Book Review | Fists

Rose Lapira finds shades of Hemingway and Salinger in this Italian collection of short stories by Pietro Grossi.

Are we seeing an increase of interest in the short story? Possibly, though I don't believe short stories ever went away. Witness the amount being published every year; quite a few winning prestigious awards.

Pietro Grossi, born in Florence in 1978, made his debut on the Italian literary scene in 2000 with Touche, and followed this up with the award-winning Pugni (made up of three short stories) - translated as 'Fists' by Howard Curtis.

The author received various awards for this book, among them the Premio Chiara and the Premio Fiesole.

The English edition was short-listed for the British Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and received the Campiello Europa Prize.

Three stories are presented in this slim volume. The trio is thematically linked: they are coming-of age stories involving young men trying to learn about the realities of life. The title of the collection is apt, as it symbolises the 'punching' the lead characters have to administer in order to find their way through life.

The title is particularly appropriate for the first story, Boxing. An adolescent, a nerd, are joined by a 'mammone' (as the Italians would call him), who goes about doing what his mother expects of him, all the while secretly learning how to box. Eventually, this comes out in the open when he challenges a tough boxer called the Goat, a deaf-mute. The fight becomes an obsession for him, as he grows convinced that the event will change his outlook on life.

The author - tongue firmly in cheek - calls the young boxer Ballerina, who in his determination to fight against a formidable opponent breaks free of his youthful dreams to face reality and grow up.

About his opponent, he says 'I realized suddenly that we were the same breed: both outcasts, both uncool, two boys who were fighting for their lives, for that dirty square fragment of reality where things happened the way they were supposed to and everything fell into place'. And he understands that's what growing up means: 'realising how things really are'.

The second story, Horses, is about two young brothers who are given two horses by their father, which will lead them to different paths.

'It was immediately clear that the horses would take the brothers to different places... we all make our world in our own way... to get wherever we are meant to be. Some of us use a knife to kill, others to peel an apple.'

The brothers, though different to each other, are also very close.

Yet, one chooses to stay in the broad open spaces of the country - learning about horses and the rural life - while the other goes away and gets involved with the ups and downs of the city. The story shows the passage for both from carefree boyhood to the realities of manhood, where quick, tough decisions have to be taken.

The third story, The Monkey, is rather odd.

A young man receives a call for help from the sister of a childhood friend, because her brother has started to behave in a strange way.

He thinks he is a monkey. Nico finds him bent double, crouching on the floor, grunting and slapping his head and playing with pistachio shells. On the way, Nico finds time to visit his parents' home and for the first time he questions whether he really understands his parents.

The Monkey is about identity and the banality of modern life, about dreams which, even when achieved, do not mean much. Life is 'a battle between dream and reality, between the world as it was and the way we would like it to be'.

The stories in Fists are about the rites of passage of young males, breaking free from the dreams of youth to face reality.

They are about learning what it is to be a man.  Describing a masculine world where women play secondary parts, they are essentially tales about male bonding.

Grossi, while acknowledging that great Italian authors like Pirandello and others influenced his writing, admits that he is indebted also to American authors, particularly to Hemingway and J.D. Salinger.

One can see the same pre-occupation as Salinger's that describes the difficult transition from adolescence to adulthood, and the crispness and brevity of Hemingway.

But what stands out most is Grossi's style of writing: spare, controlled and thoughtful, and the depth beyond the apparent simplicity. They are also beautifully translated. Grossi deservedly merits the acclaim he received for this small but memorable collection of stories.

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