Somewhere near halfway in the novel, a young Romani girl shows her Italian boyfriend the bruises she received at the hands of racist thugs. He finds himself “torn between wanting to cry, scream, or go back and beat the crap out of those guys.” Violent sentiments, but ones that are impossible not to share when reading Cazzarola! Make no mistake: this is an angry book and that’s a good thing. It needs to be, anything less would be beside the point.
Cazzarola! introduces us to the Discordias, an Italian anarchist family that finds each new generation facing off against different iterations of fascism in their home country. The newest Discordia, Antonio, is a would-be rock star who falls for Cinka, a beautiful Roma woman who inadvertently shows him how cruel and xenophobic his countrymen can be towards her people.
The book initially throws a lot of settings at you, jumping from turn-of-the-century factory union strikes to World War II Italian anarchist meetings. This can feel overwhelming, but the focus locks onto the present after the first few chapters, and the story subsequently becomes much more linear, so once you get a handle on the quick pace, the necessity of the time shifts in the early sections of the novel becomes evident. Nawrocki understands that present circumstance can only be fully understood by looking at its antecedents. This message can only be conveyed on a larger scale of time; history, especially the dark, hateful parts, repeats itself when we don’t act.
Nawrocki’s previous experience as a short-story writer is evident in the way the book comes together, with vignettes, news reports and other epistolary devices forming an important portion of the writing. The various stories told in snippets throughout give the impression of a plethora of strings that you hope will wind together and form a strong narrative rope, but while some are collapsed into the larger narrative, some are simply abandoned, leaving frayed edges where an aglet should be. This lends the book a disjointed quality that emphasizes emotional impact and atmosphere over straightforward plot.
Not to say that Cazzarola!’s plot is a secondary concern; the characters’ frustrations, indignations and fears as they face the realities of racism and fascism are still compelling, even if they are occasionally lost amongst the scene-setting and digressions.
Something that’s immediately evident is that the author has done his homework. Historical novels on the whole tend to straddle a line between strict adherence to historicity or bumbling application of historical veneer to lend grandeur to an otherwise tame story. This one does a good job of using the past to inform its plot. Though there is a little artistic license taken, it is done with an eye to detail the spirit of an era, not distract from it.
It must be said that the characters tend to be either wholly good or irredeemably bad. The fascists inflict pain wantonly and the Roma, anarchists and leftists bleed stoically through the injustice. Though this could be read as heavy-handed, which may be a correct reading in some sections, it also reflects a reality we in Canada cannot fully appreciate. When reading a fictional Italian senator’s xenophobic prep speech regarding the “immigrant problem” his country faces, it is easy to scoff at its ignorance. No one would actually speak this way, you might find yourself thinking.
And yet some do, even here. Let us not forget that it was only a few years ago that Sun News broadcaster Ezra Levant gave us a similar take on the Roma people: “These are gypsies, a culture synonymous with swindlers. And they come here to gyp us again and rob us blind as they have done in Europe for centuries… They’re gypsies. And one of the central characteristics of that culture is that their chief economy is theft and begging.”
Cazzarola! shows us what can happen when intolerance and prejudice make their home within a country and its people, and the consequences for those unlucky enough to be considered the “other.” It’s a message we like to think we’ve learned in Canada, though clearly some of us could use a refresher and they could do worse than this novel.