Wednesday, January 18, 2012

#65 Reading New Authors: The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni

Another Book Club find! Not the book I voted for when we were choosing, but still one that I found pretty enjoyable.

Written in the 1800s and set in the late 1620's, The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni is one of the most celebrated books of Italian History and I can see why.

Several things struck me as I read this book:

1. The writing occasionally reads like a poem. The words occasionally sweep around the reader, setting a scene in the way someone might describe a classic painting or setting up a lengthy metaphor that brings another aspect to what looks like a cut and dry situation.

2. The story line is not always linear. In fact, the point of view jumps around quite a bit. One of the devices I found most fascinating about the book was how the main characters are really just a zooming in, a focusing of the social history being presented. The book jumps back and forth between giving a detailed birds eye view of society as a whole and then zooms into the "main characters" to demonstrate how that society might effect individuals living with in it. As a history nut, I loved this technique.

3. The characters are archetypes.

Renzo: the well-meaning, but often frustratingly naive, ignorant and therefore stupid, hero whose main redeeming quality is that Lucy loves him (even though, in my opinion, he doesn't deserve her).

Lucy: the damsel in distress. So pure of heart that she can stir compassion in almost anyone, so sweetly innocent that even when you want to be disgusted with her you can't, and upon whose honor most of the story stands.

Don Rodrigo: the bad guy. Arrogant, selfish, corrupt... he's a wealthy play boy with nothing to do but make bets with his buddies about the women he can seduce, and right now he wants Lucy.

Don Abbondio: the every day man. Unwilling to stand up to Don Rodrigo, he is not so much corrupt in his position as he is interested in self-preservation. More than willing to turn a blind eye to the evil around him as long as it keeps him safe and out of it. Although, reading this, we hate him for his lack of courage, his faithlessness in bowing to Don Rodrigo's wishes, the author constantly urges compassion... because he knows that Don Abbondio represents most of humanity. All of us who, when we see wrong, stay silent.

Don Frederick: That champion of champions... the wealthy and saintly powerful churchman who is the best of everything Christianity is supposed to represent. A saint on earth and who most people wish we could be.

The Unknown: Ah sweet redemption! This most evil of evil men is moved to compassion by Lucy and ends up coming back into the fold of Christianity. He finds forgiveness and turns his life around, becoming a protector of the people rather than an oppressor.

Yeah, there's a lot of religion in this book, because that's the time period. But there's a lot of cosmic justice too, thankfully because I was thirsting for it the entire book. More than that, however, there is a message of forgiveness, of compassion, of accepting others despite their faults. Also a few lessons in humility, keeping your mouth shut until you know the situation, the dangers of over-drinking and being smart.

All in all... I really enjoyed this book, even if at times I felt like I was back in English class reading something that went way over my head. There were times when I had trouble focusing on it... but when I did focus on it I could appreciate the wonderful writing, the interesting characters, and the myriad of messages about life that the author planted along the way. Although many parts of this book were anachronistic (mostly in how a lady must behave to keep her honor and reputation), the underlying messages all hold true in a modern society, which I thought was very impressive.

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