Twenty-five million Americans claim Italian heritage, so it is hardly surprising that the immigrant experience has enjoyed enduring popularity in fiction, film, and memoir for over a cen-tury in the U.S. Such has not been the case in Italy, a country that has struggled to come to terms with its emigrant past, the exodus of millions relegated to the margins of an illustrious literary tradition. This discrepancy accounts, perhaps, for the success of Elena Gianini Belotti’s Pane amaro. Un immigrato italiano in America, awarded the Elsa Morante Prize for best work of fiction in 2006. Translated in 2012, The Bitter Taste of Strangers’ Bread recounts a version of the immigrant experi-ence less familiar to the American reading public. While stories of hard-won successes have come to define the immigrant narrative for descendants of Italian Americans, tales of heart-wrenching defeats are largely untold, particularly those of Italians who returned to their villages broken physically and psychologically by their American experience. Belotti’s novel is among the most recent additions to this latter category, a novel inspired by the real life experiences of her late father, a semi-literate and unskilled laborer who arrived in the U.S. in 1910. Belotti, in fact, dedicates the book to her father, basing her fictional reconstruction of events on a diary he kept until his return to Italy in 1922.
At the very least, the novel is ambitious: a 430-page tome that traces Gildo’s fictional transatlantic journey from his village in northern Italy’s Val Seriana, across the North American continent to a remote railroad camp in Renton, Washington. Although Gildo’s peregrinations take him as far as San Francisco, much of the book’s action unfolds in the Pacific Northwest, an area whose mining and railroad industries benefitted from cheap immigrant Italian labor. The geography here will recall Angelo Pellegrini’s American Dream, a coming of age memoir set in Washington during the same decade; however, Bitter Bread goes to the heart of the immigrant experience, focusing on the harsh conditions and fierce exploitation Italians faced in this isolated region.
Unlike their urban compatriots, Italians in outlying Western regions were cut off from the outside world, without access to the network of social services provided by religious and philanthropic organizations. As Gildo and his companions quickly discover, towns – even the nearest supply stores – are miles from the work camps where they toil in sub-human conditions, their inner reserves tested beyond all limits. Disillusioned, alone, and defenseless they can only look inward, contemplating failure and aching for families left behind.
The book’s title leaves little doubt as to what awaits the protagonist from the moment he and his small group settle on a plan to leave Abbazzia. Duped by shipping line agents, overcharged by boarding house owners, sold fake train tickets and abused by American bosses, the Italians are particularly disdained. They suffer in silence, as well they must, since among their losses the most traumatic is that of language. Irreparable loss – of family, customs, and all that is dear – is the leitmotif that runs through the novel, and the theft of Gildo’s most precious possession is a fitting metaphor for future dreams that will never materialize. Loss, along with the attendant themes of profound alienation and the shattering of self, recall the canonical works of early twentieth-century authors, especially those of De Amicis (In America); Pirandello (The Other Son); and Maria Messina (two short stories entitled La Mèrica), published in the years that encompass the novel’s timeframe.
If Bitter Bread owes a thematic debt to the canon’s iconic works, stylistically it represents a sharp departure from its predecessors, short stories that rely on stark images and pared-down language to deliver their tragic message. Despite an engaging storyline and a wealth of documentary material that even the most knowledgeable of readers will find fascinating, the novel suffers from over-wrought descriptions that diminish its emotional impact. Lengthy passages and a repetitive lexicon that describe the protagonist’s string of misfortunes quickly exhaust the reader, failing to evoke an emotional response commensurate with his sufferings. The unrelenting downward spiral of events ultimately numbs our sensibilities, with the result that we pity Gildo from afar rather than care deeply about him as a character.
Similarly problematic is the novel’s handling of historic in-formation. The period’s seminal events, including World War I, the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, Italy’s Libyan War, Prohibition, and the trial of anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, are rarely woven effectively into the broader tapestry of Gildo’s saga. Instead, factual intrusions presumably intended to educate readers break the narrative momentum. Artistically, however, these authoritative interjections are less than satisfying, as the straightforward presentation of facts remains disconnected from the character’s immediate reality. (Unfortunately, occa-sional spelling, typographical, and factual errors not in the original are also a distraction.)
Despite these shortcomings, Bitter Bread contains many splendidly crafted passages, especially the inner monologues of Gildo’s weary mother which reveal personal heartbreak and the stark hardships that triggered emigration. After Gildo sub-mits to having his head shaved in preparation for the journey, his mother can only reflect on the uncertain future that awaits her sensitive son. «She swept up the hair scattered on the floor and tossed it into the flames. It crackled brightly, filling the kitchen with its acrid odor. She had expected Gildo to rebel against the scalping; or rather, she had hoped to see him react at least this once. Instead he had put himself in Giacomo’s hands like a lamb.» Equally captivating are those scenes involving Gildo’s indefatigable sister-in-law, Ninetta, in whom many readers will recognize the ghosts of legendary grandmothers, determined to succeed in their adopted country. A woman who straddles the Old and New Worlds with clarity and tenacious resolve, Ninetta brings a welcome balance to the story. Those whose ancestors found an America less demonstrably cruel, xenophobic and self-serving than the one depicted in Bitter Bread will appreciate the inclusion of such a character as the novel is, at its core, a harsh critique of the American economic system that necessitated the exploitation of immigrants. To this point, it should be remembered that Bitter Bread is a re-elaboration both of history and a personal memoir told by a contemporary voice. As such, it will stand first and foremost as a daughter’s moving tribute to her father’s immigrant past.
Elise Magistro (Scripps College)