Last week in my focus on Italian books, I wrote about Il Baffo del Diavolo by Sergio Marciani, a story of hidden forces – the devil in disguise – pulling the strings of society and the administration of local government in a small corner of Abruzzo. From a light-hearted opening featuring children’s games and storytelling around an old oak tree, the tree itself becomes a symbol of something more sinister. Chopped down to serve the wily workings of political minds, or perhaps as the author suggests, the evil intentions of darker forces, the fate of the tree reflects the illness affecting society at large.
But in keeping with the yin and yang approach to life and literature that I love so much, I like to think that for every dark force we encounter, if you keep looking there’ll be happier times just round the corner. So after I read about Sergio Marciani’s tree falling prey to the Prince of Darkness in Il Baffo Del Diavolo, I immediately thought about another story – Angela Nanetti’s Il Mio Nonno era Un Ciliegio – a children’s story by the Pescara-based author in which a tree brings joy and light into a little boy’s life. The cherry tree represents everything that is honest and good for Tonino when he gets away from his sometimes difficult life in the city to stay with his grandparents in the country. It brings joy and also gives him a sense of life after death when his beloved grandfather passes away.
The story is narrated by the ten-year old boy as he looks back on his early childhood living in an apartment building in the city with his parents and grandparents on his father’s side. His maternal grandparents, Ottaviano and Teodolina, live in the country.
When his mum goes back to work, he finds himself packed off to a nursery school that he detests, and when he gets home, the feeling of gloom doesn’t lift as he senses the tension between his parents and the lack of any real affection from his maternal grandparents. Life in the city seems to be a troubled one.
All that changes when he escapes to the country. Ottaviano and Teodolinda are grandparents unlike any others, says Tonino, in his delicate, moving story. Describing emotions and experiences that many six year olds go through, our young narrator tells how his grandmother taught him about love and affection through her passion for geese, and how nonno Ottaviano taught him to climb up the cherry tree like a cat, move around it like a bird and see things with his eyes closed.
Il Mio Nonno era Un Ciliegio is a really special story about a little boy’s special love for his grandfather. Every page is filled with local flavour and contrasts with his more “fenced in” life in the city. We learn how (to his mum’s horror) Nonno Ottaviano makes zabaione with red wine every morning for Tonino’s breakfast and how they go off on Nonno’s bike to buy fresh eggs every day. But while we enjoy these tender times, we are hear the tinge of sadness in Tonino’s voice, as he looks back wistfully on something, or someone, that was in his life so fully but so fleetingly.
The many episodes in which Tonino makes innocent reference to how simple and stress-free life is with granddad, compared to how complicated and angry it can be with his parents, make the book a must-read for children and adults, individually or together. For me, it was a gentle reminder how we grown-ups can often get so carried away with the many responsibilities and commitments of everyday life, that we forget about the simple joys and pleasures, and sometimes forget to listen to our children. Likewise, it is a voice for all children who, like Tonino, just want to climb a tree with someone special.
Ahh, the cherry tree. The source of much happiness for Tonino, and the descent into something scary for his grandfather. When the local council threatens to cut down his beloved tree, Ottaviano starts to show signs of advancing alzheimers’, until he very gently and very lightly slips away and floats out of Tonino’s life. But not for ever. Because just as Nonno Teodolinda lived on in her beloved goose Alfonsina, Tonino was now comforted by the idea that, as long as the cherry tree stood in the field by the house, his grandfather would be by his side.
Unless the council succeeded in cutting it down.
This story is hugely successful in Italy, and has already been translated into more than 25 different languages.
English is not one of them. Yet.
If you want to enjoy some of the tender moments Tonino shared with his grandfather, I’ve translated them for you here.
The author, Angela Nanetti, won the Andersen – Il Mondo dell’Infanzia prize in 2003 in the best author category. She has published more than twenty books and stories for children and young adults, which have also won important awards and critical acclaim. These include, Le memorie di Adalberto, Cambio di Stagione, Veronica, and Angeli, also widely translated.