There’s a small island just off Naples, in the ancient gulf, just opposite Vesuvius. It is less well-known than its sisters, and yet is more curious than all the ones that are far more often talked of. It lies a few leagues beyond the canal, to the north of the bay, facing Pouzzole. It can be reached by the port of Posillipo, from Naples, or else from one of the other islands in the bay. It is a small piece of volcanic rock, a mauve promontory, a magmatic extension of the sulphurous deposits that slumber in the region. It is an éminence which is white, green, blue, and calm from the distance, like a watcher over the entrance to the bay. It is here, between Vesuvius and the sulphur pit, in the midst of Campania, that people have long placed the gate to the Underworld. It is here, on reliable authority, that Dante and Virgil descended, in 1307, at the start of the Divina Commedia.
Procida peaks at a height of ninety-one metres. Terra Murata is an extremely old settlement, at the centre of the island, towards the northern coast, which climbs and zigzags up to the top of the cliff. You then have a view over the entire island, the sea, the gulf, all of Campania, ancient Italy yelling, gesticulating, swearing, spitting and pardoning. To the left, there is a prison. To the right, a church. The walls are orange, green, and red. The paint is pastel and flaky. The doorframes are blue. The lintels of the windows are black, pink, and violet. The dominant shade, way up high, is the polluted blue of the horizon, the clouds piling up on the back of Vesuvius, with the heat haze and a greyish evaporation toning down all the other colours and glimmers,until they end up like sfummatto from the risorgimento.
Then, you leave Terra Murata. There are two rope ladders tumbling directly onto the Coricella. They have to be sought out, by slipping between two gaping houses, then descend. The night falls quickly. The sun slips away to the west. The stone mass absorbs the jetty, the quays, the houses along the cliff. Children sing. There is a little ice-cream seller, in a form of alcove, between two slender houses, with three flavours stracciatella, pistacchio, caffè costing one euro. You expect the very sea to tell the story of this place. You expect time to grab humanity by the scruff of the neck. Evening falls and the four points draw away. The north gets mixed up with the south when the wave hits at night. One night, I garnered the wisdom of some old fishermen, and had the feeling of being plunged right into the waters, there.
This is where I met Elsa Morante. Before that, in Ischia, I’d seen Erri de Luca. And before even that, I had retraced the steps of Lamartine and hisyoung favourite, Graziella. But it was Elsa who I fell in love with, on Procida, and her I spoke with, one May evening. I was peeling medlars and listening to her voice, as she read L¹isola di Arturo. Her voice was mingling with the deceitful rumours of the Island. And the Island was listening, like a single soul. It always covets whatever emerges from its walls. It murmurs, meditates and casts its spell. Sure enough, Elsa Morante was singing to me of its hollows and its heights.
_ I’ve known a thousand and one places, she said, but I always come back here, despite India, China, the Equator and Africa. I discovered this island quite by chance, I stayed here, and then came back, I¹ve never stopped writing to and from this promontory. Of the three islands in the bay, my favourite is the smallest one. This is where my cats, my letters, my hand, my body and my brows feel best. Moravia is just opposite, in Naples, or higher up, in Rome, or down there, in Capri. There are neither the Germans who have invaded Ischia, nor the French who have invaded Capri, nor even the villas that have been built along the roads lined with fig trees. There’s just the rumour of the crowd on Sunday, and the lanes eating into and nibbling at the earth, and little plots of land full of artichokes and marrows, and three beaches, one black, one grey, and the other white, and cliffs that are resplendent when the monastery gong starts beating.
_ What about Arturo? Where’s young Arturo? I wanted to know what had become of this character.
_ Today, Arturo, is old enough to be the brilliant writer who takes my place. He’s seventy, or seventy-five, like that De Luca who travels around and honours Italy. He went away, he promised to come back, he never has, he dreams of his island, in the evening, in Greece or Chile. He knows that the island has changed, he knows the power of erosion and wear, his handsome face is now wrinkled, his hands are like oak, and his torso like an ancient juniper. All he has of the island are his memories of what he wrote here, one day, and that bundle of paper that never leaves his side. He’s laboured to the right, to the left, in front, behind, but it is always thanks to these pages that he recovers his path. He has won and lost everything. He has been more ingenuous than Pasolini, more silent than De Luca, more inscrutable than me. He is known everywhere, everyone recognises him. I see him in an ancient asphodel, or the shadow of an orange tree, or the flash of a stone, or a blue-tinted lizard.
That evening, Elsa Morante was very old. She had died thirty years before. I heard her reading out her novel over the din of the waves. I can exactly remember the questions and answers I had imagined. She had squandered her inheritance, scattered her property, sold everything, at a bargain price so as to buy herself eternity on this island. All she had left was her novel, L¹isola di Arturo, and the wonderful news that Arturo had metamorphosed into someone else. For Erri De Luca, that writer of the same age and good looks as Arturo, was being born in Rome, Turin, Paris, and was diffusing his words to whoever wanted to hear them. That evening, staring not at the city of Naples, but out to sea, I thought of a sentence I had read somewhere. A kind of epitaph, or epithalamium, and which I whispered into Morante’s ear.
“A country is an emotion transmitted from one writer to another.”
A text written by Jean-Baptiste Figini, translated to english by Ian Monk.