Authors: Carlo Sgorlon
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Sgorlon, Carlo, 1930-
The wooden throne.
Translation of: Il trono di legno.
PQ4897.G6T713 1988 853’.914 87-82244
ISBN 978-0-934977-08-1 (paperback)
ISBN 978-1-59910-151-4 (e-book)
Jessie Bright received both B.A. and M.A. from the University of Rochester and did further graduate study at the Ohio State University. She taught English at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. In addition to
The Wooden Throne
she has translated short stories by Carlo Sgorlon, Vitaliano Brancati and Mirella Ducceschi, as well as Sgorlon’s
Army of the Lost Rivers
The Myrtle and the Rose
by Annie Messina.
Carlo Sgorlon was born in 1930 in Cassacco, a tiny village near Udine, the capital of Friuli, a region in northeastern Italy near the Austrian and Yugoslav borders. He spent much of his childhood with his maternal grandparents in the countryside, where he attended primary school only rarely but came into daily contact with Friulian peasant life. The influence of his grandfather, a retired schoolmaster with a strong literary bent, and his grandmother, a practicing midwife steeped in local folklore, formed the basis of his love of literature and his reverence for ancient peasant traditions.
He attended secondary school in Udine and won a scholarship to the prestigious Scuola Normale at the University of Pisa, where he studied German literature. A subsequent scholarship permitted him to continue his education in Munich, after which he returned to Udine and taught history and Italian in a technical institute until 1980, when the success of his books made it possible for him to retire from teaching and devote himself entirely to writing. He has written a number of novels in the dialect of Friuli, as well as twelve novels and numerous short stories in Italian. His fiction has been translated into French, Spanish, Finnish, German and certain Slavic languages. His literary scholarship, aside from translations from German, includes two major critical works, one on Kafka and the other on Elsa Morante.
Although Sgorlon is old enough to remember World War II — and in fact his native region was one of the battlegrounds of the resistance — he is young enough to have lived the years of the post-war economic boom as a university student and as an intellectual beginning his career as both a teacher and writer. He is also old enough to have been saddened by the 1970s, the so-called
anni di piombo,
when terrorism and social turmoil threatened the stability of Italian society. One might, then, expect him to build his fiction around these events, as many contemporary Italian writers have. But Sgorlon either doesn’t write about such things at all, or else does so indirectly as in
L’armata dei fiumi perduti,
when he focuses upon a displaced Cossack population duped by the Nazis into believing that they were going to find a new homeland in Friuli. He prefers to write from the perspective of people on the periphery whom history victimizes and then forgets. This doesn’t mean that Sgorlon doesn’t know or care about history or about what is happening in his own time, but simply that he doesn’t write about politics or ideology or social issues per se. Furthermore his books are devoid of the explicit sex and graphic violence that readers now accept or even expect as a matter of course. Consequently North Americans might label him as a distinctly old-fashioned writer, and he would probably agree. Even though he has won the major Italian literary prizes, he still regards himself as a novelist outside the mainstream. Nonetheless
The Wooden Throne,
his most famous book, was a best seller in Italy and since it was first published in 1973 has gone through fifteen printings. In fact its publisher, Mondadori, has recently brought it out in a new edition as part of a special series entitled “Twentieth Century Masterpieces.” It has appeared in translation in French, Spanish and Slavic languages, and publishing houses from eight countries in all have expressed interest in it. This, however, is the first English version of
Il trono di legno,
or indeed of any of Sgorlon’s literary work.
Carlo Sgorlon write about? In a way, the answer to this question is the same for every serious writer. He writes about what matters to him as a sensitive and reflective observer of the world he lives in. And what matters to Sgorlon is how much that world has already lost and how much more it is in danger of losing. He sees contemporary industrial-consumer society as destroying the sense of the sacred, which once bound all men to the earth and which expresses itself in myth and archetype.
But a novelist needs particulars: something somewhere that happens to someone, in other words, a story. And for Sgorlon the novelist
tell a story; one of the literary values he sees as threatened is the very respect for narrative itself. The particulars for Sgorlon are most often taken from his native Friuli. Most Italians are probably more identified with their native regions than most North Americans, but these feelings may be intensified in the Friulians because they, like the inhabitants of many border areas, have seen their land repeatedly invaded and fought over. They also have a strong sense of the past. Even the casual tourist will notice the degree to which they preserve the reminders of their history, from traces of Celtic civilization in Cividale, or Roman ruins in Aquileia, to the tiny mountain village of Venzone, painstakingly reconstructed stone by stone after the earthquake of 1976. This same sense of the past pervades
The Wooden Throne,
and a reader who might have visited Friuli would certainly recognize Sgorlon’s landscapes, from the alpine villages where the winter sun sets early to the stony plain where the Tagliamento widens in its gravelly bed as it makes its way to the Adriatic. But Sgorlon insists that both landscape and characters are imaginary, that they are not limited to Friuli. He is right of course. The people in this, his most popular novel, may be Friulian in origin, but they face the same existential contingencies as people anywhere or anytime. Indeed, as Sgorlon says, it is the particulars, the specific limits of time and space, that create a sense that time is fleeing, that existence never repeats itself, and thus carry the reader away from the particular toward the universal.
