Book Review: Lives of the Saints, by Nino Ricci

A review of the 1992 book by Nino Ricci, recipient of the Governor General's Literary Award.
21 Nov 2018

Book Review: Lives of the Saints, by Nino Ricci

I was 28 years old when I first remember visiting San Pietro in Valle – my father’s tiny natal village (population of 800) in the secluded hills of Molise. I had been there before, but my first visit at 18 months old had afforded me scant opportunity to form any memory of a place so very notably unmemorable even to its own country. How many people have driven through Molise on the way to Puglia or Basilicata without ever making a stop? How many people can name one place in Molise outside of Campobasso, the “main city” closest to all of our immigrant families’ hometowns? How many people have said, laughing, in response to my telling them I was di origini molisane, “So, you are from nowhere, then?” or “Ah, yes! Abruzzo,” (Molise’s neighbour to the north) “a beautiful region.” (Until 1963, Molise was lumped together with Abruzzo and known as the region “Abruzzi e Molise”.)

And yet. The Molise depicted in Nino Ricci’s Lives of the Saints will live on long after the place that inspired it is forgotten by all, a stunning portrait of a world standing still even as its people move in and out of it, a town immortalized in the traditions and outdated behaviours it refuses to let die. Reading Ricci’s debut novel, for me, was like walking down the streets of San Pietro in Valle in 2012 all over again, its characters jumping out from the pages beneath my eyes, its landscape, an image impressed on my brain as truly as a photograph on a roll of film. And yes, you’ve read correctly: 2012 is when I made my first autonomous trip to San Pietro in Valle — some sixty years after the time during which Lives of the Saints is set. To my eyes, there is more similarity than difference connecting Ricci’s post-war Molise to the region I know it as today. Indeed, Lives of the Saints is the book my parents’ generation of Italian immigrants didn’t know they needed.   

Valle del Sole is a fictitious town in the valleyed hills of Molise, where Vittorio Innocente, a seven year-old boy, lives with his headstrong mother, Cristina and his maternal grandfather. His father routinely sends their family any small monetary contribution he can from his modest dwellings in Canada, where he moved several years before the book’s story begins. When Vittorio’s mother is bitten by a snake in the pigs’ stable, their lives are forever changed, as the people of Valle del Sole reveal the worst – and, at times, the best – of their human condition. It is against this backdrop that Ricci lays bare the characteristics and themes that pervade so many small towns in the Italian south to this day: an obsession with reputation; envy; religion; filial expectation, duty, disobedience, and shame; misogyny; superstition. Above all things, however, Lives of the Saints is a book about family and the many different ways one can both fight for and against keeping this particular organism alive. It is a book about one woman’s determination to emerge from her own family unit, consistently modified by the many conflicting influences around it, as an individual with the will and capacity to create a new unit of her own, against all odds and at all costs.

Ricci’s book, winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award and the Bressani Prize (among others), has been called “a gem of a novel,” its author, “blessed with the rare ability to recreate a world entire and make us believe in it” (The Globe and Mail). The Vancouver Sun has praised Ricci for his ability to “combine thematic sophistication with first-rate storytelling,” and Timothy Findley, a celebrated Canadian writer in his own right, has called Lives of the Saints “a novel of remarkable beauty and unforgettable power.” It is perfect in its poetic symmetry: the characters of Valle del Sole cannot escape their fates, which are meted out with justice when least expected but most deserved. More than that, they are architects of their own destinies as they intersect and intertwine with those of the people around them: curses are made real, dark wishes become reality, superstition and religion join hands in doling out reward or punishment. Ricci deftly balances Vittorio and Cristina’s stories with the description of a stagnant Valle del Sole whose main purpose is to bolster these protagonists’ individual tales and flesh out the chips stacked against them. This is no small feat. Thinking back to Stephen Leacock’s  critically-acclaimed Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, I am reminded of just how easy it is to let a book’s setting take centre stage, intentionally or otherwise. Ricci’s creation tale in Lives of the Saints, by contrast, is the mirror image of the Book of Genesis: his world is built outwards, from the human perspective to the immediate elements that condition it.

