Lovers of Great Books know Penelope to be a meaningful but secondary figure. When her husband, Ulysses, is called to war, she spends twenty years faithfully awaiting his return. She promises the suitors pressing to take his place that she will choose one among them to be her new companion just as soon as she has finished weaving a burial shroud for her father-in-law. For three years, she sits at her loom, weaving a cloth she will take apart at the day’s end only to start it anew. No one knows what she sews into that cloth daily. There is no physical object to its testament. No scenes of her struggles and despair. No images of her worries, doubts, and daily stresses. There is no great Greek tapestry. Only the consistent movement of her fingers up and down the loom. Only the blank canvas before her. Where did her stories go?
What would a modern-day Penelope look like?
Would she be the dutiful sarta – dressmaker – of Italy’s Veneto region, loyal and deceptively submissive? Or would she be the quiet observer of truth? The teller of stories built into the fabric of existence all around her as we are so often told weavers should be?
In Storie di donne e di pianura (Stories of Women and the Po Valley), Annalisa Panati takes her place at the loom — and in the long-standing tradition of great books and their writers — weaving together the stories of three generations of women in Italy’s famed Po Valley. Her characters are Penelopes — beleaguered, if doting, mothers, abandoned wives, grieving widows, undervalued seamstresses — and sometimes not. Sometimes, they are the unapologetic authors of their own adventures, or simply women struggling to reconcile the traditional values of their conservative upbringing with the modernity of their individual thought. No two are alike, yet their stories speak to the condition of being a woman, in many ways unchanged since the creation of Eve.
Panati brings a keen and sensitive eye to their realities, while her narrator lends this collection of sixteen stories the modern framework that makes it so noteworthy. These are the stories not just of ourselves as women growing up in the eighties and nineties, but of our mothers and grandmothers, too. Yet, there is nothing dated about them. They enjoy new life in their retelling from a contemporary point of reflection that holds within it the benefit of hindsight.
The book’s great strength lies in its ability to tell their stories neither in the shadow nor in the absence of the men who also make up their lives. Behind or beside each of Panati’s female characters are the men that influence, inform, and at times dictate their decisions. They are given a form, but seldom a voice. They exist as a function of the women to whose narratives they belong. The end result is a stunning chorus of female voices, each also singularly heard. Panati successfully does, then, what many women writers of her generation aim to: she presents readers with an honest portrait of women protagonists, in a balanced blend of how they perceive themselves and each other to be.
What is more, she deftly skirts the easy trap of villainizing men in order to do so. Storie di donne e di pianura is refreshingly free of double-standard. Men and women share agency and accountability in cases of divorce, adultery, domestic violence. For every man willing to fracture his family unit or injure his spouse, there is a woman who has done the same and who, Panati’s narrator strongly suggests, should be viewed in exactly the same way — neither harsher, nor more leniently. In so doing, she brings age-old debates into the thick of the twenty-first century, where they receive the progressive treatment readers of my generation have long awaited.
She achieves this result by building up stereotypes, then pulling them apart, thread by thread, like Penelope unraveling her shroud each night. Her book is the product of a polished symmetry obtained through the careful juxtaposition of events. The woman physically assaulted outside her apartment in “Il silenzio” (Silence) is held up against the one who, in an argument with her boyfriend, punches him in the nose in “Lo schiaffo” (The Slap). The institution of marriage discussed in “Il matrimonio” (Marriage) echoes menacingly in “La zitella” (The Spinster), which follows it. The brevity of life, mourned in “L’amico” (The Friend) is highlighted in the collection’s next story, “Lo scandalo” (The Scandal).
Storie di donne e di pianura is not always an easy read. The composed elegance of Panati’s language is a gentle consolation for the difficult depths of human emotion through which it takes its readers. She raises hard questions about women supporting, denigrating, or being absent toward other women, deviating from traditional benchmarks of success, or choosing personal happiness over societal expectation. She confronts complicated filial relationships and challenges the definition of friendship. But she rewards her readers with the exquisite restraint of her prose, with the delicate weight of her symbolism: the “splendida giornata di sole” after a blinding fit of fog (53), the unfinished coffee cup half-full of the things left unsaid (57), the “onda gigantesca che si [avvicina], alta, impetuosa, veloce, sempre più veloce, sempre più vicino” of fear and hurt and confusion (78). The Po Valley in Storie di donne e di pianura is rich with the images of the landscapes and objects rooted deep in the hearts of its people. They are perhaps the greatest gifts Panati offers her readers.
The book’s closing six stories, all centred on Marta, the young and enterprising woman who challenges the status quo of the world around her, successfully tie in the previous ten, making of Panati’s collection of short stories an integral narrative in and of itself. Much like Ovid’s Metamorphoses or Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, it recreates a whole universe by following the people who inhabit it and whose lives are forever interconnected. One might imagine, in a way, that Penelope’s stories have found their way here, in the posterity of Panati’s tapestry and enduring tribute to the weavers of her native land.
Storie di donne e di pianura (Schena editore, 2014) is available for purchase on IBS.it.