Excerpt from Vita by Melania G. Mazzucco, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Vita by Melania G. Mazzucco X
Vita by Melania G. Mazzucco
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    Sep 2005, 448 pages
    Sep 2006, 448 pages

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The dust has settled. The hill is a mound of gray ashes. Below him, the Garigliano River is a sparkling green ribbon on the charred plain. The sea is as blue as it has always been. "Where is Dionisia?" he finally asks. Vita wants him to ask this question. It's the reason he's here, after all. The old woman doesn't say anything this time. She pulls at the ball of wool, picks up her needles, crosses the tips, knots the threads, and then loosens them again. She nods and points to where he is sitting. To the mountain of rubble. And so the captain realizes there is no coming back. He is sitting on the body of his mother's mother.

* * *

All this took place many years before I was born. At that time the man who would bring me into the world was in high school and the woman in grammar school. They didn't know each other and could just as easily not have met in 1952 when they both enrolled in an English language class, convinced that knowing that language would improve their lives—and the fact that they preferred to fall in love and bring two children into the world to earning diplomas in English would not have changed anything or altered the substance of things. So what about the captain who came to Italy to fight with the Fifth Army on the southern front? I never met him, and I don't know what thoughts were running through his head on that day in May 1944 when he took possession of the ruins of a village called Tufo, like the stone from which it had been built. Until a few years ago, I didn't even know who he was, and in truth I don't think I know now. Yet this man is not irrelevant to me—in fact, his story and mine are so inter-woven they could be one and the same. Now I know he could have been my father, and could have recounted his return to Tufo a thousand times as we barbecued steaks on a Sunday afternoon or did yard work at our house in New Jersey. But he never told me the story. Instead, the man who was my father told me another story. He spoke willingly because he loved telling stories and knew that only what gets told is true. He took his time, but when he was ready, he would clear his throat and begin.

We have always had something to do with water, he would say. We know how to find it where it can't be seen. In the beginning—our beginning—a long time ago, there was a dowser; his name was Federico. He would travel about the countryside with his divining rod, listening to the vibrations of air and earth. Wherever the rod pointed, that's where he would dig until he found the spring. Federico was a visionary, very thin and very tall, but a war of liberation buried him in the same earth he had chosen to live on. He was from the North, and settled in the South because of his idealism, his foolishness, and an obstinate vocation for defeat, all qualities or defects he would pass on to his descendants. "And then? Go on." Then there was a very poor stone breaker, an orphan and a vulnerable soul, who loved the land and would have liked to own it, but hated water. Even the sea. Dreaming to get back the land he'd lost, the man of stones twice crossed the ocean, but stones always sink to the bottom, and so twice he was condemned and sent back home with a cross marked in chalk on his back.

"And then what happened?" One day, in the spring of 1903, the fourth son of the man of stones, a twelve-year-old boy, small, clever, and curious, arrived at the port of Naples and boarded a ship of the White Star Line—it flew a red flag with a white star. His father had set him the task of living the life he'd been unable to live. It was a heavy burden, but the boy didn't know it, so he climbed the planks, all slippery with salt, that led to the passenger decks. He was happy, and had forgotten to remember to be afraid. The boy's name was Diamante, Diamond.

Excerpted from Vita by Melania G. Mazzucco. Copyright © 2003 by Melania G. Mazzucco. Translation © 2005 by Virginia Jewiss. Published in September 2005 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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