The Italian writer Giovanni Verga (1840-1922 ) is not very well-known outside his own country, but he deserves to be. A couple of Verga's short stories are outstanding examples of just how much can be achieved with the form. His tales are mostly set in the harsh, barren landscapes of his native Sicily, and his characters belong to this world, know nothing else but its hardships and miseries, and have little or no possibility of escape even if they desire it. But that is not what is so special about Verga.
Here is the first paragraph from the story 'Rosso Malpelo' (translated into English as 'Nasty Foxfur') which introduces its protagonist, an ill-behaved, fatherless boy who works in the mines, and sets the reader's mind ticking and puzzling straightaway:
He was called Nasty Foxfur because he had red hair. And he had red hair because he was a bad, malicious boy, who gave every promise of ending up a complete villain. And so all the men at the red sand-pit called him Foxfur. And even his mother, hearing him called that so often, had almost forgotten the name he was baptised by.
Our hearts immediately leap out in defence of Foxfur. What absurd leaps of logic and injustices are these? And why doesn't the narrator be a little more even-handed in his portrayal of the character? But Verga understands that the best way to portray the plight of the boy is to look at him through the eyes of the community, instead of standing outside the common perceptions of Foxfur.
The community has given up Foxfur, and treats him like a brute unworthy of any kindness or concern. And how does Foxfur respond? Consider again the perverse but entirely believable logic of this:
Knowing that he was Foxfur, he was prepared to be as bad as he could be, and if an accident occurred, or if a workman mislaid his tools, or a donkey broke a leg, or part of the gallery fell away, they always knew it was his doing. And in fact he took all the blows without complaining, just like the donkeys, which take them and arch their backs but go on doing things in their own way.
The confusions and doubts created by this paragraph give us a real sense of what it means to be in Foxfur's place. On the one hand we know that he is ready 'to be as bad as he could be,' to create trouble whenever he can as a gesture of retaliation. Yet we also see that whenever something goes wrong in the mines, the men naturally fall upon Foxfur as the cause of it: 'they always knew it was his doing'.. And the metaphor of the donkey - the story is full of animal metaphors, comparing Foxfur to a donkey, or to 'those ferocious buffaloes which have to be held by an iron ring through the nose,' or saying he bit 'like a mad dog' - illustrates Foxfur's sullen intransigence, which has proceeded to the point where he does not even disclaim responsibility for those things he has really not done. (He confesses to a friend once, a boy younger to him: "'What's the good? I'm Foxfur!'")
The story of sullen, baleful, loveless Foxfur (true to the logic of the story, which locates the blame for most things in him, we are told that 'his mother had never received a caress from him, and so she never gave him one') and his life in the mines is deeply poignant not only by virtue of its material, but by the way in which Verga tells it, with a strategic complicity with the community's view of Foxfur that disturbs us deeply and drags us into the story.
'Rosso Malpelo' can be found, along with another brilliant story called 'Jeli the Herdboy', in a recent edition of Verga's stories called Life in the Country, published by the Hesperus Press. A list of Verga's works can be found here.