One of the most challenging tasks for any writer is evoking the physicality of life using only words on a page. With his new book The Archeology of a Good Ragù: Discovering Naples, My Father and Myself, John Domini does exactly that. Simultaneously a concise history of Domini’s family, a portrait of contemporary Naples, and an exploration of the region’s food and art, the book seamlessly moves from one topic to the next, memorably evoking a holistic sense of the minutiae of life. Domini and I chatted via email about the long process of writing this book and how it connects to his other works.
You talk about The Archeology of a Good Ragù as having been in the works for twenty years. Was there one event that precipitated the work as a whole clicking for you?
Ah, the epiphany in San Lorenzo Maggiore, the ghosts of the Greek agora leaking up from the ruins underfoot… No, nothing so exciting, I’m afraid. The short answer is, I at last found the story in this material. To put it another way, your question goes to the nature of memoir, its difference from other non-fiction. Memoir implies drama, the narrative machinery of suspense and resolution; many of the classics, like Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley, take us on a trip. But Naples isn’t going anywhere; its stubborn staying power resists story shape. There may be x million stories in the naked city, but the city itself isn’t a story⎯ especially a Polis as old as this, shambling on through one collapse after another. So my repeated visits, starting c. 1990, yielded all sorts of incident and irony, rich indeed, and I kept thinking there had to be a book in it all, wearing out two or three agents with various proposals and MSS. Only when I achieved distance enough from my earlier crises to see how the city had helped me overcome them⎯ to see the drama in how the city had changed me⎯ did I have a memoir. That’s when the real work began.
How did you find the best way to balance your family’s history with your own life and impressions of Naples, structurally speaking?
Without my Naples family⎯ well, this book would be the least of my losses. As for that, though, in Archeology the family does the heavy lifting. They haul in the Camorra and the city of the last World War, devastating burdens. As you saw, I changed names to keep people safe (the mafia doesn’t read literary non-fiction, but still). Nevertheless, what I learned from my uncle, aunt, and cousins amounted to more of that rich minestrone of local foodstuffs. At first, luscious whiff, it’s got nothing to do with my climb back out of the lowest dumps of middle age. Nevertheless, to me that climb depended on the city; l’ho vissuto sulla mia pella, I lived it on my skin. The connection, the solution, turned out finally to be thematic. Sorting my own spiritual growth into three arenas, that is, proved the most manageable way to arrange my glittering Naples ogetti. The models I had in mind, I’m not sure why, were African-American. Margo Jefferson’s Negroland at least is place-based, like mine, and I was thinking too of the longer Baldwin essays. The Fire Next Time⎯ though of course oceans removed from my own work⎯ packs such a punch in part because of its thematic arrangement; it feels as if he’s covering all the bases.
You’ve also written fiction set in Naples, including your novel The Color Inside a Melon. Did writing fiction about Naples have any influence on how you wrote nonfiction about Naples?
High time I put it in plain English: a lot of the time I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know my sojourns in Naples would yield anything decent, whether as fiction or non-; I only knew I wanted to make something worthwhile of my quandary. So, these days, when I perceive the Naples novels⎯ which, nice of you to mention!⎯ as an earlier stage in my efforts, when I see them anticipating the more personal story in Archeology, the idea looks good, but it won’t do. I never had a grand Southern Italian strategy. Only, during my first adult visits, in the early 90s, I noticed most of all the impact of recent refugees, in particular those fleeing Africa. I saw how many of them, barely legal themselves, scratched out a Neapolitan niche only thanks to the Camorra. This in turn set off visions of cultures in collision, of the old yielding to the new, of the new never free from old haunts: the core elements of my three earthquake novels. Interestingly, too, as I dove into the fiction, I appeared to have such storytelling to myself. Stories of the new African in old Campania never turned up, for instance, in Elena Ferrante’s Naples (not that this makes the Quartet less wonderful). By the time my novels appeared, however, the field had grown crowded, and included talented Afro-Italians like Igiaba Scego, her Beyond Babylon. There’s even a TV series, written and directed by an Italian out of, I believe, Nigeria. I discerned, in other words, not only the changes in society itself, but also those in the representation of society. Both these had a natural application to my memoir, at bottom about a person trying on a new self in a new place eventually finding a match that works for him.
There are a number of allusions to historical fascism in your book. What did it feel like to be working on this during a time of rising global authoritarianism?
