Star-crossed lovers! War! Famine! Plague!

(and it's a required reading in Italian schools, to boot.)

I'm talking about The Betrothed, of course - a novel that thousands of Italian students learned to hate, even if it's actually quite good when it's not forced down your throat by a teacher.

The author, Alessandro Manzoni, lived in interesting times: 1785-1873, to be precise, and anybody who knows a little history of Europe will tell you that those were troubled times indeed for the Italian peninsula. Its many little states were being unified under the Italian Kingdom flag, foreign powers were none too happy about it, and if you traveled for 500 Km in any direction you had to learn a whole new language, since every region had its own idea of what Italian should sound like.

Manzoni decided to clear this mess a little, so he wrote a book in what he deemed the most "noble" of Italian dialects, that's to say Tuscanian.

It took him the best part of twenty years to complete it.

In his movie "Il Portaborse", Daniele Lucchetti points out that during those years Tolstoy churned out a dozen masterpieces. Lucchetti's goal was to point out that Italian schools lose precious time teaching the works of some talentless writer, while ignoring the larger picture of world literature. This is technically true - the rest of Manzoni's production is above average at best, but look at this under a different light:

the guy had balls.

Tolstoy was born with talent to spare, and it shows. On the other hand, Manzoni wasn't a literary genius, but his efforts make it clear that you can get to the top of the class even if you haven't been graced at birth by an unnatural knack for writing. All it takes, ladies and gentlemen, is huge amounts of hard work.

Consider this: in a letter to his friends, Manzoni asks for suggestions about suitable names for henchmen. And I do mean "henchmen" in the 007 meaning of the word: scarred people hovering in the background, with no speaking lines and the lifespan of a chocolate kettle. Manzoni rejected the names thought up by his friends as inadequate, since they didn't convey a personality trait or a physical characteristic, or simply because they didn't sound menacing enough.

There is a fine line between "attention for details" and "being pedant", and Manzoni never crosses it: he manages to hide his huge efforts, and The Betrothed is an enjoyable read even after 150 years. Manzoni hit his main literary target, that was to set the Gold Standard for Italian language, while creating a gallery of believable, lovable (or loathsome) characters, and an engaging storyline.

He also stoked the fires of rebellion against the Austrian occupation in northern Italy, since the story unfolds during the Spanish occupation of the same lands two centuries earlier. By depicting and condemning the Spanish oppressors, he made a clear political statement against the Austrians - and managed to fool the censors.

The air of lawlessness under Spanish rule is clear since the opening pages, where two thugs "convince" a humble village priest that the planned marriage between two of his parishioners might cause him a sudden case of lead poisoning.

The cowardly priest folds, and the betrothed - Renzo Tramaglino and Lucia Mondella - are forced to flee from their village when they discover who sent the thugs: Lucia has caught the eye of the local tyrant, Don Rodrigo.

Helped by Father Cristoforo, Lucia's confessor, they end up in different cities: Lucia hides under the protective wing of a powerful nun in Monza, while Renzo travels to a cloister in Milan.

Bad luck strikes again, as the whole region is ravaged by a famine caused by the Thirty Years' War, and Renzo is caught in a riot. Some inappropriate remarks are interpreted as political statements, and he has to flee from Milan to avoid being hanged.

Lucia is not safe either: she is kidnapped by a powerful friend of Don Rodrigo, whose name is never revealed (Manzoni calls him "Innominato", "The Nameless", but historians managed to track him down to the equivalent of a Don Corleone of the time). The Innominato is touched by Lucia's faith in God, and during a meeting with the great Cardinal Borromeo he sees the error of his ways. His inner turmoil is described with fine psychological insight.

In 1576 the Great Plague strikes; the description of its effects on the population are among the best chapters of the book, and surely rival Thucydides' chronicles of the plague in Athens.

One of the last victims is Don Rodrigo himself; after years of troubles, with all the obstacles removed by love and by a deep faith, Renzo and Lucia can finally celebrate their marriage.

Submitted for The Bookworm turns: an Everything Literary Quest.

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