Human error and PTSD in Verdi’s Azucena

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I always find it strange when, during polite conversation, smart and well-educated people tell me that “opera is boring”, “completely out of touch with modern day reality”, “a show of fat, yelling singers”. The fact that these statements are held true by so many made me wonder about the reasons behind such a drastic and extremist position.

There probably is a variety of reasons: first of all, for a very long time opera was seen as an elitist enjoyment for the rich and powerful, something that the average citizen couldn’t understand nor appreciate. Another reason is that the people working in the industry, from singers to musicologists, have basked in the glory of such a prestigious activity for decades, enhancing the sense of distance between “common mortals” and themselves.

The third hurdle might be language: the vast majority of opera is written in Italian, which could be considered an obstacle for anyone other than people who are fluent in the language. Oddly, however, Italians are not immune from this forma mentis, so I believe it safe to say that language alone is not a determining variable of the issue. Of course, when we consider language, we must also consider the fact that opera librettos are often written using archaic structure and vocabulary, which do require a certain degree of proficiency in the art of paraphrase in order to bring the speech to a modern, more understandable form.

1865 costume sketch for Azucena.
Her look is extremely unusual and exotic for mid-19th century Italy.

Once you strip away the “difficulties”, however, what you’re left with is a very simple and relatively short piece of literature that is a concentrate of human nature with its joys, its miseries and – most importantly – its universality, both in time and space.

Nonsense, you might say, what could someone in 2018 possibly have in common with Azucena, an old gypsy woman from The Troubadour, an opera first performed in 1853 and set during XVth century’s civil war plagued Spain?
Well, humanity itself! Context is irrelevant: Azucena is tormented by actions that are particular to her situation, but the same torment may be true in a war veteran returning from Syria today. The feelings are the same, the only difference lies in the circumstances in which they are formed: from an evolutionary standpoint, in fact, humans haven’t really changed significantly during the past few thousands of years. The same is true when we address accusations about opera being irrelevant today: it is relevant now more than ever, as we wander into times where conveying specific meaning is becoming a more and more difficult feat to attain.

So I’ve decided to (try to) prove to you all that opera is relevant and it is useful to the understanding of human nature: it can be an example that explains events in our lives, it can be a reason for introspection, it can be an occasion for the widening of one’s own self-imposed horizons. Without further ado, let’s start with the afore-mentioned Azucena from Il Trovatore.

Who is Azucena?

If we were in a police office today, Azucena would be defined as a female in her late 30s, of Romani descent, homeless. Parents deceased, no husband, has one son of approximately 20 years of age, who goes by the name Manrico and is wanted by local authorities for his involvement in the attempted coup d’état.

If we were to describe Azucena as a human being, we would find that she was left motherless some 15 years prior because her mom was found in a Count’s home, suspiciously lurking around the Count’s very young son. The boy fell ill (probably due to the exposure to germs he hadn’t been in contact with beforehand): the old woman was accused of sorcery and burnt at the stake while her daughter Azucena – who also had a young son of her own – looked on in terror and disbelief (“The crackling flame fizzles” aria text and English translation), the words “avenge me!” ringing in her ears and resonating in her mind.

It is interesting to see how differently the two sides remember those days: Azucena explains how her mother was unjustly accused and murdered by the “evil Count”, while the Count’s closest servant recalls (“Blissful father of two sons” aria text and English translation) how the old witch sneaked into the house in order to put a spell on the young boy, who consequently caught a serious fever that rattled him for days.

After the witch died, she kept on roaming the Earth, killing one of the servants who had struck her. Superstitious and extremely frightened of the unknown, they needed to find someone responsabile for the events that happened, and cannot conceive that coincidences just… happen. Tough luck: babies get sick, especially when they’re very young and antibiotics don’t exist. Arguably, this is a case of grave misunderstanding, rather than foul play: too bad Hanlon’s Razor hadn’t been invented yet.

Soon after these events, the child disappeared. The smoking remains of a young boy were found in the same spot where the old witch had been burnt, so it is implied that Azucena had burnt him. Blinded by rage and hate, Azucena had in fact decided to take matters into her own hands: she did abduct the child with the intent of burning him in the fire. An eye for an eye, we might say.

However – and this is a piece of information that is revealed quite late in the game – she was so shaken and traumatized by the sight of her mother dying that she mistakenly threw her own son into the flames. She grabbed the wrong boy without even noticing it, watched his flesh melt in the fire and when the horrible vision was over, she turned around and saw the Count’s son standing in front of her instead of her own. Now pause for one second and try to imagine what went through her mind in that very moment. Horrible, right? It’s not like you can undo something so huge. Her boy, her flesh and blood, is dead, and the reason he’s dead is that she killed him with her own two hands.

The enormity of what she has done is such that she goes insane. Today, it could be argued that what she has is a very severe case of PTSD, which is a more than reasonable diagnosis for a person who has gone through such traumatic experiences. Her only coping mechanism, the only way that allows her mind to keep functioning is denial on the one hand and thirst for revenge on the other. Her denial translates into adopting that hated child as her own, the boy who was the cause of her mother’s and her own son’s gruesome demises.

She hates him but she loves him: of course she knows who he is, but the schism inside her mind is the only thing allowing her to survive. In this new found, precarious equilibrium lies a huge problem, however. She can’t kill that child anymore, so her aspirations for retaliation must be addressed elsewhere, and the only direction she can point her gun is the boy’s older brother, who would become the “new” Count of Luna after his father’s death.

Fifteen years pass and the two brothers still don’t know anything about each other: one is a Count who has promised to keep searching for the evil woman who had killed his younger sibling, while the other believes himself to be his abductor’s child. What is worse is that they have become mortal enemies both on political and personal grounds (they fight for opposite factions and love the same woman).

Shortly after the two duel over the woman they both love, Azucena brings herself to tell Manrico, her “son”, the story of how her mother died and how she kidnapped the baby and then killed the wrong one (“She was led in chains” aria text and English translation). She is a broken human being, having lived for fifteen years with just one thought on her mind: getting revenge. The miserable woman tells the whole story as if in a trance, as if transported back in time to those horrible days, then basically confesses to Manrico that he is not really her son, the secret escaping her as she goes through the events that led them to this point.

