There's a scene in the Italian author Erri De Luca's newly translated novel, The Day Before Happiness, where an older man named Don Gaetano speaks to the teenaged orphan he's raised, to explain why he's been sharing so many stories from the days he helped drive the Nazis and fascists from the streets of Naples in 1943.
"I'm telling you these things," he says, "so that one day, if you become president and they want to make you sign your name to a war, and you've uncapped your pen and are about to put your signature on the paper, all at once you will remember these events and maybe, who knows, you will say: I'm not signing."
With those words, the scene ends, and De Luca makes it easy to imagine the boy nodding, absorbing this call to pacifism as a foreboding sunset adds shadow to an otherwise lovely panorama of 1950s Naples, the book's setting. Adding further import, we also know at this point that the older man, bridging generations, is himself an orphan.
High hopes in clear language, cautions against real evil, and scenes thick with poetic sentiment - these elements fuel the warmth to be found in De Luca's brief but affecting novels.
De Luca, born in 1950, has won numerous literary awards and published an astonishing number of books - more than 60, by all accounts. They've been translated into dozens of languages, but only a handful into English: Sea of Memory (Ecco Press, 1999), God's Mountain (Riverhead, 2002), and Three Horses (Other Press, 2005).
Now, Other Press is publishing The Day Before Happiness by pairing it, for marketing purposes, apparently, with a reprint of Sea of Memory under the title Me, You. In both, De Luca's adroit, fragmentary approach to storytelling - using no chapters, but scores of section breaks - allows him to form rich, cohesive mosaics from seemingly disparate elements, giving the coming-of-age story a weightiness and epic feeling in its scope.
The two books have much in common, including odd quirks belonging to the aesthetic that reflects De Luca's adventuresome life. He has been known since the late 1960s as an active political dissident, and The Believer magazine reported in 2005 that he was at one point barred from entering the US after helping with relief convoys in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, against international sanctions.
Likewise, De Luca's main characters are men with a distaste for war. In turn, they have gained in both these books added psychic and spiritual power - as if their profound empathy for those affected by war, in particular the mass death of the Holocaust, has awakened in them the courage and sad wisdom of old souls.
The Day Before Happiness is narrated by an unnamed teenager, an orphan who tells of his childhood and formative years learning from Don Gaetano, a humble but remarkable caretaker of a Naples apartment building. "Don Gaetano was familyless, too," the boy tells us. "Raised in an orphanage, then a seminary, he was supposed to become a priest. But they say he fell in love with a streetwalker and 20 years later he was far away, in Argentina. He came back in 1940, just in time for the war."
Don Gaetano's years alone in Argentina gave him the ability to hear people's thoughts, an element De Luca casts less as magic, more of a deep intuition. He tells the boy countless stories over hands of a card game called scopa and the motif of chance and strategic thought needed to win at cards gradually becomes an overarching metaphor for what the boy learns about life.
Don Gaetano is depicted as much more than a mere eccentric mentor. The book's main theme is in the title, The Day Before Happiness, a hard-won survivor's refrain Don Gaetano invented and teaches the boy - a name to give to bad days, to transform them into preludes for great joy tomorrow. And Don Gaetano has seen people suffer bad days.