Not the earthquake, but the rebirth: dialogue with Costanza DiQuattro


By John

Sicilian, indeed very Sicilian, novelist and playwright, with a love for music and theater (she has directed Donnafugata since 2008) and for historic homes, like hers (in fact, she hosts the «Dwellings in History» program for Rai1). And an even deeper love for her land, which suggests to her, year after year, one suggestion after another, stories and figures which then become novels or plays (or both: «Arrocco Siciliano» has just debuted on stage). Costanza DiQuattro, Ragusana, born in 1986, has just published her sixth book, «L'ira di Dio» (Baldini + Castoldi), proposed for the next Strega prize by Roberto Barbolini. The novel is set in the time of the ruinous earthquake of 11 January 1693 which destroyed the Val di Noto: after a series of nineteenth-century stories, this time it is that world that collapses and, stubbornly, returns to attract the writing of Costanza DiQuattro, always warm and mixed with sounds, where the beloved Ibla, place of the soul, rather than scenery is almost a character. In its alleys, among its squares, a harsh and tormented humanity moves, dominated by the local lords and by a Church that has many faces, but not all of them despotic: the flashes of humanity and beauty are always the turning points in DiQuattro's stories , no matter how much pain they cause. And as always there is a rebellion, a divergent choice that opens a fissure in the worlds: the main character here is an oxymoron, the sinful priest Bernardo, whose sin is an excess of love. And who knows if the “wrath of God” strikes us when there is too much love, or when there is too little… We talked about it with the Author (who will be in Messina on Tuesday at 6pm, at the bookshop Bonanzinga, to meet readers).

Is God's wrath really God's wrath or is it another name for our fears and helplessness?

«I don't believe that the wrath of God is truly the wrath of God, because I don't believe that ours is an angry God: I believe that he is a God of love, of peace, of forgiveness, of Grace. Exactly the opposite of an Old Testament vision. And so God's wrath is in truth perhaps a way to hide behind our fears. In that period, we are in 1693, like today, giving a sort of responsibility to the unknown, as in this case to God, becomes a way of escaping one's own responsibilities too.”

And what is our power? In your novels, however unfortunate the fates and oppressive the context, hidden lights always emerge…

«I think this is a bit of a constant in my novels: in my opinion our power lies in the ability to get back up. Giuditta's ability to tear up the letter at the moment in which she understands that there is nothing left to do about her great love for her; Antonio Fusco's willpower to drop everything and leave; Bernardo's strength, in this novel, to start again. Although Bernardo is an Augustinian and I could have slipped on the slippery ground of this man's sanctification and his immediate redemption. In truth Bernardo is a humanist, he never completely redeems himself but he has the strength to see another form in beauty, another vision of God. All the protagonists of my books are dejected by doubt, by a sense of guilt, crushed from their own mistakes, but they all somehow have the ability not to abandon themselves to despair. Then this too is linked to our faith: I have the prior of the convent of the Capuchin Fathers say, turning to Bernardo, “doubt but don't despair”.

Father Bernardo is a powerful protagonist: a rebellious but suffering soul, a passionate sinner, but who loves above all what the short-sighted, the bigoted, the loveless call “sin”, and who never mortifies his humanity, not even in moments darker. Social, caste and wealth conventions act ruthlessly on him, but he attempts a rebellion which, although self-defeating, produces some fruit. Your characters are often “outsiders”, and they are entrusted with the enormous task of not being crushed by the world. Bernardo wins or loses his fight?

