Sardinian writer Marcello Fois’ Bloodlines (translated by Silvester Mazzarella) is, as the title suggests, a novel which traces the lineage of a family through fifty years of Italian history. Given the death and violence contained within, however, it would seem appropriate were that family tree literally sketched in lines of blood. Ensuring the family name lives on becomes a dangerous game of chance, relying not only on the roll of dice that is fertility, but one played against death in all its forms. Despite this, Bloodlines is often a tender book, demonstrating the ties that bind us together as well as those which too easily dissolve.
Appropriately, the novel begins with both life and death. First we are told of the meeting of Michele Angelo Chironi and Mercede Lai, the couple who will form the still centre of the novel. Though their meeting “scarcely lasts a second”, this is a novel in which the narrative voice trusts in destiny – it is telling a story which has already happened, after all. It’s not for you if you are allergic to phrases such as that used when they next meet and Michel feels “the conviction that this is the woman of his life”, or to pronouncements (regarding their wedding night) such as:
“With miraculous, mathematical precision Mercede fell pregnant that very night.”
This is one beginning, but we are quickly escorted further back in time to another: the death of the blacksmith, Giuseppe Mundula’s, wife. Left childless, Giuseppe looks to adopt a young boy, and that boy is Michele. This is not the only time the novel will divert backwards before returning to the present, creating the sense that the whole story is already laid out, and focussing on those connections from past to present. Here, though, it seems that the choice to begin with Michele and Mercede is also a choice to place life before death. They are also the beginning of the bloodline, both living with borrowed names:
“Michele Angelo was given the surname Chironi after the general inspector of the orphanage at Cuglieri where he had grown up, and Mercede was surnamed Lai after the employer who took her into service and the age of seven.”
Michele works with Giuseppe and, later, takes over his blacksmith business. The family slowly grows, but is overshadowed by tragedy. Their first born, the twins Pietro and Paolo, are murdered; another son, Luigi, volunteers to fight in the First World War; a fourth, Gavino, seems to have no interest in marrying. Only their daughter, Marianna, seems destined to carry on the family line, marrying a young man who grows to become important in the new regime of Mussolini – but she, of course, will not carry on the family name. As this summary demonstrates, Fois uses the family to chart Italy’s history in the first half of the twentieth century, though from the point of view of how world events impact on a small family in out of-the-way Sardinia.
This means, of course, that that there are times when you feel that one particular plotline would make a novel on its own, and that characters are neglected for years and then suddenly appear ready to participate in the family story. Generally, however, Fois negotiates well between the passage of time and the minutiae of individual scenes. The relationship between the brothers Gavino and Luigi is beautifully developed, as is the marriage of Michele and Mercede. Marianna, however, rather misses out on page time until near the end: when, in a wonderfully written scene (and one which benefits from the narrative returning to it) she and her husband are held up by armed men, she is still largely an unknown quantity.
In the face of a life which is filled with random violence, the novel, at heart, shows faith in humanity, an early passage summing up the narrator’s viewpoint:
“Love lasts one single, perfect moment; the rest is merely reminiscence of what has already happened, but that single moment can be enough to make sense of more than one life.”
Whether this seems truthful or sentimental in the midst of the brutal realism with which Fois surrounds it will be up to the individual reader. Whatever the case, this novel does deliver a cleverly constructed family saga which manages to gaze upon history without losing sight of the individual.