“The Story of a New Name” begins with our narrator Elena taking care of a metal box containing eight notebooks from her best friend Lila. We then travel back to Lila’s wedding (at age fifteen) to Stefano Carracci, son of the murdered loan shark Don Achille. This novel, set in Naples, is thick with family interleaving and fortunately comes with a list of characters in the front, although I didn’t have to refer to it too often (occasionally when a new character appeared just to give them some context in the greater whole). As I have been reliably informed the close friendship between Elena and Lila from the first novel in the Neapolitan Series continues here unabated. Very early on in the work we learn of Lila’s continued head-strong personality and the way her new husband deals with it, through beatings:
To her friends and relatives she had said that she had fallen on the rocks in Amalfi on a beautiful sunny morning, when she and her husband had taken a boat to a beach just at the foot of a yellow wall. During the engagement lunch for her brother and Pinuccia she had used, in telling that lie, a sarcastic tone and they had all sarcastically believed her, especially the women, who knew what had to be said when the men who loved them and whom they loved beat them severely. Besides, there was no one in the neighbourhood, especially of the female sex, who did not think that she had needed a good thrashing for a long time. So the beatings did not cause outrage, and in fact sympathy and respect for Stefano increase – there was someone who knew how to be a man.
We are in 1960’s Naples here, the families from poor backgrounds, the criminal element highly regarded and not questioned, and the roles that these characters play is to remove themselves from the day to day drudgery of working in the local shoe factory or store. The matter of fact language about their existence draws you slowly and slowly towards that time, fifty years ago, and slowly you are fighting for Elena’s only escape from the treadmill, her study, her fierce determination to become educated at all costs – that’s if her relationship with Lila will allow it.
This is an amazing work, delving deep into the mind of Elena and the her faltering self-confidence, her utter belief that she is not as brilliant nor as pretty as Lila, the manipulation by her determined friend, but the solid rock of friendship always piercing through, even when the workings of Lila conspire to take everything from Elena.
The subtlety of the language, the nuanced approach to the two characters, the slow revelation of the female form and needs is utterly compelling, like Elena’s simple observations of mothers in the street:
They had been consumed by the bodies of husbands, fathers, brothers, whom they ultimately came to resemble, because of their labors or the arrival of old age, or illness. When did that transformation begin? With housework? With pregnancies? With beatings?
These two Friends share so much, yet are so different, the ever confident Lila, Elena who is wracked with self-doubt, Lila who has affairs, Elena who breaks off with her only boyfriend, Lila living with riches, creating works of art from photos, Elena jealous of Lila’s talent and fighting to become educated. A wonderful observation of the powers of true friendship.
Yes, it’s Lila who makes writing difficult. My life forces me to imagine what hers would have been if what happened to me had happened to her, what use she would have made of my luck. And her life continuously appears in mine, in the words that I’ve uttered, in which there’s often an echo of hers, in a particular gesture that is an adaptation of a gesture of hers, in my less which is such because of her more, in my more which is the yielding force of her less. Not to mention what she never said but let me guess, what I didn’t know and read later in her notebooks. Thus the story of the facts has to reckon with filters, deferments, partial truths, half lies: form it comes an arduous measurement of time passed that is based completely on the unreliable measuring device of words.
I have been reliably informed that ”The Story Of A New Name” was entered for this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and as we know it didn’t make the long list. I read this novel as part of the Best Translated Book Award nomination that it has received and thankfully it was brought to my attention by the more discerning USA award. It is utterly shameful that this did not rate at least in the fifteen books presented to us by the IFFP judges, to think they promoted “Exposure” by Sayed Kashua to potential readers over and above this work is downright disgraceful. Hang your heads in shame IFFP judges, I hardly agree with your shortlist but to find out this epic and moving work was eligible and didn’t get a Guernsey is a disgrace.