the teachers or priest, "they were not suited to our neighbourhood, even if you were a girl."
Let me pause for a moment here and consider how much I can write, how much you'll have time to read, here today. I'll confess that after my year away from academic writing, there's a part of me that is being pulled back in through this re-reading, and you might be surprised to see how many notes I've made so far. But I don't have time to write an essay on this section, nor is that what we're all here for. So perhaps I can just suggest a few topics for consideration and trust to your comments to flesh out the discussion. Just a few. . . I'll number them. . . You'll see. . .
1) I could, for example, spend some time considering the gender roles so distinctly articulated. The mothers, old by thirty, worn-down by poverty and multiple pregnancies, and with the added insult of being despised by their daughters for whom they represent only a depressing future. The fathers embedded in a patriarchy which holds them under Don Achilles' power but allows them to beat their wives and children. A world in which a six or seven-year old girl already knows how to wield her blond curls and sweet smile to mitigate against her cleverness.
2) Also worth some attention is the specific socio-economic and historic reality of Naples in this period not so long after the war. The gas masks lurking in basements, the bombs lingering, ready to be exploded at the touch of an unwary child. "Our world was like that, full of words that killed: croup, tetanus, typhus, gas, war, lathe, rubble, work, bombardment, bomb, tuberculosis, infection."
3) The "folk wisdom" of this still primarily oral culture as manifest in that brief litany of Elena's of "things that seemed normal" that you could die of.
4) This one I could easily write a whole other post on, but I'll sketch out my observations here and then turn the mic over to you. My closing point concerns Elena's control of the narrative, a control I've already remarked on in discussing the Prologue. Most obviously, you'll see Elena herself drawing your attention to her narrative role in frequent comments about the difficulty she has with some aspects of the narrative or about the significance of something she's saying. When she writes about something she saw in Lila's face that "is still hard to define, so for now I'll put it like this," she reminds us that she's the one in charge of the story (and if we're wise readers, we should take this as a caution). Similarly, after Nino's defeat in the classroom competition, Elena writes that she saw "something that saddened me: not an inability, not even surrender, but, I would say today, a collapse." As much as the narrative pulls us in, as readers, to the childhood scene being described, the adult Elena, writing, insists on disrupting that transparency and pulls us back to the filtering that is happening back at the computer keyboard on which she's composing her rebuttal to Lila's disappearance.
An extension of this, more subtle perhaps, but also more pervasive, is in the way Elena plays masterfully with the ever flexible relationship between story and plot. She begins the section on "Childhood" by wielding a narrator's privilege, declaratively establishing the moment when the girls' friendship began -- the pages following offer many other moments during the previous two or three years that other writers or story-tellers might have chosen as the friendship's birth. The barest form of the story she describes might be that Two Little Girls Met, One Threw the Other's Doll into a Dangerous Place, They go to Retrieve It. But the plotting is elaborate, and it keeps the reader on her toes with its disrupted chronology and the demands it makes on us to understand implied causation. We might begin to wonder where Lila would have begun the narrative. . . . And is it worth wondering whether her disappearance is highlighted rather than contended by Elena's absolute control over what the reader learns. . .
Anyway, that's probably enough to get a discussion going, although I'm far, far from having shared all my marginalia with you, the underlined passages, the pencilled exclamations . . . But one of our daughters is coming for dinner, with her two little ones, and she's just texted that they're nearly here. So over to you, and we'll chat more about these chapters via the comments.
Oh, and I'll try to post on the remaining "Childhood" chapters by Friday, but possibly Saturday depending on how the week goes.