Among the olive groves and vineyards of southern Italy, a boy and a girl are born, moments apart. Far away in the trenches of the First World War, their fathers have just died. This sweeping and heartbreaking tale of a tiny Italian village during two world wars will stay with you forever
24 August 2012. Midday
At first, the town seemed abandoned. The only sign of life was a couple of dogs sleeping on a dusty old mat, in the shade of some bins. But around the corner, the town square appeared, filled with large balcony-clad houses that opened on to the valley of vineyards and olive groves, granting a panoramic view over the Puglia countryside, stretching almost to the Adriatic. Three carob trees and two holm oaks presided over this small oasis, and in the shade of the large, leafy branches two monuments rose, each covered with floral offerings and adorned with bows and ribbons striped in the colours of the Italian flag.
On a wooden bench with peeling paint sat an old man who had dozed off: his eyes were closed, his head tilted to one side and his mouth half open. He seemed to be having trouble breathing, or maybe he was already sleeping the sleep of the just and no one had realized; either way, it looked like he might never muster the strength to get up again. At his feet lay a dog, stretched out in that way only Mediterranean dogs can, in the paltry shade of the summer during the sunstroke hours. All around rang out the repetitive song of the cicadas scratching their bellies on some high branch of the carob trees in the windless air.
One of the monuments in the middle of the square was a monolith dedicated to the fallen of the First World War. A stone pillar engraved with a list of the local victims showed forty-two names, but a careful reading revealed something more: half of those dead had the last name Palmisano. Twenty-one men from the same family.
‘Giuseppe Oronzo Palmisano (one); Donato Fu Francesco Paolo Palmisano (two); Silvestro Palmisano (three); Gianbattista Di Martino Palmisano (four); Nicola Di Martino Palmisano (five); Giuseppe Fi Vito Palmisano (six) . . .’
The other memorial was dedicated to those fallen on the fronts of the Second World War. There wasn’t a single Palmisano on this list; perhaps the family and the last bearer of its name hadn’t survived the losses of the first war. This time, half of the dead were Convertinis.
‘Ventuno . . . sono ventuno!’ The old man on the bench sat up, awake, and said it again to the empty square, ‘Ventuno . . . sono ventuno!’
His face was grooved with wrinkles as he gazed at the monument. The dog had woken up as well, but he remained on the ground, his legs stretched out.
‘Twenty-one!’ he repeated quietly to himself. ‘All victims of the First War. La maledizione dei Palmisano!’
You have to promise me that, if it is a boy, you'll pretend he's yours and bring him up as a Convertini
After the war, Bellorotondo was a town filled with widows, but the term was reserved for Donata and Francesca. When they decided to move in together to share their grief, the town pointedly began calling Francesca’s house in the Piazzi Sant’Anna the Widows’ House. In towns like Bellorotondo, young, beautiful widows were highly valued and these two were the most desirable among them. Donata had a serene beauty, with bright chestnut-brown eyes, and she was very kind and quick to laugh. The widow of the last Palmisano never tried to hide her humble roots: she had the discreet charm of a Matera shepherdess. The Convertini widow, on the other hand, in just three years of marriage, had already merged her physical beauty with the seductive elegance of one of the wealthiest families in Puglia. Francesca was gorgeous: she had very long black hair, dark skin, incredible green eyes and shiny, moist lips like ripe fruit. And she had a beautiful body: firm, round breasts like peaches; strong shoulders; fleshy thighs and a reed-like waist that swung to the rhythm of her long, long legs.
During the first few weeks after their husbands’ deaths, the widows cried constantly. Eventually, they learned to stifle their tears, but they still spent their days wandering about the house like lost souls. Until one day, a few weeks later, Francesca entered the kitchen smiling widely, something Donata hadn’t seen since their husbands had been in town on leave.
Donata leapt up and hugged her. Her smile was as broad as her cousin’s, but when she sat down at the kitchen bench she began biting her lip. Noticing her nervous gesture, which didn’t match the joy of her moment, Francesca knew something was wrong.
‘What is it? Aren’t you happy?’ she asked.
‘Of course I’m happy . . .’ Donata hesitated for a moment. Finally, she said, ‘It’s just that . . . I’m pregnant too!’
‘Really? Why were you keeping it to yourself?’ Francesca let out a loud sigh. She took her cousin by the hand and pulled her up. ‘Let’s dance. If we have a boy and a girl, we can marry them.’
‘Don’t joke, I haven’t slept for days. Francesca, I’m really scared.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘What if it’s a boy?’
‘What do you mean? Don’t you like little boys?’
‘I can’t have a boy – he would be cursed like all the Palmisano men. I can’t bring him up thinking about how he’ll be killed when he grows up. I don’t know what that family did to deserve such a fate, but I won’t have a child just to sacrifice him!’
‘That’s in the past, the war is over.’
‘Wars are never over. They always come back! A war that was officially over robbed half our lives from us.’
Francesca wasn’t usually superstitious, but she knew that Donata was right: for some unknown reason, God had decided to take vengeance on the Palmisanos and had condemned all the man in the family to death. Hugging her cousin, she wondered how it was possible that a new life could already be so burdened with bad omens.
They stood in silence, leaning on one another, for a long time. Then Donata emerged from Francesca’s embrace, looked into her enormous green eyes and said, ‘You have to promise me that, if it is a boy, you’ll pretend he’s yours and bring him up as a Convertini. We’ll name him Vinantonio. Only you and I will know that it’s in honour of my Vito Oronzo, his father, and your Antonio, who will give him his surname and his chance to survive the curse.’
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A huge international bestseller, this heartbreaking tale of a tiny Italian village during two World Wars will stay with you forever.
Among the olive groves and vineyards of southern Italy, a boy and a girl are born, moments apart. Far away in the trenches of World War I, their fathers have just died. Now all the men in Vitantonio’s family have been wiped out – all twenty-one. All except him.
Growing up together, war seems far away for the two children. But Vitantonio’s mother will do anything to protect her son from the curse of death that seems to hang over the family – and so she tells a lie. It is a lie that will bind Vitantonio and Giovanna, the girl who shares his birthday, together over the years. But as the clouds of another war begin to gather on the horizon, it may ultimately drive them apart...