Time running away, the unrepeatable nature of existence, or paradoxically, the eternal return, the way events seem to reproduce themselves again and again. These are some of the themes Sgorlon plays upon in
The Wooden Throne
as his protagonist, the boy Giuliano, growing up in the early years of this century, attempts to unravel the mystery surrounding his birth and his antecedents. When he leaves his native village to try to discover where he really belongs and why, Sgorlon finds ways to contrast the imperatives of an emerging industrial society with the older traditional values of a peasant-artisan civilization represented in images taken from his native Friuli: hand-carved furniture, baskets woven from reeds, an old stone fortress-house, summer scarecrows still standing in the snow of a cornfield, roebuck leaping from one rocky ledge to another, objects found in trunks in attics left over from the time when Friuli was ruled by the Venetians, the wooden throne itself.... But the Friuli of the novel escapes the boundaries of history (time) and geography (space) without ever contradicting the
of either discipline. The landscape, the tiny villages, the places Giuliano visits in his restless wanderings, the people he meets, belong to the world of myth or fable so that the reader senses them as remote and archaic, nowhere and everywhere, evanescent and eternal at the same time.
There must, however, be a story. A story of a boy growing up. And boys growing up must learn about girls; then ultimately they become men just as the girls become women. The two principal women in Giuliano’s life are typical of Sgorlon’s female characters. Ostensibly one is a restless adolescent, yearning for the excitement of the city and the other is merely a simple peasant girl, content where she is. But they too have their mythic dimension: the first seems to turn into Eve, the second brings an ancient Etruscan statue to life. There are other women too, each one with her own individual traits, but behind them all the thoughtful reader can divine the presence of the archetypal woman, whether in the guise of maiden, eternal mother or benevolent witch. The same is true of certain male characters: Pietro, the patriarch, or even Giuliano himself, the seeker....
But an introduction shouldn’t give away the story, particularly an introduction to a novel written by an author who values the act of storytelling so highly. Giuliano, like Sgorlon himself, loves stories, reveres books and grows up with an inner landscape formed by what he has read — again the element of fantasy or myth. For him the mountain passes in his remote but only partially closed-in border region are the gateway to the steppes of Tolstoy’s Russia, as well as to the icy wastes of the tales in which he has read about Arctic explorers, and especially to the vast seas of Melville’s
Hence he becomes the seeker, the wanderer, searching not only for the mythical landscapes in his head but for his own archetypal antecedents, which he has to learn do not exist within the confines of time and space but only outside those limits in the permanence of myth and story. These things the reader discovers with him.
When I was a boy I had nothing but wind in my head. Once I saw a child with a rag tied over his eyes running around in a yard, until his perfect confidence was abruptly destroyed when he ran into the garden fence. For a long time I lived my life just like that child. I never asked about the why of things, but limited myself to staying inside events with adventurous fervor, as red faced and astonished as if I had just finished a long race.
I had never even noticed that my family, if it could be called that, was at least unusual. Except for Maddalena I had no one, no brothers or sisters, no father or grandfather, not even cousins to put together as a passable family unit. The children I spent time with now and then always had some relative to tell stories about who had been the talk of the taverns in Ontàns or in nearby villages for having won a bocce match or caught a gigantic trout. On those occasions I would be suddenly overcome by enthusiasm and filled with a raving desire to recount similar exploits on the part of my relatives. But what relatives? There was really no one but Maddalena. As for the Dane, I had heard about him only vaguely and I didn’t even know who he was. Thus at first I seemed to have innumerable things to say, to be in possession of sufficient material to astound my listeners and leap to the head of the contest, but when it came to particulars I noticed with surprise and disappointment that my reserve was empty and behind me lay a strange misty confusion. Disoriented and inhibited, like a person who arrives by night in an unknown city, I would begin to grope and gesture. Then I would invent entire people and adventures, giving consistency to disconnected memories derived from books about pirates or smugglers or from stories told to me by gloomy old men in sooty dens amid cascades of sparks or creaking gears. Telling stories set me on fire. Saturated with imaginary rage, I would not tolerate being contradicted or teased; an incredulous smile or a snort of irony would be enough to produce grapplings as sudden as thunderbolts, sounds of shirts tearing and rollings about in the grass of ditches.
Although the children liked me well enough, my reputation for throwing myself headlong into things without a moment’s reflection had created around me an aura of eccentricity. It was better to be wary of me, to keep one’s distance, just as in March it’s better not to go out without an umbrella.