Good Reading : October 2008
OCTOBER 2008 ı goodreading 25 behind the book And so the first pieces of the puzzle, and the focus of my book, Death in the Mountains: The true story of a Tuscan murder began to fall together. Once I realised how few people really grasped the level of poverty in Tuscany only one or two generations ago, I felt compelled to tell the far mers’ stories. And the desire to recreate the life of my husband’s family, so as to help people see what country life was like, consumed me for another reason.There is enormous international focus on Tuscany and its glamorous villas that are renovated and turned into luxury holiday destinations. But how many foreigners truly understand what went on behind those solid, rustic walls before they were restored? Buying and re-building the Tuscan villa has been romanticised in so many novels. My husband’s family, like hundreds of thousands of other Italian families, was forced to abandon their country home to move to the city in a bid to make a decent living. Knowing this, I felt a strong need to honour all those forgotten men, women and children.The Tuscan villa, or casa colonica, is what it is today because of them.Yet, in the contemporary English- language novel set in Italy, their stories are rarely mentioned. Interestingly, while writing the book, it was not Grandpa Artemio who captured my imagination, but Grandma Bruna. It was through her that I was really able to give my readers the feeling of Tuscany 100 years ago. Grandma Bruna had a strong spirit and almost all the family stories that were passed down concerned her, not Artemio. She bound her babies from armpits to ankles until they were eighteen months old and left them, for short periods, in the rabbit’s cage, common practice for poor Tuscans who had to keep working in the fields and did not have any extended family to help with childcare. It was Grandma Bruna who, on Sundays, rose at dawn to attend a six o’clock mass, said especially for the housewives, so that she could go back home and spruce up her family for a later service, which she missed because she had to stay behind to cook the Sunday lunch. Grandma Bruna was a complex mix of superstition and religious faith, a woman who cared fiercely for her children and the land and animals that sustained them. Researching her gave me an insight into why the traditional Italian wife today appears submissive to her husband, yet is not at all malleable. In an emotional sense, writing Death in the Mountains gave me more than I had bargained for.The killing of Grandpa Artemio was a big event in the family village, which is located in the north- eastern, mountainous area of Tuscany. When I talked to the old people, cousins and elderly farmer folk who still live nearby, they recalled with great clarity what their past relatives had said about the famous murder of Artemio Bruni. In 1907 almost everyone who worked the land was illiterate, so there was a lot of gossip, but no letters or journals to go by. It was only by talking with people that I could figure out what happened in the months leading up to the murder.Three years passed in this fashion, chatting and then reinventing the characters of Artemio and Bruna from the anecdotes and memories of those around me. I became so entranced by this long-ago family that I almost forgot my main aim was to discover the murderer.Who would have thought, after years of trying to imagine their thoughts and reactions, that I would have grown to love them both so much? Perhaps that’s what all writers feel for their characters as their novel takes shape; a growing tenderness as you nurture your protagonists from imagination to the page. Still, nothing prepared me for the genuine grief I felt when, one day, fate led me to the cousin who held the key. He told me who killed Grandpa Artemio and why. Discovering the assassin’s identity was a heart- wrenching moment. Nonna was with me and I felt her sadness keenly. In view of that, did I have a right to write this book? Many times I felt as though I was interfering, trespassing on emotionally sensitive land that was better left unexplored.What right did I have to go around talking to people, opening old wounds? Who was I to disturb this century-old grave? To proceed towards publication was out of the question if my husband’s family did not want me to. But Nonna supported Death in the Mountains from beginning to end. She enjoyed my interest in her ancestors. She talked through her memories of growing up hungry on her father and grandfather’s far m, while I sat by with notebook in hand, watching my own children play. Sometimes, when she thought of how poor her family was, she was sorrowful. Mostly, the memories of her teenage years, tending the sheep in the woods in solitude, making the ricotta and pecorino cheese, made her smile. When we eventually discovered who killed Grandpa Artemio, Nonna shrugged her classic, ‘Bo!’ but then she told me to go ahead and write Death in the Mountains. She felt that it was a story that should be told. But she insisted that her real name never be used. She said it was important not to upset the family of the man who killed her grandfather. A family who still live nearby and, to this day, have no idea that their grandfather was a killer. Death in the Mountains:The true story of a Tuscan murder by Lisa Clifford is published by Macmillan, rrp $32.99. * Names have been changed to protect the families involved. Top: Lisa Clifford with her two children, Leo, 7 and Natalia, 10. Below: Lisa Clifford’s Italian family, husband Paolo, Nonna, Aldo (Nonna’s husband) and Lisa. ‘Nonna supported Death in the Mountains from beginning to end’.