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The important detail you missed in "My Brilliant Friend"
Don Achille repeated, as if to understand clearly the meaning of the words:
“I took your dolls and put them in a black bag?”
I felt that he was not angry but unexpectedly pained, as if he were receiving confirmation of something he already knew.
Elena Ferrante’s “My Brilliant Friend” is never described as a mafia story even though that categorization would likely earn the television adaptation of a lot more viewers. Organized crime is introduced with Don Achille, the “ogre of fables” who the neighborhood children are taught to fear because of a “hatred whose origin I didn’t know.” Don Achille’s “fundamental feature” is his enormous black bag which he uses to pick up anything that dropped into the grate. What readers of the English translation miss is that the black bag is a child’s literal interpretation of a more nefarious force: La Borsa Nera refers to what English speakers know as the black market.
An extensive black market developed in Italy during World War II, particularly after the Allied invasion. Massive inflation for basic necessities as well as poor distribution of rations forced people to barter their personal possessions or offer sex work in exchange for a simple meal. Through bits of dialogue we learn that Don Achille and the Solara family made their fortune as loansharks and traffickers, profiting from the misery of their neighbors in wartime. The black market of postwar Italy built the platform of future crime and corruption which grew into the mafia networks seen in the other popular Italian television export, “Gomorrah.”
The dark and scary basement where Lila and Elena toss their dolls is an echo of the underworld where their parents may have hid during German bombardment. Today tourists can take guided tours of the underground city where you can see ancient Greek cisterns, Roman markets, and haunting relics of the war like gas masks, bomb shells, and a child’s tricycle.
The physical and emotional misery of the adults in “My Brilliant Friend” is the continued trauma of World War II. There is also a disconnection from traditional village life where family and neighbors would help each other. The Rione Luzzatti, which matches descriptions of the neighborhood, was a new area of Naples built just after the war, when people left countryside villages for jobs in the big city.
The lack of extended family in the neighborhood will not stand out to Americans, but Italian readers notice that there are no grandparents at home, and only passing references to extended family as when Lila’s father complains of having to support his wife’s unmarried sisters. Enzo is the only character with a tie to his family in Avellino, notable because his father is a fruit and vegetable vendor and would have a direct source for his goods from a family farm. Figures like Don Achille extorted communities for even these staple goods.
The character of Enzo Scanno from the HBO/Fandango miniseries My Brilliant Friend
Without recognizing the fundamental misunderstanding the young girls have of Don Achille’s’ fearsome black bag, readers miss an important metaphor that also helps define Lila. Though she’s fierce, and dazzles her friends with what seem like supernatural powers, she doesn’t fully comprehend the systems she rails against, the consequences of which lead to the tragic event that defines the final book in the series.
I will be exploring this and other Neapolitan details in greater depth during my Context Travel Conversation “Elena Ferrante’s Naples” on January 7th at 5pm EST. This talk will be recorded for those who can’t attend the live Zoom meeting.