When it comes to literature, there are only a few Italian western novels which were written in the late 1800s by Verona native Emilio Salgari, who became known as the father of Sandokan.
Themes such as frontiers, adventure, travel and vast open spaces, which are characteristic of westerns, have recently been catapulted to the forefront of the Italian literature scene thanks to Paduan author Matteo Righetto and his three novels that make up the Trilogia della Patria.
Entitled Soul of the Border, the first book in the trilogy was launched in Australia at the end of last month, and we had the chance to speak with Righetto while he was in Melbourne for the occasion.
The young writer immediately confessed that he hadn’t intended to write a western novel, and that it happened without him even realising.
He said his work being labelled as a western was the result of a “fortunate misunderstanding”, most likely stemming from the concept of “wilderness” which is present in the trilogy.
The novels are set in northern Veneto in the late 1800s and follow the story of the De Boer family, in particular, the father Augusto and the eldest daughter Jole, better known as “La Jole”.
In their hometown of Nevada, the De Boers are tobacco growers, working on terraces and living amongst the wilderness during a historically difficult time.
Profits aren’t great and to supplement their income, Augusto occasionally smuggles tobacco across the border to Austria.
A tireless worker, Augusto sometimes takes his daughter Jole with him, and the two wild souls take on the perilous journey together.
But Augusto mysteriously never returns from one of these trips, and Jole, driven to provide for her family and discover what happened to her father, makes the journey alone.
Nature features heavily in the novel, first as a majestic and welcoming refuge, then as a dangerous and deceitful trap.
It changes and plays an active role in the main character’s transformation and growth, as La Jole evolves from a girl to a woman.
Nature and wilderness are themes which Righetto began to develop in his novel The Bear Skin and which allowed him to take up a position at the University of Padua, where he teaches ecological literature.
“My path is devoted to the relationship between man and environment, between human and non-human,” Righetto said.
For the author, the mountains represent “ethics, intimacy, silence, fatigue and the perfect scene to tell the story of the human soul”.
Aside from nature, another major theme in the novel is borders: not just, the geopolitical border with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but also a personal border between adolescence and adulthood, between reason and madness, and poor and powerful.
La Jole comes to know different boundaries and understand the concept of homeland.
In this sense, the trilogy can be defined as educational novels on the one hand, and adventure and history on the other.
According to Righetto, the female protagonist marries perfectly with the transformation and development she undergoes in the story.
“Women have a tenacity and strength which we men don’t often have,” he said.
“They’re naturally much more resilient... they have this strength which is almost anthropological, inherent.”
It’s for this reason that Righetto refers to the main character as La Jole, with the definite article, which adds emphasis and draws on dialectic formulas of northern Italy.
The author chose to set the novel in the late 1800s due to a range of factors.
Above all, the decision stems from Righetto’s interest in that particular era.
Then, when he discovered that smuggling was prevalent during those years in that area, he knew that that was what he wanted to write about.
During those years another phenomenon took place: that of mass Italian emigration, which Righetto focuses on in the second and third books of the trilogy.
But for now, the first book can be found in English on the shelves of Australian bookstores, while Italian copies can be borrowed from various Victorian libraries, including those in Darebin and Moreland.