Thursday, September 6, 2012

The malaria doesn't finish everybody - a peculiar Verga masterpiece

And you feel you could touch it with your hand – as if it smoked up from the fat earth, there, everywhere, round about the mountains that shut it in, from Agnone to Mount Etna capped with snow – stagnating in the plain like the sultry heat of June.

"It" is the malaria.  I want to go back to “Malaria” – that’s the story’s first sentence – because it is unusual.  It shows off one of Verga’s tricks.  Plus, “smoked up from the fat earth,” that’s good stuff right there.  Verga is obviously working with a miasma theory of disease.

The story starts without a character, unless I (“you”) count.  I guess I do.  Verga wants to fill me in on this condition if Sicilian life.  A sick shepherd soon appears, and some sick villagers who “tremble with  fever under their brown cloaks, with all the bed blankets over their shoulders.”  Any writer could have come up with the cloaks, but the blankets suggest a good eye.  They are out of place in the heat of these first few pages, “roads wasted by the sun…  two heaps of smoking dung…  coruscations of sparks” – the latter from a train.  We’ve gone a couple of pages, and now a “donkey lets his head hang…  the dog rises suspiciously.”  A human should appear soon, since the story is only eight pages long.

Six to go.  Ah, I see, the people were waiting for the heat to dissipate.  At sundown “sunburned men appear in the doorways… and half-naked women, with blackened shoulders, suckling babes that are already pale and limp, so that you can’t imagine that they’ll ever get big and swarthy and romp on the grass when winter comes again, and the yard floor will be green once more, and the sky blue, and the country all around laughing in the sun.”  Perhaps this is more of a sketch about the oppressive effects of this disease than a narrative.

No, here is a name, Farmer Croce, who got caught by the malaria after thirty years of “swallowing sulfate and eucalyptus decoction.”  His story just takes a couple of paragraphs, then it is on to Neighbor Carmine who lost all five of his children.  The parents lived on, after a page or so of narrative – the loss of the last boy is especially sad, but “[t]he malaria doesn’t finish everybody.”

Which brings us to Cirino the simpleton, who is frequently stricken by a malarial attack, knocked right off his feet, but always recovers, even though – now I am interpreting the narrator’s tone – it hardly seems fair, since Cirino has nothing and nobody.  Why does he get to live?

A little transition now to an innkeeper who has lost four wives to malaria and is looking for a fifth.  The stories within the story lengthen as we near the end, so poor Killwife gets more than two pages, ending with a vision of “[a]ll the other people on the plain,” the ones who come from somewhere else on the train that has ruined his inn, the people who are healthy:

Then the train lost itself in the vast mist of the evening, and the poor fellow, taking off his shoes for a moment, and sitting on the bench, muttered, “Ah! For that lot there isn’t any malaria!”

I do not believe I have read another story quite like it, excepting some of the others in Little Novels of Sicily.


  1. This book knocked me out when I read it a few years ago and almost made me wish D. H. Lawrence had spent more time translating Italian masterpieces than writing his own.

  2. Yeah, and this book does not even have the best stories, or so Lawrence and J. Wood tell me. Maybe I'll write a bit about that.

    My sense (limited, perhaps ignorant) is that Lawrence's Italian immersion was good for his art.