Surprisingly, he only timidly asks “I’m not your son. Then who am I?” before getting bamboozled by Azucena, who explains that she’s confused and asks him whether she has ever shown little love for him or proven to be less than a caring and loving mother. She manipulates him into speaking about the time when he has fought with his brother, and he becomes distracted while telling her the details of the fight. It is unclear whether he truly believes her or whether he simply loves her and appreciates her support so much that his true heritage is of no relevance to him. It is frustrating and strange that – smart as he is – he can’t put together the pieces and figure out who his family is.

He tells his mother/abductor that he couldn’t get himself to murder the man, even though he had a significant advantage. A sharp chill made his body shiver and a voice from Heaven told him not to strike: fratricide is an extremely serious sin, and Manrico’s instincts are on point. “Strange pity” Azucena replies, as if the reason behind this sudden halt were unintelligible to her. She doesn’t care if he dirties his hands with his brother’s blood, on the contrary: she manipulates him into becoming the weapon for her revenge and invites him to plunge his dagger into his brother’s heart the next time he sees him (“Fighting off poorly my fierce attack” aria text and English translation). He swears on the blade, she jubilates and the pieces are all in place for disaster to happen.

Dolora Zajick as Azucena, Dmitri Hvorostovsky as the Count of Luna

Later on Manrico is away fighting and Azucena is captured by the Count (Manrico’s brother) as she wanders around looking for him (“Forward, you witch, forward!” video and  English translation). This would be a perfect time for her to confess that she messed up and the Count’s brother is actually alive. This woud bring peace and reconciliation between the two, no blood would be shed and all would end well.

Unfortunately, that’s not an outcome that is desirable for Azucena: what she wants is the man in front of her dead, she wants revenge and she wants it with every atom of her being. The sight of her mother dying on the stake is with her every step of the way. “Avenge me” the old woman said, her eyes burning out of her skull. That’s one image that Azucena cannot forget, but most important of all, cannot forgive. So she lies, again. Of course the Count takes advantage of such a precious prisoner, uses her to flush Manrico out of the castle under siege and manages to capture him (“The flames of that terrible pyre” aria text and English translation).

During their short time together in captivity, she once again fails to tell him about his heritage. To the end, she pursues her goal of getting revenge, and when the Count finally executes Manrico, she cries “He was your brother! You are avenged, mother!”. These final words have always puzzled me, because she leads the audience to believe that she does love the young man with all her heart and would never do anything to harm him, let alone have him killed.
But still, her actions and in particular her constant withholding of vital information is what kills Manrico in the end. Her desperate joy in having achieved her goal, one way or another, is the final indicator of her descent into madness (“You are avenged, oh mother” final scene with English subtitles).

The Count is horrified, as he realizes he has just murdered his own brother, and the audience – for the first time in the entire show – suddenly sides with him. Azucena’s plotting has borne the most horrible of fruits, the battle in her head finally over, with revenge victorious over love. You suddenly realize what a monster she is and has been the whole time, and at the same moment you wonder how you could have possibly trusted her. The Count is – in the end – the true victim: manipulated and lied to until it is too late and the people he loves are all dead.

And all this because one day an old gypsy decided it was a good idea to go inside someone’s house and stare at a baby.

#ReadMe – The Great Gatsby

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The Great Gatsby has been on my to-read list for many, many years, but for some reason I was never able to get myself to read it. It gave me a weird feeling, especially during the times when I preferred long novels published during the second half of the 19th century. Have you ever seen one of those movie scenes where the music is playing, and  – as the character gradually starts realizing something bad is happening – the music becomes distorted and distant? That’s exactly the kind of feeling I had whenever I was faced with this book. I think now I know why.

Photograph of an era

The whole atmosphere in Gatsby oozes decadence: here you have the most accurate snapshot of the sensational Roaring Twenties, if there ever was one. The book was written in 1925, just four years short of the Wall Street crash of October 1929. In hindsight, it tastes like an empire on the verge of collapsing, a disaster just waiting to happen. Unfortunately, those involved still had no idea that was the case… and their illusion that the party would last forever makes the awareness of what was about to go down even more bitter.

The Great Gatsby didn’t have a huge success when it was published, perhaps because it was simply the depiction of normality during that time. It became hugely popular during World War II, when the memory of the Roaring Twenties had become something of a legend. This is also probably the reason why the book has gained the name of “Great American Novel” a work that is “[…]presumably written by an American author who is knowledgeable about the state, culture, and perspective of the common American citizen. Said author uses the literary work to identify and exhibit the language used by the American people of the time and to capture the unique American experience, especially as it is perceived for the time. The Great Gatsby ticks all the boxes.

A few words ought to be spent on the costumes used in the movie: costume designer Catherine Martin took very special care in making the costumes feel as close to the Twenties as possible. The collaboration with Miuccia Prada for some of the dresses worn during the party scenes was both a challenge and an amazing opportunity to enrich the set with true pieces of art, drawing inspiration from the past and projecting it directly into the future. Descriptions of attire do not lack in the book, so there was a wealth of information and detail that allowed to faithfully recreate the atmosphere.

A story of no significance

However fascinating for romantic love enthusiasts, the story of Jay and Daisy isn’t one of particular depth. Daisy is first seen all clad in white, an angelic figure floating in the breeze. However, as the story advances, it becomes evident that she’s just a human being made of meat and bones and all the wrong aspirations and dreams. Gatsby is obsessed: his rejection was rooted in nothing else than Daisy’s social expectations for her future, which fueled his burning desire to become what she needed and wanted when they first met. Time, unfortunately, is not on his side. By the time he actually manages to transform himself into the wealthy socialite he thought would be able to conquer her, she had already married and become a mother, but that doesn’t lessen his resolve. It just complicates matters the tiniest bit (sarcasm sign needed).

Their reunion is doomed to failure because of their very different views on how the relationship should evolve: for Gatsby, it is only natural that she should leave everything behind to be with him. For Daisy, that idea sounds outrageous. She is drawn to him, but not to the point that she would just abandon her husband and daughter: she’s fickle and superficial in everything, including her scandalous adulterous adventure with the man that built an empire for her. That’s where it all comes tumbling down: all of Gatbsy’s drive and riches cannot change the status quo. The bitter end is a disappointment mainly because it robs the reader of the possibility of seeing how he would have dealt with the reality of losing Daisy, this time for good.

