Arturo’s Island – by Elsa Morante

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Arturo’s Island is a magnificent and complex novel about the coming of age of Arturo, a boy half-orphaned at his birth and growing up in loneliness in the Neapolitan island of Procida. It didn’t help to have a rich father who was aloof, cold, condescending and traveled most of the time (for his enjoyment) but did not share anything with his son about his adventures. Poor Arturo yearned for his father’s affection all the years in vain.

Arturo’s boring life took on the same routine everyday until his father brought home a 16 year old bride from Naples when he was 14. It was the first time Arturo interacted with a woman in the castle whose owners loathed women and considered them ugly.

Arturo’s complex emotions grew intense when his stepmother gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. He witnessed the mother caressing her baby, kissing him, adoring him, and giving him all her attention, admiration and love, things that Arturo had never experienced but always longed for.

This novel covers themes of misogyny, narcissism, incest, and homosexuality. It explores boyhood, the relationship with imaginary epic adventures, role models, heroic figures, and the maturation process. It portrays the painful and disappointed realization of the real world that is unlike the world in our childhood imagination. It provokes and awakes the yearning, the innocence, the dreams, the fancies, as well as the frustrations we were all preoccupied with during our childhood.

Arturo’s Island was set a few years before the outbreak of world war II in the small island of Procida in Italy. I’m not certain how women were treated in Italy at the time, but judging from this novel, it didn’t look very bright. And I want to think the father in this novel was a special case. Even though he had two boys, Arturo’s father literally hated women, looked down on them, talked to them condescendingly, and wished he had been born without a mother.

Novels like this help me realize how much women have fought and achieved since the first wave feminist movement starting in the 1800s, for women to gain women’s rights and be treated as we are nowadays. But there’s still a long way to go before women all over the world are treated with the respect we deserve.

Elsa Morante was one of Italy’s greatest authors after WWII. She’s one of Elena Ferrante’s favorite writers. Ferrante even penned her name to rhyme with hers.

Arturo’s Island was first published in Italy in 1957 and won Morante the prestigious Strega Prize. This 2019 edition has a new translation by Ann Goldstein (who also translated Elena Ferrante’s works) and was published by Liveright Publishing.

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