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On Earth As It Is in Heaven

By Davide Enia, translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

310 pages, $27

By Michael D. Langan

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

Hatred and violence are mother’s milk for what happens in Palermo, Italy, in the early 1980s. The author Davide Enia tells us that in this place, one must assume “a defensive crouch … an art handed down from one generation to the next.”

“On Earth” is the first novel for Enia, who lives in Rome. It is about “Sicilitude,” a term coined by Italian novelist Leonardo Sciascia. The word is meant to portray “the language and mentality of that eternally perplexing island” of Sicily, ruled by the Mafia. “On Earth” shifts back and forth in time from the mid-1940s to the 1980s.

There is an honesty about this book that beggars explanation. Readers will have to decide whether or not it’s worth making their way through vulgarities and worse that are part of growing up in Sicily between the 1940s and 1980s. But the payoff is a picture of a real if disturbing world laid bare. There is a lot of “laid bare” in this book. It is, among other things, about what men do to women in acts of aggression disguised as misbegotten “manliness.”

The novel can be read as a punch-out from start to finish. A gym is one of the main venues. Sweat and stupidity elbow each other for pride of place in “On Earth.” “The air hangs hot and heavy…. a fatherless nine-year-old boy [Davidù] climbs into the ring to face his first opponent.” He is knocked out by Carlo, the gym’s most powerful fighter.

Davidù, the main character, nicknamed “Poet” because of his literary nature, is a teenager coping with bewildering changes in his body. He has a life-long crush on a girl, Nina, whom he met when he was 9. His charismatic and manipulative uncle, Umbertino, teaches him the ropes, telling him things that a father should (and shouldn’t), if he were there. His father, a fighter called the Paladin, meaning warrior, is dead.

Umbertino explains to Davidù his own development as a boxer trained, years ago, by “Il Negro,” whom he met in a street fight. “Il Negro” came to Sicily with the U.S. Navy and deserted ship. He soaked up alcohol “like a sponge.” He was murderous in a fight. Umbertino couldn’t lay a hand on him, eventually asking him to teach him what he knew about footwork and timing.

Umbertino’s first fight with “Il Negro” as his trainer came seven months later, just outside Palermo, in Bagheria, with only a few spectators. Umbertino dispatches his Milanese opponent in 30 seconds. “A punch to the spleen and the wind was knocked out of him, a hook to the temple and his balance was lost, an uppercut to the stomach to force his body to fight to stay on its feet.”

By the time Umbertino gets his chance to fight for the championship of Italy he thinks he is invincible. After 10 rounds of blood everywhere, he loses the fight on points.

Minor characters abound in a slightly confusing attempt to vary times and place: among them, Gerruso, the “pathetic loser”; a kid who so desperately wants to belong to the gang that he takes innumerable beatings. Pullara is the kid who issues the order to beat Gerruso. Then there’s Fabrizia, “the girl with the large …” who works at the bakery. Amid the antics in the streets, there is the constant sound of “shouts, ambulances and police sirens.”

There is an arresting scene between the main character’s grandfather and grandmother, Rosario and Provvidenza, when they meet on the beach in the 1940s. Rosario, thin as a rail, seems mute. He has been held as a prisoner of war in Africa. “There was nothing left for him; the war swept away his family, his house, his friends.”

Provvidenza, studying her Latin text on the beach to become an elementary school teacher, calls out to him: “Soldier, what are you looking at?” Eventually, they sat together and Rosario spoke: “Teach me to read and write.” Enia shows us his best writing in what is to follow, when he describes their attraction,

“And in the presence of that unexpected revelation of vulnerability, when faced with the humility of that unexpectedly straightforward request, the instant the fragile reed of his voice fell silent, Provvidenza found that she, once so facile and fluent, was suddenly at a loss for words. She was simply smiling at the man who would become her first pupil, the silent love of her life.”

There is far more violence in the novel than there is anything else. The title, “On Earth As It Is In Heaven,” are words from the Lord’s prayer that follow “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

The devout wish seems far from realized. In fact, Pope Francis recently held a prayer vigil for relatives of those killed by the Mafia. He warned gangsters that they will go to hell unless they repent and stop doing evil saying, “Blood-stained money, blood-stained power, you can’t bring it with you to your next life. Repent,” he said.

No word back to the pope from the mob yet. Even though life is surely better in Palermo today, it’s probably not a bad idea to maintain the defensive crouch.

Michael D. Langan is a frequent News reviewer of new British and European fiction.