Nothing is quite what it seems

Daisy Buchanan is a generally despised character, but it is worth to note that she is nothing more than a product of her time. She was raised to have certain ideals and certain standards, especially when it comes to marriage, and it feels like love and affection only come after the careful analysis and consideration of her beau‘s financial situation and social status. What her true feelings are is impossible to discern clearly from just her actions, which at times seem contradictory and confused. In a way, that’s exactly what she is.

But is she truly a superficial socialite or is there more than meets the eye? Does she embrace foolishness as a survival strategy or is she truly and utterly a fool? Her relationship with her husband Tom seems authentic, and the author’s decision to not let us in on their husband-and-wife conversations deprives us of a much needed insight into the complicity of their marital life. In a way, their are the best match for one another. No matter what Jay does, he’ll always be a nouveau riche, instead of being born wealthy, which is exactly the point Tom leverages during the famous final fight scene.

On the other side of the bay, Gatsby’s house – perpetually full of people engaged in gargantuan parties – is like a flickering light meant to attract Daisy’s curiosity. He built an entire world with the intent of luring her to his nest, capturing her back from Tom, just like a spider waiting for the prey. Once he achieved his goal and Daisy became his lover, the whole dreamy illusion had no other reason to exist, so the huge blooming flower closed its petals around the couple’s passionate secret encounters, leaving everyone else on the outside.

The death of Gatsby’s American dream

One thing that strikes the reader is the normalization of hypocrisy in The Great Gatsby. Daisy is an undecided fool, Jordan is a pathological liar, Tom is a brute, Myrtle is a social climber, Gatsby is essentially a criminal: none of that matters.

They’re almost like the backdrop to the context they live in, just examples of what the time’s society was capable of bringing into the world. The conclusion can only be disastrous: Gatsby’s expectations are shattered as Daisy returns to the fold, with Tom boisterously reclaiming possession of his wife. Ironically, just minutes later, Daisy accidentally kills her husband’s mistress in a car accident, a tragic event that makes everything spiral out of control. What happened next is reconstructed with difficulty: with Myrtle dead, Tom convinced her husband that Gatsby was in fact her lover and killer, a cruel move that led both of them to an early grave. Wilson then shot and killed Gatsby, wrongly believing he had been driving the car that killed Myrtle, and then killed himself.

Nick, who has been our eyes and ears throughout the novel, is the only one to attend Jay’s funeral, a sad ceremony completely removed from the former glory of Gatsby’s parties. Everyone has abandoned him, revealing them as what they had been all along: parasites feeding off the fame and wealth of a man who had done it all for the one woman he couldn’t have. We are drawn to like Gatsby and root for his cause, but in the end it becomes evident that none of the characters are worthy of admiration: each and every one of them is miserable, no matter how rich or beautiful they are.

The American Dream is dead. The sparkling lights and temptations of a world that idolized all the wrong things only had a few years before going down in smoke. You can already taste the upcoming financial catastrophe in the last pages of the book, but as they say: it’s easy to be a prophet in hindsight. However bitter it might be, it is worth the read if only for the immersion in a world so incredibly rich in social, economic and cultural context. A vivid depiction of the Roaring Twenties, for good and for bad.

#ReadMe – Don Quixote or The Ingenious Nobleman Mister Quixote of La Mancha

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This year has been one of long and difficult reads: I’ve been trying to get my hands on as many classics as possible, since –  in spite of my love for classic literature – I’ve realized I still have major gaps in this particular field. Also, the fact that Don Quixote is one of those books that everyone claims to have read (but in reality they just got to the windmills part) persuaded me to start and determined me to finish when I felt like it was heading into an inconclusive tangle.

All the subject is in that division

That is, the division of Don Quixote in two volumes, published ten years apart by author Miguel de Cervantes. After the release of the first (and at the time of its creation – only) volume of the novel in 1605, the book had such a huge success that a spurious second part was published by someone under the name of Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda, most likely an unidentified Aragonese who was an admirer of Lope de Vega, rival of Cervantes. Perceived as an insult by the original author, this publication had the merit of pushing Cervantes into publishing his own, original, second volume. If the first part is a marvelous work of art, the second is enriched by an abundance of stylistic devices that are incredibly modern for their time.

The troubled story of the work itself is reflected into the intricacies of the authentic second volume: I can only imagine how outraged, offended and vindictive Miguel de Cervantes must have felt, having been robbed of what can be defined not only as his artistic creature, but also a vital source of income. And revenge he did take: in one of the book’s most meta scenes, Don Quixote winds up in a shop where the Avellaneda edition is being printed. He grows angry and annoyed and proceeds to pull the story apart, demonstrating that Don Quixote is none other than himself, while the other is nothing but a scandalous fraud. He also manages to give a detailed speech about the issues of publishing autonomously rather than with a publisher, an insight that would belong in a present-day discussion regarding the way Amazon is changing the market rather than a 1600s book print shop. Speaking of being ahead of his time!

Plot and plot devices

Never have I met a single person who was unable to recall, even vaguely, the story of Don Quixote: a middle aged hidalgo reads a bunch of chivalry novels, goes mad and starts doing crazy things like attacking windmills thinking they’re giants, aided by his simple minded squire Sancho Panza. Two lines to describe more than one thousand pages of delicately interwoven plots, subplots, emotions and characters who are much more profound than expected.

This was one of the biggest surprises, in fact: one delves into the book with the preconceived idea that it’s going to be a fun story about two lunatics, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth! The supposed madness of Don Quixote is something that all characters in the book struggle with, and the reader doesn’t have any advantage: at no point is there an insight into Don Quixote’s thought process, and you’re left with a constant sensation of uncertainty regarding his real deal. The only clues we have are the same ones available to the characters themselves: at times he seems incredibly sensible and speaks with modesty and high intelligence, only to go down the slippery slope of delusion whenever the matter of chivalry is brought into the equation. A 1600s version of the maddening Inception spinning top dilemma.

