Thursday, March 12, 2015

He hated the moonlit nights - "Rosso Malpelo"'s baptized flesh

“Rosso Malpelo” – Verga’s stories more generally are firmly materialistic in ethics and aesthetics.  The Catholic Church is itself material, and it has its place in many Verga stories, but the characters rarely have a thought beyond this world, beyond food and warmth.  Romantic love is an exception so there are several stories about love going wrong, ending in hardship, or murder.  See “Stinkpot,” about a sap with a name worse than “Rosso Malpelo.”  Superstitions are another exception, as in “War Between Saints,” in which two parishes go to war because one of them spent too much money on a parade for its saint, so now its Saint Rocco versus Saint Pasquale, through violence, drought, and cholera.

“Rosso Malpelo” appears to be an extreme example.  The title misfit has no education, no religion, his father dies in the mine, and his mother does not love him.  His only friends are a donkey and another boy miner, both of whom he occasionally beats, both of whom die.  There are hints that the Church exists. 

So on Saturday night mastro Misciu was still scraping away at his pillar; the Ave Maria had long since sounded and all his companions had lit their pipes and gone away after telling him to have a good time scratching the sand for love of the owner, and warning him not to die the death of a rat.

Which he does, right in front of his son.  When he is finally found ten pages later, he is carried off “the same was [the cart driver] did the fallen sand or the dead donkeys, but this time, besides the stench of a carcass, he carried a friend, and baptized flesh.”  The italics are in the original, as if to emphasize the strangeness, within the story, of the phrase.

One passage suggests that Malpelo has an inner aesthetic life:

Yes, during the beautiful summer nights, the stars shone brightly on the sciara too, and the countryside all around was black as lava, but Malpelo, tired after the long day’s work, lay down on his sack with his face toward the sky, to enjoy that silence and that glittering fiesta high above; on the other hand, he hated the moonlit nights, when the sea swarms with sparks and the countryside takes form dimly here and there, for then the sciara seems more barren and desolate than ever.

He prefers the stars to the moon, infinity to vagueness.  Distinctions within the sublime.

Two related passages suggest that Malpelo has an inner spiritual life.  His donkey dies and is thrown in the ravine.  “He went to see the Gray’s carcass at the bottom of the ravine, and dragged Frog along too, though he didn’t want to go.”  The donkey has been torn apart by dogs, its ribs exposed – what could be more material?  “’Now he doesn’t suffer anymore.’”  A page earlier, the narrator had interjected “He had some strange ideas, that Malpelo!”  This narrator always lies.

When poor Frog dies, Malpelo’s first act is to return to see the donkey again.  “Now nothing more was left of the Gray than a jumble of bones, and it would be the same with Frog.”  And of course later the same with Rosso Malpelo.  Malpelo has developed some ideas about death without anyone’s help.  The last two pages pursue the idea to Malpelo’s death, with an ironic, anti-materialistic twist.

Now I wonder if this sort of argument is present in other Verga stories, too.  Maybe not, though.  “Rosso Malpelo” is an extreme case. 


  1. Found the Cecchetti, read "Rosso Malpelo" on the train this morning, will no doubt read it again on the train this afternoon. What a miraculous story. Thank you.

    Maybe the best example of Malpelo's "inner spiritual life" is his sacrifice to the dying Frog, taking money from his own wages to buy the boy some wine and hot soup then giving him the "new" pants stripped from Malpelo's own dead father (followed by the great line in which Malpelo "stayed there quiet and motionless, bent over him, his hands on his knees, staring at him with those ugly eyes wide open as if he wanted to paint his picture…" (those italics mine).

    This is a remarkably rich story, almost a distillation of the suffering (and humor) of I Malavoglia. I'm in awe of some of Verga's sentences, the way he can convey, for example, such desperate poverty with the flick of a word. One is just cut by it. But Verga's humor also cuts sharply; I loved the story's lawyer joke: "…he wouldn't have taken that pillar out for twenty onze, it was so dangerous; but on the other hand, everything is dangerous in the quarries, and if you pay attention to all the silly things people say, it's better to go and be a lawyer."

  2. How did I not mention Malpelo the brute's multiple acts of kindness? It's the kind of narrative where you need a stock phrase like "dripping with irony."

    Verga makes you keep a sharp eye out for those lines, like that lawyer joke.

    I'm glad you were able to get the book. There are a number of stories similarly good. In the ballpark.