Fascinating question, Toby! I should say first that my plot-equivalent, the story of my midlife renewal, ends ten years back, before Trump or Brexit. Nonetheless, Nationalism and race-hatred cast a chill impossible to shake across the Italy in which I’m steeping. In that place and time, newspapers remained an excellent social barometer, giving lots of space to both opinion pieces and public comment, and I used to take time with both right- and left- wing forums. I found that even the Manifesto, ostensibly Communist, hadn’t yet worked out a humane and sensible response to the situation of refugees; even one of their writers didn’t always spot his knee jerking whenever his subject was i neri, the Blacks. Boat people from across the Mediterranean confounded most Italians, including some otherwise sweet folks in my extended family, prompting them to racist outbursts. These years also saw the rise of the hard-right Northern League, notorious for its harsh stance against migrants, Muslims, and the lazy, shiftless Italian South, including Naples. My memoir gets into all this, what one overwrought Repubblica columnist termed “Biblical changes.” The climax lays this contemporary apocalypse over that of my father’s generation, the last War, initiated by a culture committed to a white super-race. Lots to say, there. For starters, I learned that the English, the winners and supposedly the good guys, referred to their Neapolitans repair crews⎯ my father and uncle, among them⎯ as “little niggers.”
Early in the book, you allude to the works of Dubravka Ugrešić. You explore this somewhat in the book, but I’m curious – are there any writers who you wouldn’t expect to have written definitively about Naples who have?
Well, building off the last question, I want to salute, first, the great Italian imagination of Spike Lee. Several of his films feature witty, sensitive portraits of Italians, and even a rare bad outing, his War movie Miracle at St. Anna, works best when it gets inside the Italian home. Lee turns up in my Archeology, and I’ve got a Naples novel I believe he’s just the man for…. But then, my memoir is a book of books, a writer’s story after all, and Ugrešić is far from the only visitor moved to write about the city. A surprising number, I noticed, couldn’t seem to stay away, like Norman Lewis, who first arrived in the city with the British troops in late ’43, and Curzio Malaparte, neé Kurt Erich Sukert, a scion of German textile money. Malaparte’s The Skin excoriates the local Allied war effort, but he too hung around. Also Hans Ruesch, Swiss by birth, has lately tumbled into obscurity, but in the ‘50s he had fame as a race car driver and a hopping Hollywood career, with movies and TV shows based on his novels. He sampled both the LA life and New York’s, yet he kept returning to Naples. One novel too edgy for Hollywood, I Mammà e Papà (’62), took its title from the street code for MPs, during the Allied occupation, and it opens with an urchin trying to scam a black GI. For writers, plainly, the Siren City goes on ululating.
Has the process of writing this book had an influence on how you interact with Naples?
As they say on Spaccanapoli, magari. The word’s flexible, but it turns up most often as a wish, a regret: if only…. If only I could interact with Naples, lately! If only I could do more than swap Facebook posts and work in an occasional video chat. The lockdowns of COVID-19 get little mention in the memoir, with good reason. The text’s main action was ten years past, when the viral nightmare hit⎯ and it was a nightmare, no less, in a place so mad for touch and talk. One writer friend in town, a savvy man, no-nonsense, called those difficult months the worst Naples has ever endured. Hyperbole, perhaps, but the COVID crisis has links to others, like climate change and millions of desperate folks with nowhere else to go. To me this suggests that the terrors I explored in my final long chapter (before Part Five’s epilog) can erupt at any time into zombie life. Also it looks like a way in which Archeology affected my relationship to the city, allowing me to spy out subtle patterns, the dietrologia, the logic behind or beneath the surface. As for earlier, while I was writing the book, my primary challenge was a classic; I had to win people’s trust. I was no Richard Burton, going native among the Hindu, but I did need to demonstrate I wasn’t clueless. Still, everyone always knew I was writing. My first pieces on the city appeared in the early ‘90s, and a New York Times byline opened some doors. Eventually, too, I had both a novel and a book of stories out in Italian translation.
What was the most surprising thing you discovered while writing The Archaeology of a Good Ragu?
You know, I’ve enjoyed all these questions⎯ the stuff of a thoughtful reader, really. Nevertheless, this one sounds a bit like fishing. The best surprises out of the memoir are best left in the memoir, aren’t they? My Archeology turned up fascinating nuggets in all three of what I earlier called my “spiritual arenas” ⎯ intimacy, morality, and mortality, to put each in a word. Lovers, friends, family, all kept turning me around, whether they talked about ambushing the Wermacht around the old centro (“you went for the SS first, in black”) or diving into an affair with a clandestino, a refugee without legal papers. When I finally do get back to Naples, I’ll hand out a few gift copies, but I’m not sure I’ll ever allow a translation to appear; I’m still concerned someone might get hurt. That said, I guess I can add that the wrangle of getting into print was worse than I’d expected. When I finally had the text in shape, it looked to me like something halfway-marketable, a spiritual journey not that far from, say, Cheryl Strayed’s. Of course, I had a wildly different setting, but that also seemed appealing, according to my not-so-objective appraisal. Didn’t Naples, exotic and romantic, give me a “platform,” as they say? Nope, wrong. I’ve wound up in my usual cubbyhole, obscure but distinguished. Still, I feel pretty much at peace, there. In the Siren City, a singer learns to be patient, waiting for whatever extraordinary voyager may next hove near.
Photo: Camille Renee