Even more surprising is the development of Sancho’s character. Far from being the dim-witted simpleton commonly outlined in summaries, he’s actually a vastly knowledgeable individual, with strong wit and solid wisdom. He’s not only the comic relief, but also the voice of reason when the two are in actual danger, acting as the glue between his master’s view of the world and what can be defined as objective reality. His eyes are our eyes in the story, shedding light on the extent of Don Quixote’s deviations by providing us with a relatable point of comparison.

The feminist matter

Although feminism is often regarded as a recent phenomenon, Cervantes manages to write maybe one of its earliest pages in modern literature by repeatedly shattering the concept of courtly love, describing women as smart, resourceful and independent individuals. There are several strong women in the books, but as far as I know, we’d have to wait for the 20th century to even get close to something even remotely similar to Marcela’s monologue at Chrysostom’s funeral, where she stomps on her encoding as “damsel in distress” and cruel, heartless mistress of pastoral tradition. She’s not up for any of that, and she states it quite clearly (emphasis mine):

If Chrysostom’s impatience and violent passion killed him, why should my modest behaviour and circumspection be blamed? If I preserve my purity in the society of the trees, why should he who would have me preserve it among men, seek to rob me of it? I have, as you know, wealth of my own, and I covet not that of others; my taste is for freedom, and I have no relish for constraint; I neither love nor hate anyone; I do not deceive this one or court that, or trifle with one or play with another.

I enjoyed this part enormously because there is a great need for strong female characters in today’s entertaining material (eg. books, movies), and finding one in a book written 400 years ago is surprisingly refreshing.

Don Quixote and Sancho as living book characters

Because of the success of the first part of the novel, Cervantes sets Don Quixote’s adventures of the second book in a world where he is vastly renown by people from all walks of life. This creates a myriad of possibilities in terms of meta-fictional artifices, enriching the narrative with the awareness of the protagonists of being characters in a story. The two are greeted as superstars wherever they go, and each and every person they encounter tries to figure out what they’re all about: has Don Quixote really gone mad? Does Sancho really only speak in proverbs? Do they truly believe the things they say they believe?

These are a few of the questions that also haunt the reader for hundreds of pages. How can the experience of the world not teach these two that their fantasies are just that… fantasies? How can a sensible, intelligent nobleman sink so deep into madness that he cannot tell apart fact from illusion? How can a sensible, intelligent peasant agree to serve the aforementioned nobleman on the basis of unfounded promises of riches and power? Luckily, we do get satisfaction in the second book: a Duke and Duchess happen on the way of this odd pair, and –  with the goal of having a few good laughs – they decide to turn the fantasies into reality. Sancho becomes a governor, as was promised by his master, both of them are waited on hand and foot… it would seem that maybe they weren’t so mad after all. Or were they?

Killing Don Quixote

The second volume published by Cervantes has three main goals: entertain the public, since there was an evident demand for Don Quixote adventures, make the protagonists do radically different things than what they did in the spurious Avellaneda edition (in order to further disprove its credibility), and most importantly, kill Don Quixote. The whole point was that, if he remained alive, there could always be the chance of someone deciding to write some more about him, taking him out of his hiatus and into new adventures.

Cervantes, after thoroughly marking the territory by making it clear who the creator of Don Quixote is, goes on and destroys him. Not only does he send the protagonist back home, he hacks down his very identity by effectively making him sane, thus disintegrating the fabric upon which the story could be woven. Don Quixote is old, exhausted and in his right mind, acknowledging his past madness and harshly disapproving of it. After taking care of his testament and last dispositions, he dies a Christian death. His character is demolished in spirit and body: Cervantes puts him in his grave, and asks all other writers to please leave him there.

The entire work has the taste of 20th century literature, three full centuries ahead of its time. It’s fun and entertaining, which is everything leisurely narrative should be. What strikes most, however, is how fresh and modern it feels, and how it still is such a well known and beloved work, more than four hundred years after it was first published. The adventures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza continue to tantalize our imagination, ending up as statues, paintings, sketches, movies, comic books, graphic novels, cartoons, illustrations and much, much more.

Cervantes may have managed to protect his legacy by killing Don Quixote, but in doing so, he made him immortal.

#ReadMe – His dark materials

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Have you ever wanted to read a book for the longest time and never got around to do it? Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials holds a special place in my heart, as it was recommended to me by a very dear friend more than a decade ago. Why didn’t I read it for all this time? Various reasons, but finally this past summer I decided to give in and immerse myself in what I can only define as the most tantalizing reading experience of 2016.

If you’ve ever read fantasy book series such as The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia, you will definitely understand how truly immersive fantastic worlds are: they just suck you in and take you for a spin. No wonder this is one of the most loved books of the past century, listed on every must read list you can get your hands on! It’s a great read for kids and adults alike, even though it does have very different levels of comprehension and analysis according to the reader’s proficiency in science, philosophy and religious studies.

The story is divided into three books: Northern Lights (or The Golden Compass in some countries), The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, and tells the adventures of Lyra Belacqua and her companions in their mission to ultimately save the universe. The plot is complex and lengthy and you can find it elsewhere, but the point is that as the storyline progresses, the whole universe unfolds like a fractal: the more you delve in, the richer and deeper it gets.

When I set out to write this review I was a bit uncertain of what to write: the only useful thing I had to say was “Read it. It’s awesome!”. I found the moral grounds of the trilogy deliciously solid, because although the story is definitely fantastic, it is based firmly in positive values like friendship, honor, love and loyalty, which reverberate across the pages in the actions of several characters, however (apparently) distant from the main plot line. The infringement of these values in the form of treachery or outright betrayal is always punished by leveraging the characters’ bad behavior against them. It’s a universe of definite moral balance, where nothing happens for nothing, which I think is a great thing to teach to young children. It’s one of those books that one feels very strongly about, one way or the other: it’s like a litmus test, you never know how those around you truly feel about it, and it always makes for great conversation.

