ISOLINA

By Dacia Maraini.
Translated from the Italian by Sian Williams
152 pages
ISBN # 0-7043-4426-2.

Comments of Bob Corbett
April 2002

In the early 1980s a writing student takes as a project to retell and investigate the story of Isolina, a young girl in Verona who in January of 1900 was murdered. Her body, cut into four pieces and missing the head, turns up in the Adige River. The city is startled to attention and an intense investigation follows. It turns out that Isolina Canuti has been killed. She was an underclass young woman, very unattractive, even slightly disfigured but sexy. She had a reputation for taking lovers and certainly had been involved with a couple of officers from different regiments of the Italian Army. Attention focuses on Lieutenant Trivulzio of the Alpini Regiment.

He was living at her home, had sexual relations with her and she was pregnant. He was pushing for an abortion and thus was strongly suspect in her murder. Eventually he was acquitted of any criminal wrong doing.

The unnamed student is digging into this little known story curious at the verdict and more curious about how Isolina seems to virtually disappear in this entire affair. The studentís intention is to bring Isolina back to center stage. But it is not to be so.

As the investigation some 80 plus years after the fact reveals, all is ambiguous and much is lost to history. What turns out to be fairly clear, however, is that the eventual trial, which is NOT a trial of Lieutenant Tribulzio for murder, but a trial of investigator Trabucchi for slandering the lieutenant, is one where the investigator is convicted and sentenced to more than two years in prison. We also learn that there is a major political issue at stake. In 1900 there were mixed feeling about the role of the army in Italian life. The socialists, party of investigator Trabucchi, are opposed to the army and would like to see it smirched. Tribulzioís supporters are from the political right and think the army is essential to Italian life and must be protected.

The truth seems to be that Tribulzio neither murdered Isolina, not even plotted to do so. He did want to abandon her with only modest financial support and was urging an abortion. Isolina wanted to bear the child, presumably to hook the lieutenant. It seems likely that a group of his army buddy officers were with her and she was drunk as they were. They, at first, jokingly talked about doing an abortion and Isolina even lay on a table for it. But the drunks got carried away, used a fork and began on her in earnest and killed her. Panicked, the army surgeon among them cut up the body and they dumped it in the river, all unbeknownst to Lieutenant Tribulzio who was on duty that evening.

Itís a hard case. What had the lieutenant done wrong? Impregnated the girl? Abandoned her in pregnancy? Urged an abortion on her against her will? Possibly all of these, but the author and even her critics all seem to take Tribulzio seriously to task for these failings. First of all, they certainly are not murder. Secondly, when one more closely examines the widely accepted mores of the turn of the century in Europe, such behavior was quite acceptable among noble and military circles. Underclass women were regarded as fair game for nobles and soldiers and pitiful little support was ever provided for them. Thus, using the criteria of 1900 itself, Tribulzioís behavior would not have seemed very strange at all. Today we may well condemn slavery and consider it utterly barbaric, yet most of us recognize that a slave owner of the 1750s who mistreated a slave was not acting much out of the norm. The same is true of Tribulzio.

Yet the point of Maraini holds. Whatever is going on in this bizarre trial, Isolina as a person and victim almost completely disappears.

Dacia Maraini tells the story with great detail and care. She takes us through the investigation and the dominant role that newspapers played as well as public opinion. The media and the public; they are attended and catered to. The politics of the nation is also central. But Isolina is dismissed as a loose woman, and ugly to boot. Itís not so much that she got what she deserved, though that is sort of suggested along the way, but that she didnít much matter. Bigger issues were afoot.

Maraini and many of her critics seem to think the silencing of Isolina in history is some major issue. I think it was not. It might well be today, but the same sort of thing goes on in the United States with the death of many black people who happen to live in the slums. The combination and class and color makes such victims of violent crimes and murders simply disappear within our current culture. Similarly Isolina disappears in the Italian culture of 1900. It is not admirable in any way, but it also isnít tremendously exciting to call attention to this common cultural pattern. I couldnít help wonder if Dacia Maraini and her supportive and celebratory critics were aware of just how acceptable the behavior of the Lieutenant Tribulzios of that world was. Not the murder; and that wasnít Tribulzioís affair anyway, but the basic treatment of her.

I think back to novels and short stories of near-by Viennese author Arthur Schnitzler who deal with this issue in turn of the century Viennese literature and treated it as normal every day common and acceptable behavior. I think the same was true of Isolinaís Verona.

Despite this quarrel with the world-significance of the theme in an a temporal sense, I enjoyed the telling of the tale and Dacia Maraini proved herself to me as a great story teller, one quite comfortable with working with minute facts of the complexity of human existence and witnessing.<.P>

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu