Whatever I was going to do, I was not going to write about “Rosso Malpelo,” the 1880 Giovanni Verga masterpiece. “Redhead Evilhair,” something like that. James Wood’s Verga essay,* the best thing he ever wrote, is mostly about “Rosso Malpelo.” Argumentative Himadri, back from a trip to Sicily, not previously familiar with Verga, goes straight to “Rosso Malpelo.” It is irresistible, so I will stop resisting, even if I use the same quotations and make the same points.
Rosso Malpelo is an unloved boy who works in a sandpit. His life is nothing but work, abuse, and death. Everyone quotes the first lines (this is Cecchetti translating):
He was called Malpelo because he had red hair; and he had red hair because he was a mean and bad boy, who promised to turn into a first-rate scoundrel. So everybody at the red-sand quarry called him Malpelo, and even his mother, having always heard that name, had almost forgotten his real one.
Verga is paired with words like “realism” and “objective” but look at what happens in the second clause. The narrator is not distant and objective; no, the narrator has picked sides, in this case the side of Sicilian society as a whole, the wrong side. Even Malpelo’s mother is on this side. Everyone is. Even Malpelo himself:
Knowing that he was malpelo, he tried to live up to that name as well as he could, and if an accident happened, if a worker lost his tools, or a donkey broke a leg, or a piece of the tunnel caved in, everyone knew it was his doing; and in fact, he took his beatings without complaining, just like the donkeys, who arch their backs, but go on doing things their own way.
Malpelo’s father, who dies in the sand quarry, was actually nicknamed Jackass, bad but a step up from Malpelo. I was reading Verga and “Rosso Malpelo” while writing posts on Pinocchio (1883), and if I became a little strident on the side of the donkeys and the puppets who turned into donkeys against the boys who did their duty with no complaints, this is the reason. I also read the Verga’s “Story of the Saint Joseph Donkey,” which is “Rosso Malpelo” but with an actual donkey for a protagonist rather than boy who is repeatedly compared to and treated like a donkey.
If this sounds like it ought to be sentimental, yes, it should, but that bastard of an “objective” narrator is always arguing for the other side – that this is just the way things are. This is the key Verga innovation, not distance or his Sicilian subject, but rather a narrator who constantly intervenes against sympathy. Thus, when Malpelo visits a dying boy, his only friend to the extent that he has any:
Poor Frog already had one foot in the grave; his mother cried and was in despair as if her boy were one of those who earned ten lire a week.
The language is shared by Malpelo and the narrator, and it is outrageous, this idea that a mother is grieving too much for her dying child, so cruel that it demands a protest from the reader. Thus, the pretence of objectivity leads to even greater sympathy, but a sympathy created against the narration, against the ethos of the story.
It is a great shtick, and a great story.
* Available in The Irresponsible Self, 2004.