There has even been a sad attempt at a movie transposition for the first book, with an outstanding cast and a terrible execution. I would never have imagined that a Christmas fantasy movie could freak out Christians to the degree that it did. And here’s where it all gets interesting: people are scared of this book. So scared, in fact, that while some would love to see it burn, others frantically write essays and articles in the attempt to expose the author’s alleged propaganda for atheism, or publish guides directed to Christian parents on how to talk about the books and movie with their children. Just think of the despair of a Christian parent trying to explain the eternal love between two angels who are, presumably (at least in the books), male!

trilogyMany of these scared fanatics have criticized the lack of factual accuracy regarding the Magisterium in the books, completely disregarding the fact that the church depicted in this fantasy world is not the Catholic church, nor any other church on Earth for that matter. One must remember that the plot line is fantastic in the most strict sense of the term – we’re talking about a book where a boy cuts slits in the fabric of the universe to open doors to other worlds using a magical knife! However, the dynamics of power and control are quite familiar to anyone who has ever read a newspaper or has a minimum of knowledge of the Catholic Church’s history. Presumably what makes Pullman’s writing so scary for Christians and Christian parents in particular is that it shows a Church that is very similar but not quite the one that has been blindly instilled in young children, which makes it easier for them to analyze, criticize and – most terrifying of all – reject.

When searching for articles criticizing the book, author and movie, you will find almost two million results in English against a little more than 42K in Italian: an interesting indicator of the fact that Catholics worldwide are even more indoctrinated than in the country that hosts the Vatican City. I read dozens of these articles so you wouldn’t have to, and here are a few selected bits that caught my eye.

Pullman’s most dangerous error concerning the Church is probably too subtle for younger readers to spot. Because the trappings of Catholicism have been retained by an essentially Calvinist belief system, the story suggests that theological differences among Christians are meaningless. What matters most to the Church is power and control over the masses. This is Karl Marx’s old canard that religion is the opiate of the masses, repackaged for children.” – I’ve read this a number of times and I still can’t understand why that should be a bad thing. Perhaps it is, if you’re trying to teach your children a version of reality that denies (or simply silences) centuries of history and philosophy.

But wait, there’s more: here are two of the most terrible, horrible sins of His Dark Materials, according to a Christian scholar.

  • Endorsement of relativism as an acceptable system of belief
  • Depiction of the Catholic Church as evil, and religion in general as obscurant

Again, I have difficulties understanding why this should be a bad thing. They’re both true, which makes the Christian desire one of forgetfulness (forget the massacres, rapes, invasions and killings perpetrated by the Catholic Church, forget the children abused by priests even as you read these lines, forget the money laundering and criminal involvements of the Vatican). A veil of silence that Philip Pullman dared to raise using an artifice of fiction, a connivance that His Dark Materials has destroyed by making children ask questions, so many questions!

I sometimes wonder if these parents ever read the Bible to their kids, and I mean the whole thing, not just the bits and pieces that they like and make for cute illustrations. They say that the Bible is the longest book Christians have never read, and in the vast majority of cases it is true. If ending a plague by making a gift of magical golden hemorrhoids or the idea of forcing your daughter to marry her rapist are OK for you, then the story of His Dark Materials should be OK as well.

Another strong critique is against the “daemons”, animal embodiments of inner-selves, that make the story “too endearing and likable” for kids, who would therefore be more prone to accepting the teachings of the book. I’ll leave the absurdity of that claim to itself, but I confess I completely lost it at “I must impute to the His Dark Materials series, whether in novel or film format, an NC-17 rating for its power to destroy one’s worldview.” Why not? Why not accept change, discussion, why not admit that maybe we’re wrong and that our worldview actually deserves to be destroyed in order to make a better one? These people are so afraid that their kids’ castles in the air will come crumbling down that they’re willing to deny, lie, hide and justify anything. A book that is capable of destroying such a mindset, I call “brilliant“. An author who is able to make kids think with their own brains and recognize abuse and horror when they see it, I call “hero“.

Bottom line, read it. It’s awesome.

#ReadMe – Emma

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“I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like” wrote Jane Austen, the author of Emma. Admittedly, not the best of beginnings.

Have you ever even heard of Emma? Many Jane Austen wannabe enthusiasts rave about Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion (indeed, all very pleasantly sounding titles, the kind that make you feel well-read), but few people have heard of, let alone read, Emma. This book is another one I’ve stumbled across because it was on each and every list of must read classics, and who I am to argue with generations of readers and literary critics who undoubtedly know better than me?

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” The whole plot is in that incipit: having no worries and no true problems to keep her busy, Emma finds pleasure in matchmaking and in the company of her friends and family. Civil conversation, subtleties of society, blunders, offenses, all make for the development of the characters and the evolution of their circumstances.

Although the author herself defined Emma as an unlikeable character, we learn to love and appreciate her good heart as she learns to understand her limits and errors, along with the consequences her actions have on those surrounding her. Of course, you can find the complete plot elsewhere, but the point here is that for a modern, young reader, the story is dull. The not-so-adventurous tales of walks and dinners and teas and the fineries of 19th century etiquette do nothing to spark the enthusiasm of an audience who is used to strong emotions, explosive, fantastic storylines and predictably unpredictable plot twists.

emmaEmma is a school of society as Mozart’s Così fan tutte is a school of lovers. The main question that arises from attempting to read it would be “is it still relevant”? Are the goals, aspirations, thoughts, manners and occupations of these aristocratic families from the English countryside still in any way relatable to today’s readers across the globe? The sheer amount of amazing television transpositions of the work would point towards an enthusiastic yes, although, as Professor Robert Eggleston so egregiously points out in his article on the matter, “neither the television production nor the other adaptations of Emma killed off […] students’ indifference”.

The issue here arises from an erroneous interpretation of literature as an activity with the exclusive intent to entertain and amaze. A literary scenario saturated with this kind of content leads unseasoned readers to judge the great books of the past with the same criteria, expecting them to be the equivalent of some sort of Wunderkammer at their disposal. The power of Emma stands in the human aspects of the people involved: in order to get the best out of it, one must purge all the hystorical, social and economical elements of discrepancy with the present, which make the characters feel foreign and distant. Emma and her entourage are all human beings with the same basic motivations and goals in life as anyone today. The means and circumstances change, but the core remains the same across the centuries. It’s a masterclass in relationships and etiquette that doesn’t bore you to death by listing the rules, but rather shows you what happens when those rules are broken. A “teach-by-example” distillate that well disposed readers will find useful even in today’s day to day interactions, on the one crucial condition that they don’t start rolling their eyes halfway wishing for the agony to be over.

