It takes a strong stomach to withstand the introduction of the first character in Patricia Catto's Aunt Pig of Puglia (published last year through Kansas City writer Debra DiBlasi's Jaded Ibis Productions). The titular aunt, born in the Italian-boot-heel village of Casamassima, arrives in the world "with boar bristles running up and down her infant spine" and looking "more four footed, more like a little pig with pink trotters than a human girl with hands, toes, etc."
Naturally, "Everyone was upset." Relatives and townspeople react to Aunt Pig's deformities with various judgments, theories, curiosities and maltreatments. Soon enough, though, we're mercifully beyond Aunt Pig (who dies young) and swept up in the opinionated and hyper-sensual world of Casamassima -- "a very small village ... designed with nosy people in mind" -- and the lives of characters who are much more engaging than Aunt Pig.
Catto teaches creative writing at the Kansas City Art Institute, where, according to her bio, "Her courses in folk literature of the world are her signature courses and reveal a deep interest in the archetypal forms and soul motifs of our species." Catto has described Aunt Pig of Puglia as a "magical realism novel." Its characters are the extended family members of a female narrator known as Pasquale -- and they do feel like archetypal forms steeped in soul motifs.
A trio of interloping cousins known as the Death Sisters, for example,
"wear deep, deep black, attend mass every day, take daily strolls to
the mausoleum" and "visit invalids without ceasing." They stir up
sympathy among all of the town's respectable women when one of the
Death Sisters' husbands leaves her for another woman, whom everyone
immediately starts calling the Dirty Bag. The Dirty Bag is beautiful,
however, and she has her revenge:
In addition to theWhatever
shameless abuse she heaped on the Sisters, she did it from inside a
tight, sheath dress of richest, velvety black, the kind of black
experienced only near the River Styx and its environs. It screamed
tragic, sex widow of Milanese haute couture majesty of the centuries.
that means, it's hella evocative, and the many passages in which Catto
veers into similarly heady descriptions -- of essentially mythological
Italian Catholic characters, their arguments, rituals, love affairs and
meals -- are the main joy in reading her book.
Another aunt, this one named Ciara, one day simply started "knowing how to live well, with real finesse." What this involves:
SheItalian food is beautifully if predictably central to Catto's narrative (it is, after all, a "soul motif in our species"). Though it comes
knew how to clean calamari and make toys of their translucent bones.
She knew how to save their ink for dye and paintings.... Of dandelions,
she knew to make wine. Of sugar and lard she made decorative lambs that
graced the Easter Cakes.... She knew the Italian opera and which
sopranos took risks and which ones ducked the high notes.
knew how to get tomcats' abscesses to drain, how to wash the sheets of
childbirth, when storms were coming in from the Adriatic, how
artichokes should be breaded, how to list the Popes in order (including
the Schism time when there were two) and when the constellations were
going to constellate.
In addition to making perfect espresso,
lemon ice, and eggplant parmigiana while discussing politics, Ciara
knew her home turf intimately.
much too soon, not even halfway through, the book's climax might be Catto's description of little Gina's First Communion Feast.
Eventually, narrator Pasquale's ancestors must find their way to America, and after Uncle Giuseppe's three-year "visit" to the United States, the family begins to think about emigrating. This provokes a couple of final arguments interrupted by another round of entertaining gossip (including a momentary return of the Dirty Bag). Giuseppe warns that America is "a cultural desert" with "no real aesthetic." But a "distracted angry silence" has gripped the family's patriarch, and the future is determined -- even if Uncle Raymond, who's gone ahead of the rest, is dead in a railroad accident not six months after his arrival.
He is an archetype, too, after all, and that's Catto's specialty. But America's a whole different story, and Catto knows when to stop -- before things get a lot less magical and all too real.