An orphan grows up in Naples under the watchful eye of Don Gaetano. Don Gaeta’, as he is known, is a caretaker with a skill in storytelling and spotting trouble at a distance. And both skills will prove useful in a neighbourhood where ignorance and violence conspire to cross your path many times a day. This is The Day Before Happiness – Il giorno prima della felicita’ - by Erri DeLuca, translated by Michael Moore. It is a tale in which a young boy overcomes real and imaginary fears to become an adult. It is a story of poverty, pride, and passion, where Don Gaeta’, through his evocative anecdotes, will instil in this orphan (and in us) a love of Naples, its people, and its history. And where he will show him how to walk upright, and look people in the eye; teaching him how to live, love, and ultimately survive.
In the following excerpt, De Luca has the protagonist narrate how he learned to love and respect language by “painting” words, drying them below his breath until the “blue of the ink trembled while it changed color.”:
“We used to write with a fountain pen and ink was available at every desk inside a hole. To write was to paint: you dipped the pen in, let the drops fall until one remained, and with that you managed to write half a word. Then you dipped again. We poverty cases would dry the sheet of paper with our warm breath. Below our breath, the blue of the ink trembled while it changed color. The other children dried with blotting paper. Our gesture was more beautiful, blowing wind over the flattened paper. The others instead crushed their words beneath a white card.”
Original (In Italian)
“Si scriveva con il pennino e con l’inchiostro che stava in ogni banco dentro un buco. Scrivere era una pittura, si intingeva il pennino, si facevano cadere gocciole finché ne restava una e con quella si riusciva a scrivere una mezza parola. Poi si intingeva di nuovo. Noi della povertà asciugavamo il foglio con il fiato caldo. Sotto il soffio, il blu dell’inchiostro tremava cambiando colore. Gli altri asciugavano con la carta assorbente. Era più bella la nostra mossa che faceva vento sopra il foglio steso. Invece gli altri schiacciavano le parole sotto il cartoncino bianco.”