Thursday 12 December 2019

A gripping but flawed tale of an inter-racial affair

The Good Italian, Stephen Burke Hodder & Stoughton, tpbk, £13.99, 310 pages

The Good Italian
The Good Italian
Stephen Burke

Maggie Armstrong

Eritrea has been a tyrannically ruled one-party state since it gained independence from Ethiopia in 1991.

This intrepid first novel from Stephen Burke (pictured right) takes us back to its colonial past, to 1935 when it was ruled by Italy (Burke is an Irish screenwriter and director who lives in both Ireland and Italy).

The novel follows Enzo, a dull and self-centred Italian harbourmaster in Eritrea's main port of Massawa, who, after being prompted by his friend, decides he needs a local woman as a housekeeper to combat his loneliness.

Enter Aatifa, a servile yet "wild-looking woman". A delicate situation unfolds as Aatifa's duties extend to going to bed with Enzo.

This happens in an atmosphere of political disruption: rising fascism, Mussolini's plan to annex Ethiopia, and a new government decree forbidding conjugal relationships between Eritreans and Italians, such as Enzo and Aatifa share. However, the real interest isn't their doomed love affair but the question of whether their love can actually exist for the reader.

This is a superb story, careful on historical fact. But the characters are bland and undefined, the dialogue stilted.

Each of them is presented in a studied, odourless style that plays it safe right throughout the sex scenes. The narrator builds Aatifa up as a multilayered individual made of moral steel, but he doesn't convince us she is any more complex than the stock mysterious Eastern woman seen in so much colonial literature and film.

Thankfully, the plot makes for compulsive reading. And as historic events challenge the lovers' fate, the characters grow more tangible. Enzo, for example, proves by his actions he is the Good Italian the title promised, rather than the toothless bore he started out as.

Burke is particularly good at presenting the awkward tensions between colonisers and subjects, and interlacing these with the love affair.

In one scene, Enzo gives Aatifa a dress he has picked up from a new shipment of Parisian fashions.

But she fails to see why she should gratefully wear it, telling him she will never be an Italian woman. In another, Enzo stops Aatifa from killing a lamb for supper, finding this barbaric. They go out to eat local food instead, and he eats spiced lamb on pancakes. This highlights the mindset of the coloniser, which exists in the tourist today.

Stephen Burke has to be commended for this undertaking, which is at pains to teach us something new about the divided past of a country whose present is so troubled.

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