I do not remember who wrote that behind every place there is a story. Whoever the author may be, I can affirm with absolute certainty that the quote matches every little town and village in Italy. A hamlet like Montenero Val Cocchiara for instance, to which Michele Antonio DiMarco dedicated his book, Mundunur: A Mountain Village Under the Spell of South Italy. In the volume, published by the company DiMarco founded twenty years ago, he leads the reader into a world where small stories get connected to the history of a whole country, known for big moments and big monuments more than the microhistory. To paraphrase another son of the South, Vincenzo Consolo, the author talks about stories of people who have been forgotten by history with the capital «H».
Mundunur is a labor of love, written by the son of Italian immigrants who moved to Erie, Pennsylvania. DiMarco discovers that his personal history intersects with a larger narrative of the Italian past as he traces the paths of the small, and almost forgotten village of Montenero in the province of Isernia, in Molise. «Mundunur» is the nomenclature for the village in the local dialect. It is also the name kept alive by DiMarco’s ancestors as they, like so many others from Italy, traipsed from tiny towns, across the Atlantic, and to the Americas.
In the introductory chapter, DiMarco tells the story of how he came to write the book which was a product of a discussion with a relative. The task was daunting at first, but the support of friends, stories «passed down over generations from the elders» «viii» and his own affection for Mundunur pushed him to continue. The author includes a number of photographs, and reprints of historical documents which reveal the types of research he accomplished as well as his commitment to the project. He manages to condense more than two millennia into three hundred pages, and does so with compelling and clear prose. Unfortunately, the volume is less compelling with respect to its structure, as it seems divided into two separate narratives. In the initial chapters, the tone is personal, almost a memoir of an immigrant, remembering and rediscovering his roots. The rest of DiMarco’s work is, instead, a study of the main historical events over two millennia, becoming a compendium of Italian history.
In the first two chapters, DiMarco narrates his personal story, and how he, growing up in an Italian American family in Pennsylvania, learned about Montenero and the life or his grandparents in Italy. In chapter one, «Table Talk: Legends of the Old Country» the journey starts from the most sacred place for Italian Americans: the kitchen. It is a journey into the personal past of the author where «the kitchen table was the meeting place for relatives and friends who shared their thoughts and feelings» (p. 3). A whole world is described around that table, a world made of images and memories from his grandparents, a world made of Italian words where the youngsters learned about Montenero. «Anyone who lives in one country and has remaining ties to his or her nation of origin is constantly pulled between two cultures» (p. 8) and it was the Italian culture that inspired DiMarco to go back to Montenero in the summer of 1976.
In chapter two, «A Foreigner Discovers the Ancestral Village» DiMarco meets his long-lost Italian relatives, walks along the roads of the ancient village, saying «Buongiorno», the locals smiling back curious about this American man walking around their village: «Everything reinforced the impressions I received from my grandparents and other Monteneresi in Erie about the ancestral village. The buildings changed for sure, with modern colored cement walls and the growing use of modern appliances such as washing machines. The splendor of the mountain scenery remained unchanged» (p. 22). Almost forty years later, in 2014, DiMarco finally has a chance to return to Montenero. But the village he visited in 1976 was no longer there. The social and economic crises that shook Italy, touched Montenero too: «Once upon a time, someone from a nearby village would have been considered an outsider […] For centuries, a Montenerese was someone who was conceived in the village and was surrounded by others born and bred there. The homogenous culture in which that person was nurtured does not exist any longer» (p. 25). Montenero was a different village now, where many moved away, emigrated, and newcomers, from all parts of Europe had settled in. Looking back to the lost past, to Montenero’s history, seemed to the author the only way to understand «how and why Montenero has changed and continues to do so» (p. 25).
With chapter three, «Setting the Stage Between Land and Sky» the tone of DiMarco’s work changes from personal narrative to a socio-economic and historical study. Climate and ecosystem are investigated in chapter three, and from chapter four, «Footprints in Isernia Leading to Romanization» the history of Italy (and specifically Montenero’s connections to it) is addressed in an encyclopedic way. We move from personal stories to a wider view of the geographic, social, and historical context of this place, spanning from the paleolithic to the Samnites (the prehistorical population who fought the Romans in three famous campaigns), from the Roman domination to the Goths’ invasion, from the Normans to Frederick the Second, the stupor mundi (chapter five «Knock, Knock: Invasion from the North and South»). Through the French and Spanish dominations, and the creation of a local aristocracy, we find the first mention of Montenero in official documents (p. 65), and arrive at an important date in Italian history: 1647, with Masaniello’s revolt, followed by another foreign ruler, this time the Austrians (chapter seven, «Nobles, Peasants, Rebels and Relics»).
It is not until chapter nine that the Risorgimento is discussed. In 1861, Italy is finally a nation (chapter ten, «Quasi-Unification, Social Unrest, Emigration») but the new taxes imposed by the Piedmontese government force millions to emigrate (p. 156). After World War i, twenty years of fascism and the Second world war, Italy becomes a republic in 1946 (chapter fourteen, «Postwar Pleasures and Pains») and the reader enters another age of the Italian history, and «Montenero serves as an example of the southern struggle to keep up with changing times» (p. 227). In the 21st century, only the elders are left in Mundunur, a condition that makes it similar to so many other villages in Italy now. The last chapter is dedicated to the future of Italy, Molise, and of course, Montenero (chapter fifteen, «Molise’s Future and Montenero Hereafter»). Here DiMarco delves beyond personal story and historical narrative; he imagines what will happen to Montenero in the near future. The author sees more socio-economic changes, like depopulation and emigration: «more than 20 percent of residents in Molise are over sixty-five years old» (p. 237). The ongoing transition from an agricultural society to a more modern one, made of wind and solar power plants and a capillary diffusion of internet, will hasten. DiMarco seems to suggest that the future of Montenero is to be found in its past, the rediscovery of traditional products and how to make them profitable (p. 239), in addition to revitalizing tourism, or better, agritourism.
In conclusion, Mundunur is an informative book about the past, present and future of Southern Italy and not just about the small village of Montenero written by one of its sons with love. In my opinion, the author made a mistake in mixing two books: one, passionate and personal; the other, a litany of historical facts that transform his work into a tourist guide.