Emma IS relevant today, one must only be humble enough to see it. However, the didactic function of literature seems lost on (way too) many readers, especially the younger, inexperienced ones. I could not put it more clearly than Professor Eggleston himself: “When I suggested that [the students] might want to reconsider their presuppositions and judge the work according to different standards, such as its effectiveness as a didactic work, they were horrified. This standard of judgment presupposed that literature was designed to instruct, and that was insufferable.

There is a lot to be learnt, and a lot to be understood about human nature. Are you skeptical about this book actually being something of interest for you? Possibly true. Do you think it’s an outdated, dusty novel that nobody should care about anymore? Hopefully I’ve managed to change your mind with reasonable arguments. Are you in doubt about reading it? Understandable, but just take a leap of faith and give it a chance. You will most probably find that it is closer to your experience than you might suspect.

#ReadMe – Wuthering Heights

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One of the first thoughts that came to my mind after reading Wuthering Heights was: “If Emily Brontë were alive today and she wrote this kind of stuff in a school assignment, her teachers would call social services in a heartbeat.

My first encounter with Wuthering Heights occurred in high-school, when our English literature teacher introduced us to this gloomy classic. Although she started with the best intentions, her efforts were promptly met with vague indifference that shortly turned into outright ridicule. The lesson included some short clips from the 1970 movie, with Cathy screaming “Heathcliiiiiiff” from the top of her lungs while running among the moors:  apparently it was hilarious for a class of 16 year olds, it became a catchphrase and Wuthering Heights was exiled to the realm of “WTF, nope”. So much for disclosure.

Essentially it remained filed under the “boring stuff” mental category until quite recently, when I decided it was time to catch up on some reading and chose to explore a few “must read classics” lists. Without fail, I would find that Wuthering Heights was on every and each one of these lists. So here we are talking about it, which can only mean that I have been thoroughly persuaded.

wuthering_heightsExplaining the plot of this book is no easy task. The timeline spans three generations, children are named after their parents, characters come and go, and to make things even more complicated, the whole story is told years later by a servant who we may suspect is (and was) partial to the events and people involved. You can read the complete plot here, if you wish, but if we were to boil it down to the core, the three decades story all spins around Cathy and Heathcliff’s relationship, which poisons and wilts everything around them. They are one, and everything that goes well or most commonly bad in their liaison reverberates in others’ lives. Even death can’t put a full stop neither to the folly nor to the toxic consequences of this unholy union of selfish souls.

Make no mistake, Cathy and Heathcliff are not a lovable pair. Each in their own way, they’re all out for themselves and will stop in front of nothing and nobody to see their goals achieved. The reader grows to despise them although some of their choices are – if not embraceable – at least understandable. The air at Wuthering Heights is thick with all the wrong things: first with jealousy, then with revenge, finally with hate, and the consequences are dire. The inhabitants of the house learn the subtle art of inflicting mental and emotional pain with every step they take and every word they speak. This is where I thought about what would happen if Emily were to live today: descriptions of such a dysfunctional family nucleus would send even the most distracted social worker into a frenzy. It feels all wrong, as you read it: every verbal exchange ends in failure, and the pain emerging from this impossibility to communicate without hurting the other is almost palpable. It’s almost like an ante-litteram example of the hedgehog dilemma.

Wuthering Heights is the emotional equivalent of quicksand. Even actions started with the best intentions end up damaging relationships, and the more effort they put into it, the more the situation deteriorates. In the end, it’s a draining read. It would be unredeemable but for the ending: Heathcliff’s death and young Cathy’s efforts lead to a slow but steady healing of the wounds that had been inflicted for decades. The union of Cathy and Hareton is almost like those small, delicate flowers one can sometimes see growing obstinately in concrete cracks. All the odds are against them, but there they both are, undoing all of Heathcliff’s efforts to sow disagreement and coldness. Looking back to the final part of the book, it’s almost as if their love is the light that kills Heathcliff’s darkness, and him along with it. With no more reason to live, he drifts into madness and finally dies.

The main question for me is: why is Wuthering Heights still so popular? It’s on top of everyone’s must read lists, it was made into a movie at least a dozen times, despite its chilling and anything-but-romantic story. Its influence is so wide that even A England, an indie nail polish brand, has dedicated an entire collection to Emily and Wuthering Heights. The interest around the work and its author is still so strong that in August literary biographer Claire Harman stated that Emily Brontë may have had Asperger’s syndrome. Shortly afterwards, Emily Willingham dismissed the claim by bringing reasonable biographic data into analysis and basically calling bs on Harman’s statement. Not that the catfight in itself matters: the point is, even 168 years after her death, Emily Brontë is still capable of raising questions and, most importantly, stirring powerful, vivid emotions.

I wonder how many of today’s authors will be able to do the same.

#ReadMe – Moby Dick

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Reviewing the classics is a really hard thing to do. Decades, sometimes centuries of readers have analyzed, criticized, perused, read, re-read, got inspiration from and loved these books. One feels a bit overwhelmed when attempting to give a personal opinion on a masterpiece such as Moby Dick. It would be wise to leave these tasks to the professionals. BUT I’m by no means wise, reading this book is something I’ve wanted to do for ages, and now that the mad and most desperate study is done, I’m extremely excited to share my thoughts with you.

Moby Dick is a story of unredeemable despair. Captain Ahab’s quest to find the white whale reminds me of the passion of another literary hero of ancient times:

“‘not tenderness for a son, nor filial duty
toward my agèd father, nor the love I owed
Penelope that would have made her glad,
‘could overcome the fervor that was mine
to gain experience of the world
and learn about man’s vices, and his worth.”

mobydickHowever, what moves Ahab is not Ulysses’ curiosity, but vengeance without compromises, a blind mission that can only end in death for him and those around him, even if this means that he’s leaving behind a young wife who loves him, along with their newborn child. His folly knows no religion, no affection and no devotion other than to the God of vengeance. He thinks he will kill the beast, but as the story progresses and becomes bleaker and devoid of hope, the reader starts to understand how it is going to end. The signs are all there, it’s like watching a movie and seeing the killer approach his victim silently. You can only hold your breath and ride it out, there’s no use screaming, no use trying to alert them. Ahab is doomed, and you know it from the moment of the first encounter with Elijah, the prophet, who warns Ishmael against joining the Pequod. The book is so thick with symbolism that if you’re interested in a more detailed analysis it is worth reading books like “A companion to Herman Melville” or “Why read Moby Dick?“.

The body of the Pequod’s narration is structured along the lines of other great books of the past (for some reason Chaucher’s Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio’s Decameron come to my mind): a series of twelve gams, encounters with other ships. The first encounter gives no useful information regarding the whereabouts of the white whale, but as the story proceeds, each gam takes them closer to the killer monster. The 12th ship they encounter is in extremely bad shape after unsuccessfully fighting the beast. This is another turning point where the reader understands what’s happening: the first ship was intact, the twelfth was half destroyed… which means that the Pequod will suffer even a more nefarious fate, it will be the one to sink, complete the picture of increasing ruin. So there you are, sitting with Melville’s masterpiece, saying to yourself “there is no way this is going to end well“. And it doesn’t. Spoiler alert, everyone dies except for Ishmael, who’s telling the story. Ironically, he survives by hanging to an empty coffin, another cluster of symbolism I’m not even going to attempt to explore.

I do confess I read this book in its most beautiful Italian translation by Cesare Pavese, and this is the translation I recommend to anyone who would like to read it in Italian. The English version, with its profuseness of maritime and whaling terms, was too much even for me.

Which brings us to the conclusion of my review, which is also the answer to the question I’m always asked about Moby Dick: “Should I read it, is it any good?”. Well, yes and no. What I found is that people either hate or love Moby Dick, there is no middle ground. Even D.H. Lawrence, who defined it a masterpiece, also wrote that “Nobody can be more clownish, more clumsy and sententiously in bad taste, than Herman Melville, even in a great book like Moby Dick. […] One wearies of the grand serieux. There’s something false about it. And that’s Melville. Oh dear, when the solemn ass brays! brays! brays!”. For some people, threading through pages and pages about the anatomy of the whale, the taxonomy and the techniques of whaling just feels like work. Some editors publish abridged versions with the boring bits cut out. Some people love the whole thing so much that they organize monthly reading groups so they can read and re-read it. Some say that – as many other great masterpieces – Moby Dick gets better when it is re-read. It is probably true, but I haven’t tested that affirmation myself.

What I do know is that it is a must read if you are a book lover. It is a story so popular, so entrenched in people’s collective imagination, that you cannot avoid putting it on your reading list.

So that you can wear T-shirts like this.

#ReadMe – Europolis

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“Sulina, where the old Danube loses its name and waters into the sea.”

I’m pretty sure I’m treading safe waters in saying that none of you have ever heard about Jean Bart and his incredibly obscure novel, Europolis.

Since I moved to Italy, I’ve had a strong desire to keep in touch with my motherland’s literature, partly because I wanted to maintain proficiency with the language, partly because the style differs from anything else I’ve ever read. You can have an idea of English literature and its well furnished manors, Russian literature with tragedy and loss, German, Spanish, French. But Romanian literature is something altogether different, and unfortunately translations don’t give it justice. It’s not that you can’t understand it, you simply miss the taste of the raw, versatile expressions of one of the most interesting melting-pot languages in Europe.

The plot is a story of redemption, greed, seduction, envy and finally death. In a city consumed by the idea of business, money and getting rich overnight, news about the return of a long gone adventurer sends everyone into hysterics. They think he’s coming back wealthy and willing to invest, which is why he is received with every honor. Unfortunately, the story is a sad and definitely not thrilling one: the man had been jailed for all those years, and the beautiful woman he’s brought along is his daughter. I can almost hear the shocked gasps when everyone saw that she was a mulatto. Poor and with no support, for them death is the only way out. A teary, cruel story painted on the canvas of Sulina. 

So why are we talking about this? Because I went on a three-day trip to Romania at the beginning of May last year, on a few hours notice. Undoubtedly one of the most incredible experiences of my life (so far, at least) and a sudden plunge into my ancestors’ origins and lands, deep into the heart of the Danube delta. Of course, a visit to the city that lies “where the old Danube loses its name and waters into the Black Sea” was mandatory.

europolis_1_fullsizeSo let me tell you a bit about Sulina, one of the most cosmopolite towns in the world during the 1920s. Home to the European Commission of the Danube, it was a true crossway of languages, origins, commerce and traffic at the beginning of the century, a golden time that is frozen forever in the pages of Europolis, published in 1933. Jean Bart, although very French-sounding, was actually a Romanian author whose real name was Eugeniu Botez. So while visiting Sulina, I went searching for its book, the book that talks about the town and its glorious past, well buried under the tired skin of a town that has lost both its shine and its glamour. We left our boat docked under the cool sun in a freezing breeze, curious faces of children staring at us.

The whole town seemed to float in eternity. We visited the museum, and the old lighthouse. I climbed steep, dangerous steps to reach the top, where I couldn’t understand whether it was the strong winds or the amazing view that took my breath away. You could see Sulina stretching back, close to the water, hugging the last breath of the Danube as it flowed into the sea. You could feel the centuries of history lying under your feet, so powerful and awe-inspiring it almost hurt. It was like seeing myself as a tiny part of a gigantic puzzle I knew I belonged in, and my blood rushing in my veins matched the rushing waters of the river.

Maybe the most amazing part of it was visiting the maritime cemetery. I had been informed there were people of all sorts buried there: princesses, pirates, ship captains, Ladies and Lords. Unlike other cemeteries, which are mostly orthodox, this one is divided into sections, to accomodate the dead of all faiths and religions. With grass barely giving way to soft sand, while clouds gathered above our heads, we read tombstones and unwillingly let our eyes water. One above all, the tomb of a young, brave sailor who challenged the waters to save a young lady Margaret. Right next to it, the tomb of lady Margaret.

We left the cemetery, silent and cold, while it started to rain. That evening, after drinking wine and eating fresh fish, I lied on my bed, reading Europolis. It had nothing to do with the old, tired town I’d seen in the afternoon. It was the image of past glory, and it felt like rummaging in the pictures of an old duchess, feeling more and more amazed in seeing how splendor can fall into oblivion.

