A story set across two countries and a world of history is unfurling in Leichhardt. Phoebe Moloney learns the lessons of l’autore analfabeta siciliano, Vincenzo Rabito.
When Vincenzo Rabito first handed over his autobiography to his son, Giovanni, it was 25 notebooks bound by scraps of rope. There were no paragraphs, no chapters and every word was punctuated by a semi colon.
Vincenzo typed on an old Olivetti Typewriter that Giovanni, Vincenzo’s youngest son, had left at his parent’s house in Chiaramonte, Sicily, while he studied in Bologna. Giovanni was the only person who knew his father had spent the last seven years writing down his life story.
In 2007, 26 years after Vincenzo Rabito’s death, Terra Matta (Crazy Land) was published by Einaudi, a reputable publishing house in Italy. Vincenzo’s stack of memoirs fast became an Italian bestseller, selling over 30,000 copies. Later Terra Matta was turned into an award-winning biopic, and later, a popular play.
Giovanni Rabito moved to Australia in 1990 and now lives in Glebe. He said the book’s success was completely unexpected by his family.
“They were extremely surprised. For my second brother [who still lives in Sicily] it changed his life, because he is called to do all the speeches. He gets invited to the movies and glamourous events,” Giovanni says.
“I had more of an idea – but between hoping and happening there is a big gap. It was a surprise for me too.”
As a student and published poet in Bologna, Giovanni Rabito had taken his father’s manuscript to several editors with no success. After his father died in 1981, he moved his antique dealership to Sydney and entered the manuscript into an Italian memoir competition. It won, but even then one critic claimed it would be “the masterpiece no one ever read”. For a start, it was written in a mix of Italian and phonetic Sicilian dialect; a self-taught “inalfabeto”(illiterate), Vincenzo Rabito weaved his own lingua franca over more than 1000 pages. Those pages, however, told an incredible story.
“My father did all the most important things in Italian history,” Giovanni says with a twinkle in his eye.
“This is the story of the little man against the big history that crushes you. But it’s not tragic, it’s epico! It’s almost laughable…that even from this little town in Sicily you can see the top of history.”
Indeed, Vincenzo Rabito’s life reads like a history text book. He was born during the ‘Spagnola’ [Spanish Flu] in 1899 that claimed the life of his father and two siblings. He was sent out to work at the age of seven and as a young man was enlisted as a soldier in the Great War.
“He was at the Battle of the River Piave, which is Italy’s equivalent of Gallipoli. There were 70 soldiers in his battalion. 24 people survived and he was one of them,” Giovanni says.
“Then he remained as a soldier during the most complicated period of Italy’s history, with fascists coming and then the communists. Then he went to Somalia in Africa, experiencing four years of the Italian fascist empire, and then he went north as a soldier in World War II. He went to Germany to work in the mines and survived bombardment from the Allies and then finally he returned to Ragusa and found a job as a road worker for the province.”
“So he found stability at 40, with a salary and a family. He made me when he was 50,” says Giovanni.
“All the history of Italy is in his life. And he passed judgement on it.”
Living through famine, war, poverty, fascism, illness and the delicate social mores of a Sicilian “martrimonio combinato” (an arranged marriage), Vincenzo’s book has been described as an adventure of “salvarsi la pelle”, learning to save your skin. But it maintains an internal joy.
“He was always a happy man,” says Giovanni. “The final manuscript was mostly on us [his children], which was very touching and interesting to read what he thought we were up to. He beat the overwhelming odds. He grew up in famine, never went to school and yet he thrived and sent all his children to university and then went onto become a writer.”
After the book’s posthumous success, Giovanni and his brothers had ‘Scrittore’ [writer]engraved on their father’s headstone.
Giovanni smiles. “But this, of course, he doesn’t know.”
The surprise of the little man’s success, not just survival, is the upshot of the whole Vincenzo Rabito story. Perhaps participating in every formative event of modern Italy fated Vincenzo to write a book definitive of Italy’s history. Giovanni shakes his head. “No, it was some special spark in him,” he says. Despite being illiterate, Vincenzo was always a master raconteur.
Vincenzo wrote of the time he spent hiding in a cave with soldiers during World War II: “It didn’t seem like wartime; it was more like a theatre because there was laughing all the time. This is what I liked most: recounting all the things that happened in my life…”
In person, Giovanni too is a remarkable storyteller, gesticulating with the bubbling felicity of Roberto Benigni and speaking with the gravitas of La Bocca Della Verita. Like his father, Giovanni dances between the tragic and comic aspects of life with an amicable smile intact.
And now, in a suitably remarkable turn of events, Vincenzo’s words have followed Giovanni to his 25-year-old home of Sydney. The theatre ensemble from Catania that adapted his father’s book to a play are coming to Leichhardt to perform Terra Matta.
“The Mayor of Catania is very keen on this book,” says Giovanni. “He found the money on his side and we found the theatre on our side.”
Terra Matta will be featured as part of Leichhardt’s year-long Double Belonging festival, which explores the identity formation of Australians who have migrated from Italy. The play will be performed in The Forum’s Italian Cultural Centre.
“We think it’s a perfect venue. The theatre is very beautiful and it’s in the centre of an Italian suburb,” Giovanni says.
And so, despite formidable obstacles, Vincenzo Rabito’s teatro of life continues unhindered – also in Sydney.
Teatro Stabile di Catania will be performing Terra Matta between December 17th-19th, you can book tickets at: www.doublebelonging.com. The play will be performed in Sicilian dialect, however, a guide book will be given to each audience member that explains the narrative of the play, scene by scene, in Italian and English. On December 16th, director Vincenzo Pirotta will present a talk on the genesis of the play adaptation of Terra Matta.