The book is not without its shortcomings, few as they may be. Ricci presents some improbable  moments toward the end – examples of human behaviour more aspirational than accurate or historically possible. Cristina’s brash nature, once depicted as alienating, in the book’s final chapters suddenly and inexplicably becomes a conciliatory force among people. She who had for so long driven others to behave formally with her turns into a social relaxant, a pickaxe with which to break the ice. These moments, though they invite readers to consider the extent to which one’s environment dictates one’s behaviour, emerge as premature and a little forced. But Ricci more than makes up for them in the events that immediately follow, which leave readers — or at least they left me — heartbroken and sobbing.

At the very crux of Ricci’s tale is a passage that speaks to the book’s title and which, in my view, structures Ricci’s storytelling from beginning to end. When his mother falls into disrepute within Valle del Sole and neighbouring Rocca Secca, Vittorio’s teacher, known to readers simply as la maestra, tasks to console him. To that end, she invites him to stay after class every day, and reads to him from the Book of the Lives of the Saints. Every day, they learn together about a different saint, each one more or less connected to Vittorio and his family. It is the life of Santa Cristina, however, his mother’s namesake, that brings the book’s halves together seamlessly, shedding light on past events and presaging those to come:

“Santa Cristina had been born into the house of a rich Roman nobleman, but at a young age she became a Christian and broke up all of the gold and silver images of the pagan gods in her father’s house, selling the pieces to help the poor. When her father discovered her crime, he beat her without mercy and brought her before the magistrate for final judgment, and thus began a long series of chastisements. First, the judge ordered that Santa Cristina be thrown into a pit with a hundred venomous serpents; but these Santa Cristina overcame, through the strength of Christ, and she was brought once again before the court.  […] Finally, the judge had her tied to a stake to be burnt as a witch; but when the fire was lit beneath her it spread to burn down a whole block of the city, killing hundreds but leaving Santa Cristina untouched. That night, while Santa Cristina waited in a cell, the magistrate suffered a seizure and died.

In the morning Santa Cristina was brought before a second magistrate. […] And now the second judge, too, suffered a seizure and died.

On the third morning, […] guards shackled her to a wall and cut off her breasts; but milk, not blood, flowed from the wounds, and Santa Cristina, slipping from her shackles, warned the judge not to go on, because the power of Christ in her was surely greater than his own. The judge ordered her tongue be cut out; but Santa Cristina, still talking freely, threw her tongue at the judge’s eye, which immediately went blind. Finally, the judge ordered Santa Cristina to be case into the sea. A battalion of a hundred men marched her, naked and shackled, to the port, where she was tied to the prow of a ship and rowed out several miles from the harbour; to the deep water. A great slab of stone was strapped to her body with chains – it took a dozen men to lift her to the ship’s rail and thrust her towards the sea. But just as Santa Cristina was about to strike the water, the stone and chains slipped mysteriously from her; for an instant she hovered above the surface of the sea like a shade, dressed now in flowing white, while the sky, a moment before a clear blue, was eclipsed suddenly by a mass of purple clouds, a sole shaft of light trained on Santa Cristina. Then the archangel Michael was standing beside her; and while the soldiers watched, Michael cupped a palmful of sea-water and brought it to Santa Cristina’s forehead. At last, he reached out his hand to her and he led her up into the heavens, while on the earth a great storm was finally unleashed, and the Roman ship and all aboard it were swallowed into the sea.” (138-140)

Lives of the Saints is just as moving – figuratively and literally – as the passage which lends it its name. It is well-paced and a compelling page-turner. It is a still-life at once vibrant and faded of a society at odds with the dissenting, forward thinking, or rebellious voices within it, struggling to follow their own paths. It binds together the immigrant’s need to create life from the ashes of a previous existence with an unrelenting and incomprehensible nostalgia for an existence voluntarily left behind. It is a complicated and layered celebration of outcasts and weirdos, trailblazers and pioneers. Most of all, it is a work of great literary accomplishment in an era just beginning to explore the particular natures of hybrid identities like Ricci’s — and like Vittorio’s.