I have no idea whether you will read Europolis. It is probably one of the least known books in Europe: a small pearl I enjoyed putting on my necklace.

#ReadMe – The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks

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Have you ever heard of Henrietta Lacks? You might have heard her name in the news during the past few weeks, when a Tennessee-based parent named Jackie Sims has made it her mission to get Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks banned in her son’s school system because of content of “pornographic” nature. An outrageous and frankly ridiculous demand, considering what the book actually is about. Which is where I come in!

Earlier this year, on March 8th, my Facebook timeline was filled with lavish praise, pictures of flower bouquets, chocolates and such, but the one post that really caught my eye was IFLScience’s one about Henrietta Lacks, the immortal woman who saved millions of lives.

Intrigued with the description, I found out there’s a book about her story, so I left all other reading aside and started devouring page after page about this poor black woman who died in 1951 in immense pain and leaving five kids behind.

henriettaIt would seem a straightforward story: a black patient goes to the hospital, her cancerous cells are biopsied and doctors decide to try and grow those cells in an attempt to produce an immortal cell line. There were absolutely no laws regulating tissue management and rights at that time, so Henrietta had no idea that her cells had been preserved, let alone that they were being grown in a lab!

The rest is history: Henrietta’s cells, known as HeLa to the scientific research community, were the only ones that survived and kept on thriving, successfully creating what is now a golden standard of cells used to test all kinds of new vaccines and drugs. They were sent to space, exposed to radiation, blown up, used to test the polio vaccine, bought and especially sold at a very high price by medical companies. They allow researchers to do tests that would be impossible to perform without a human being.

One vial of HeLa can go from 100$ to 10.000$ based on the type of genetic modification the cells have undergone, but Henrietta’s family hasn’t seen a dime of the immense cashflow the cells have generated during the past 60 years. Not one cent, nothing at all. They can’t even afford medical insurance, and the saddest part of all is that they don’t really understand what HeLa actually is.

Ms. Skloot tells the story of the Lacks family with intricate delicacy. The second part of the book, which details her friendship with Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, is also the account of a writer trying to build trust where others have only offered deceit. It gives a feeling of how impossible it is to make things right for the Lackses at this point, after they have been lied to, exploited and abandoned. An utterly unfair outcome caused by a severe lack of regulation that now is steadily being resolved, but which unfortunately will offer no benefit to the Lacks family.

All in all, it is a book worth reading if you want to know more about the story of these incredible cells and the legal consequences they had all over the world in terms of tissue management, patient privacy, use of biopsy tissue for research: to sum it up, what happens to the bits and pieces people leave behind in the doctor’s office. But most of all it is an account of human pain and suffering, and how they have helped ease the pain and suffering of millions across the globe, making Jackie Sims’ request even more ludicrous. I hope the book will continue to be read and studied in schools, and I hope students will ask keep asking questions about HeLa and their incredible story.

Thank you, Henrietta.

Buy the book!

The WebSummit is dead, long live the WebSummit!

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WebSummit 2015 has come and gone, and apparently it’s a wrap for Dublin. At least for the next edition, Europe’s hottest tech conference will be taking place in Lisbon. For those of you who weren’t in Ireland last week, this decision has been surrounded by an enormous unrest in the Irish media, along with speculation around Paddy Cosgrave’s persona, so much so as to reach the proportions of a full blown scandal. There are many articles you can read if you want to dig in deeper.

My two cents on the matter: the only difference location is going to make will be for the actual location. For all those flying in from the rest of the world, flying to Dublin or flying to Lisbon doesn’t make any difference. It does for the city that is going to be hosting tens of thousands of attendees willing to spend their money in hotels, restaurants, pubs, gadgets, souvenirs, trips and tourist attractions of all sorts. I tried doing to math with some friends and we came up with a very conservative figure of 50+ milion euro spent during the WebSummit event ridden week alone.

But before we look into the future, I’d like to tell you a little about how the 2015 edition winded up. The short answer is “awesome“, as it always is. As for the long answer, there are a few points that deserve a little bit more detail.

The rapid increase in attendees during these last few years has been greeted with much excitement and well deserved pride by the organizers. However, the sheer volume of people makes it impossible to even see everything, let alone talk to everyone. It’s a blessing and a curse at the same time, making the “WebSummit” an abstract concept, something that each attendee experiences in very different ways. It’s probably what makes it the rich event that it is, but it can get challenging at times.

teamdavosThere were many celebrities around the conference, and those of you who know what a massive Game of Thrones fan I am will understand my excitement when I heard that Irish actor Liam Cunningham would be doing a press conference. I couldn’t go away without some photographic evidence.

Let’s get to the shining stars of the show: I’ve talked with quite a few startups this year, tried to read descriptions of many more, and was even surprise pitched on the spot while wandering through the RDS. Some of these you will see soon in the Interviews section of this website, others I found present a fundamental issue: they’re trying too hard to turn niche specific strategies into tools without considering B2B in their revenue streams.

What I mean is that they try to become the “killer app” and set their goal on customer acquisition and B2C, which is of course not wrong. What I think is lacking is their understanding that most of the times their goal should be getting into business with companies which might find their idea interesting to integrate in already existing systems, both as investors and as business partners. This would bring benefit both to the company (which finds itself holding a valuable piece of modern technology in their hands) and the startup itself (which has the security of funding and the stability of solid ground to stand and expand on).

One of the questions two young startuppers asked me was: “How do we choose our sales and marketing manager? We have the budget to hire someone, but we don’t know what to look for. We’re developers.” Of course: these guys are not HR specialists and don’t have a degree in psychology nor the experience needed, but they do face a true challenge, and one that I believe is insufficiently addressed at the moment.

I’ve seen investors in disguise as attendees, new-to-this-market investors who need guidance in choosing the right startup to fund, successful startups which have now grown into flourishing companies and many truly inspiring young talents. You can see there’s a fire in their eyes that keeps them going, and that fire excites me as nothing else does.

Were you at the Summit? What were your thoughts about it?
Let me know in the comments!