If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Can you describe the mood of Naples as you feel/see it?
Napoli was founded by Greeks, not Neapolitans. They built it on a seismic foundation and under a catastrophic volcano. So Neapolitans are—along with other people of this world—inhabiting a game of chance. For this reason their patron saint and guardian, San Gennaro, specializes in eruptions. When flaming lava would close in on the city, our people would take the saint’s statue and lead a procession to meet the eruption. The miracle of stopping the lava would happen. This is the city I come from, where suitcases sit next to the door, ready to take flight.
What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?
The children of Napoli: when I was among them, the children of Napoli died like flies—the city had the highest infant mortality rate in Europe. They were dying from cold, hunger, sickness, beatings. The ones who didn’t die went off to work, not to school. Their cries shaped my nervous system.
What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?
Insomnia: Napoli doesn’t close for the night, it never sleeps.
What writer(s) from here should we read?
The poets in dialect from first half of the last century: Salvatore Di Giacomo, Ernesto Murolo, Raffaele Viviani, and, for the stage, Eduardo De Filippo.
Is there a place here you return to often?
On the Via Mezzocannone, to my friend’s, the bookseller Raimondo Di Maio. His bookstore is called Libreria Dante & Descartes. He knows and can find for customers any title, from any year whatsoever, in Italian. He’s the last of a dying breed: the omniscient bookseller.
Is there an iconic literary place we should know?
The fortress of Saint Elmo, the city’s only castle, where you can admire the whole gulf, far from the noise of traffic.
Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?
Underground Napoli is empty. Excavations to quarry tuff began with the Greeks. Napoli is a double city: above ground it’s packed, overcrowded, yet below it’s deserted, riddled with caves, tunnels, crawl spaces. Today one can visit the underground city. From there it’s clear that every Neapolitan, not just the city, has a secret compartment.
Where does passion live here?
In each alleyway of the old city people have had homes forever; they’ve never let themselves be moved out, for any sort of urban planning project. In other cities the center has been emptied of people and filled with offices. Not in Napoli, where the center has kept its dense population for centuries, for generations.
What is the title of one of your works about Napoli and what inspired it exactly?
Il Giorno prima della felicità (The Day Before Happiness, Penguin UK, 2016). I tell the story of the Neapolitan popular insurrection against the Germans in September, 1943. In four days of revolt, the Neapolitan people succeeded on their own in driving out the German army. The Americans entered Napoli without having to fire a single shot.
Inspired by Levi, “Outside Napoli does an outside exist?”
I was born and grew up there, until the age of eighteen. Outside Napoli the rest of the world is simply a somewhere else than Napoli. I tore myself out of the city like a tooth pulled of its gums. A tooth has roots that won’t reroot in some other mouth. I’ve stayed that way, a tooth wobbling on roots left out in the open.
Translated from the Italian by Jim Hicks.
Erri De Luca was born in Naples in 1950 and is one of Italy’s best-known novelists, poets, essayists, and translators. He has published more than sixty books, numerous collections of short stories and poems, that have been translated in more than thirty languages. He is self-taught in Swahili, Russian, Yiddish, and Ancient Hebrew, and has translated several books of the Ancient Covenant. His first novel, Non ora, non qui (Not Here, Not Now), was published in Italy in 1989. He was awarded the France Culture Prize in 1994 for Aceto, arcobaleno, the Laure Bataillon Award in 2002 for Tre cavalli (Three Horses), and the Femina Etranger for Montedidio (God’s Mountain). In 2010 he was awarded the German International Literary Petrarca Award. He wrote and starred in several films and plays, including the theatrical drama In viaggio con Aurora (Traveling with Aurora). De Luca contributes regularly to several newspapers and magazines. He is a passionate mountain climber. He lives in Rome.
Erri De Luca’s work is forthcoming in Migrazioni/Migrations (66theand2nd, Rome), an anthology of African and Italian poetry edited by Wole Soyinka and curated and prefaced by Alessandra Di Maio. Alessandra Di Maio and Maaza Mengiste will discuss the book in NYC on February 27 at NYU’s Casa Italiana.