Women and the Global Imagination: Laudomia Bonanni and The Reprisal

by Fiona Sze-Lorrain

Filed under: Blog, Women and the Global Imagination |

In our Winter 2014 issue Alicia Ostriker curated a poetry portfolio on Women and the Global Imagination, and we were so struck by its contents that we wanted to keep the dialog surronding this theme going on our blog. In her essay, Fiona Sze-Lorrain examines the work of Italian post-war woman writer Laudomia Bonanni. We hope you enjoy reading. If you like what you see, please become a subscriber to Prairie Schooner today. To take part in the dialog, follow and interact with us on Twitter.

Laudomia Bonanni and The Reprisal

One of my recent literary discoveries is the Italian post-war woman writer, Laudomia Bonanni (1907-2002).  I owe this to American poet-critic Susan Stewart and Italian scholar Sara Teardo’s vigilant translation of Bonanni’s posthumous novel, The Reprisal (The University of Chicago Press, 2013). 

Published by Textus as La rappresaglia in 2003, The Reprisal is a welcome introduction of Bonanni’s oeuvre in the Anglophone world.  This translation is a contribution made more important by the fact that La rappresaglia was Bonanni’s last manuscript — in 1985, she submitted it to her publisher, Bompiani, which requested further revisions, to which the staunch writer refused and in turn withdrew her work.  Although Bonanni died in voluntary seclusion, mostly forgotten by the Italian literary scene, she saw her heydays during the late forties and fifties.  Highly admired by writers and critics such as Eugenio Montale and Emilio Cecchi, she was a prolific journalist and had won many important literary prizes — including the prestigious Premio Viareggio and the Premio Selezione Campiello — for her novels and short stories.  Known for her literary strategies of neorealism and a bold economy of prose, Bonanni too, worked as a teacher and lay judge.

I have learned most of the above from the informative introduction by Stewart and Teardo who brought alive in English a stark yet lucid work of fiction — one that carries moral weight and pinpoints questions of violence and war still much relevant and unresolved in our times.  Set in the winter of 1943, the novel asks, “Since when do men get sick when they are making war?”  La Rossa, the partisan protagonist, is accused of treason by a clique of Fascist bandits and villagers who have recklessly “tried” her and “sentenced” her to death.  The plot becomes convulated when these Fascist supporters agree to spare La Rossa, then in her advanced pregnancy, but only until she gives birth to her child.  That the narrative hinges on the pivotal moments of her pregnancy and her child labor highlights the political sensitivity of woman/motherhood in such socio-historical context.  While La Rossa’s leftist ideals make up a convenient pretext to condamn her to death, it is her gender and pregnancy that defines life and death.  In fact, right from the outset, The Reprisal seeks a fiercely feminist read, even though at first glance, it seems — by tragic turns of irony — any chance of survival for the heroine is doomed because she must pay for her gender and political convictions:

It is just a story like any other war story, and would be a lousy one at that if women and children
hadn’t been involved.  Women make for tragedy.  And children are the lamb.

The Reprisal is composed of ten chapters, each with numbered sections or paragraphs.  Such a structure renders a documentary feel to the fiction which borders on fragmentary or epistolary textures.  Even though this account is constructed from memory and firsthand experiences, it doubts its validity from time to time.  I am intrigued by the narrator “I” who stays omnipresent yet opaque throughout the story.  At different junctures, he discloses himself — his physical looks and family background, for instance —  but getting to know who he really is seems less straightforward.  As a witness, he is shielded from the violence: he refuses to carry a weapon, yet is held responsible for watching over La Rossa.  To what extent his silence or “cooperation” is considered a compliant act remains one of the moral ambiguities that provide the conduit for this story, “his” testimony.  He is the Chorus we find in a Greek tragedy.  And it is perhaps in him — the obscure “I” — that we detect autobiographical traces of the author’s presence:

I wanted to tell about life, passions and anxieties, war and blood.  I carried inside me the will of
a writer, one who observes everything and stores everything and broods over it all.  Not the
lukewarm tone of the Gospels.  Mine was the witness’s detachment.  As a spectator.  The writer
is a fearless spectator.  A psychological voyeur.  And that was my way of getting involved in life.


I will pass away, but may the papers outlast me.  I want to save them.  I will make a well-tied and
sealed bundle and leave precise instructions.  To be sent to…  To be handed to…  To be
published.  After death, one is accepted.  And maybe considered.

Fiona Sze-Lorrain is a poet, literary translator, and zheng harpist.  She lives in France and works as an editor.