«Ultimately Bernardo wins his fight because at the end of his life he manages to understand that somehow his earthly journey had meaning. Even if there is a long phase in which he believes that no one is able to understand his innate rebellion, his desire to subvert certain pre-established orders. To the point of believing that he has not even been understood by God: he believes he has been abandoned by God. He feels like a sinner but up to a certain point: he actually loves his sin. I think of the good Verga when in “The Story of a Blackcap” he makes Mary say that wonderful phrase: I love my sin. But Bernardo is a humanist, for him man is the center of the universe and the measure of all things: he truly places man at the center of everything, not only himself but any human being who is next to him. He loves the varied humanity even in its contradictions, in the pain that this humanity causes. There are many dichotomous aspects in this man, linked precisely to the fact that he, a man of his time, was indoctrinated to think of himself as a sinner but inside himself he cannot really understand why. At a certain point I made him say a phrase that I loved very much: speaking of God he says “I don't know if I really believed in him but today I realize that perhaps he believed in me”. This means having won with life.”

One often has, in your stories, the feeling that it is the places that guard them and then free them. And this goes beyond the detailed historical documentation (which one senses is profound): it has more to do with love. Ibla destroyed by the earthquake is a place of the soul, it is a character among others.

«Ibla is truly the center of my universe. After all, the world is round and therefore the center of the universe can be anywhere… I often say that I believe it is a heterotopia. Another place. Which also has a different story in the earthquake story from all the rest of the Val di Noto which was destroyed. It is a city that, unlike others, such as Noto Avola or Ragusa Superiore, obstinately decides, rebelling against everyone, to rebuild in situ and therefore there is this urban planning “madness” of a city that has a medieval layout and late architecture baroque. Truly a firework, an explosion of nonsense. Then, since it is the place of my soul, I am able to draw all the emotions from Ibla: I do it often, I climb up the alleys and stairs, I go around, like a flâneur, and I enjoy everything and it is as if they all revealed themselves to me these stories, all these images. I “see” them. Sometimes just nothing is enough. A history professor, during the celebrations for January 11th, spoke of the specific request by the authorities for “declosure”: they were asked to report anyone so that this sin could be “purged”. In a document there was talk of a father Antonino flogged in the public square for his relationship with his housekeeper, from whom a son was born. Here, Bernardo's story flashed before me. And I seem to see him with his cassock going down the streets of Ibla…”.

Sicily has experienced enormous devastation, the earthquake you describe was one of the most serious and profound. But perhaps you talk above all about the ability to be reborn, stubborn: it applies to individual destinies, it applies to the community. It's a metaphor, but we would be doing a disservice to define it only that way. Is it the sentimental story of Sicily and perhaps of the South?

«It is a fact that the earthquake of 1693, the most devastating in the history of Europe, left us, like a paradoxical gift, one of the largest and most important UNESCO sites in the world: all the late Baroque of the Val di Noto . That much abused word, resilience, originates right there. Sicily gives a great test: it doesn't feel sorry for itself but it rebuilds. With local workers, with local architects and master builders. There is only one foreigner, but not even that much, who is the Duke of Camastra, sent by the Viceroy. So the earthquake is certainly a metaphor for Sicily's ability, a bit like an Arabian phoenix, to be reborn, knowing how to roll up its sleeves and recover. It is the sentimental history of this land, it is the bond that this land has with its children: sometimes we tend to be complaining, we consider it a stepmother land that makes its children run away, but as soon as we are uprooted we feel a piercing pain, and we want to return, as they tell the stories of many. I am someone who hasn't left, and if I leave even for 24 hours I suffer. But I understand those who leave and then hope to die here: such a sentimental and somehow religious vision of this land.”

Finally, the language: the forays into dialect, which distinguishes the humblest characters, and colors everyone's speech. What part of the landscape is it, the language?

«Language is music and music and color are also such subtle nuances that we cannot do without. I studied music so maybe I'm also a little conditioned by this but a literary text follows a metric: when I write I reread and what I really listen to is the musicality of the page. So dialect insertions are sometimes almost a necessity. In addition to the fact that there are things that could not be rendered except in Sicilian… I have now realized, also thanks to the Montalbano phenomenon, this wonderful rebirth of Sicilian. Then in this novel Bernardo is part of a high social class, he speaks little Sicilian; instead there is all the people who revolve around him, including the woman he loves, who cannot speak except in Sicilian. When I insert it it's really my musical need.”