- Audio Download
- Listening Length: 12 hours and 19 minutes
- Program Type: Audiobook
- Version: Unabridged
- Publisher: Audible Studios
- Audible.co.uk Release Date: 29 Mar. 2018
- Language: English, English
- ASIN: B078X2JK96
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank:
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The Madonna of the Mountains Audiobook – Unabridged
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I read it straight through in two days. It gripped me to such an extent I found myself re-reading sentences because of their content and structure. In fact, I realised I was reading an astonishing prose poem.
Characters and place were tangible. I could see them and felt their presence.
Food was central to life and survival in this community: its primacy, its value, its origins. Its preparation held more importance than the taste. I found that interesting.
As a political being, I wanted to know more as to why X was a fascist, Y anti-fascist while the main character, Maria and her family, were just trying to survive. Towards the end, I realised that the content and rhythm of this book is much more 'political' (small “p”) than 'Political' (capital “P”) and will therefore stand the test of time. If readers want to know what Italy was like at the time of Mussolini and Italian fascism, this book is a must read.
Madonna of the Mountains is set in the Veneto in Italy’s North East and covers three decades of violent political upheaval. Maria tells the story, in the present tense, and we go with her from the moment of her betrothal in 1923 through all the turbulence Italy experienced in the first half of the last century. Finally, she leaves her homeland for the New World, or ‘La Merica’. In her case this is Australia, an unsettling kind of promised land, where, according to her husband, there roams an animal ‘like a giant mouse, or a deer, with huge round haunches. But it’s a kind of dog, a guro dog.’ She later discovers what a kangaroo is.
We first meet Maria embroidering a sheet. She is 25, almost too old to expect a husband who is not elderly or deformed. But her father has gone to find her a man and he comes back with Achille, who is handsome, young, strong and ambitious. Almost too good to be true.
The rhythm of life in the village is punctuated by birth, death, sexual politics, religious observance and work. The natural world brings solace, but there is an outsider figure lurking in the hills who threatens the community and demands acknowledgement of shared bonds. So she must be silenced.
The author writes beautifully about the household routine, cleaning, cooking, caring and animal-rearing. One day, six months’ worth of dirty linen is dealt with by the newly engaged Maria,: ‘today she’ll set aside the usual weekly laundry…Today is for big things…Stained and soiled, they’ve been piling up in the laundry chest since last summer.’
A successful life means accepting the natural order of things, making money and having lots of children. Maria’s confidante is the Madonna, her mother’s icon but also the voice in Maria’s head who listens a bit, but mostly admonishes and warns. And terrifies. She is ‘like a beautiful doll on a plinth, forever safe inside her glass bell jar, gazing heavenward, round-faced and sublime.’ Maria must learn to put up and shut up. On their wedding night, Achille turns the Madonna’s face to the wall.
Events large and small are described with immediacy. Mussolini’s motto ‘you believe, you obey’ is echoed in her family, where first her father, then her husband and finally her son, is the boss. Violence is never far away; in the roads outside the house, in far-off cities, and at home. Even when sewing her wedding linen, Maria ritually pricks her fingers, because her only book, The Christian Bride, suggests that ‘you do well to add light mortifications of the flesh…..a way of offering sacrifice and also releasing your spirit from life’s petty irritations’. Achille is a ‘good’ husband, because he is industrious, even has dubious status as a war hero, but he treats his wife like a prized animal, who must be cajoled, bullied and sometimes beaten into submission. If violence permeates everything, so does shame, and its avoidance. Spinsterhood is shameful and Maria realises that Achille hurts her only on body parts that don’t show, because visible bruises are shameful too.
Politics and religion are inextricably linked. Communists and fascists compete and one priest takes gifts and money ‘…and things he doesn’t need. He says Masses for them, and so on, and then he redistributes wealth, as the student priest would put it.’ The war increases the confusion for Maria as does a complicated affair with a powerful cousin who can help get her husband out of trouble.
She tries never to expect much, beyond working hard and caring for her family. Finally she and Achille have five children and a shop - as much as she could have ever dreamed of. But she is tested once again, hugely and cruelly.
Maria learns to trust what we would call her intuition. She still repeats many family sayings that go down the generations: ‘you’ve got to study so people don’t cheat you’,and ‘don’t trust anybody’, but finally these injunctions are interwoven with a different, more complex and kinder reality. Buy this wonderful book, enjoy it and give it to your friends.