Tale follows the struggle of 2 Italian children
By JACKIE LOOHAUIS
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
"Vita" is an Italian immigrant story that would have given Don Corleone a case of the willies.
Like that other epic tale of an Italian family, this novel spans two continents, its timeline weaving in and out of decades. But the plight of "Vita's" characters make Don Vito and Michael and Sonny's life stories look like a romp through the Hamptons.
In fact, "Vita's" sorrowful saga owes much more to Upton Sinclair's early 20th-century expose of American immigrant travail, "The Jungle," than to any modern work. And that's both the strength and the weakness of this novel.
"Vita" follows the struggles of two Italian children, Diamante, 12, and his sweetheart, Vita, 9, who are spat onto the docks of Ellis Island in 1903.
Their parents thought they were sending them to America to make way for the rest of their families in a land of gold.
But Diamante's first experience of the United States is to be strip-searched by immigration officials who nearly send him back on the steamer. It will not be the last humiliation he suffers in this country.
Beaten by employers in the sinkhole that was New York's Little Italy, hungry, terrified, Diamante exists in a world of "beggars, lupine-seed vendors, knife sharpeners, and children wandering amid heaps of garbage," Mazzucco writes. Tuberculosis kills off a major portion of the tenement dwellers. There are no streets paved with precious metals here.
Only his love of Vita keeps him sane. But she also struggles in this grimy world of sexual predators at a time when "decent" Americans write letters to the New York Times bewailing the "undesirable immigration" of Italians.
Ultimately, America bests Diamante. But Vita finds a new life in the United States and when the circle closes, it is Vita's American-born son who returns to Italy during World War II in search of his roots. He finds his ancestral land has been reduced to scorched earth, a discovery that leaves him exhausted and depressed
"Vita's" readers may find themselves sharing his emotions. Although the novel was awarded Italy's leading literary prize in 2003, this is a story of heartbreak and pain. American readers may find little appeal in this book.
The fault is not in the English translation, which, though spare, can be lyrical at times.
The problem lies with the author's intent.
Although fictionalized, the book grew out of Mazzucco's own search for her family's past, inspired by scraps of paper she discovered.
She went on to create a work that is a little bit autobiography and a great deal fantasy.
That fantasy is almost bearably grim, filled with a series of tragedies.
These pile up so unremittingly they begin to lose impact.
The death of babies is shown to be no more consequential than a woman's fiery murder. Sex -- fleeting and furtive -- contains even less meaning.
The community's only real anchor seems to be The Black Hand, the gangster network that rules the streets.
Mazzucco shows she has no desire to leaven this dark tale, though the reader might wonder about her motives.
Surely, she seeks to comment on immigrant conditions, a la Sinclair. But she seems so determined to paint every element of this tale black that her storytelling abilities fall into question.
"Vita" may be seen by some as an epic tale of survival, but many readers will deem themselves lucky to survive the bleakness of the novel itself.
Loohauis writes for Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.