At the heart of Milena Agus’ beautiful, crystalline novella, From the Land of the Moon, lies a question of truth. What is the truth behind any “true” story? When we look back on the events of our lives and create stories by telling them to others, how much can possibly be true? If my sister’s memory differs from mine, even drastically, is one of us necessarily lying? Or did we each simply experience the event differently? If my sister then appears crazy to me, is she crazy? Or am I failing to understand her and her worldview? Is truth the same as accuracy?
From the Land of the Moon explores what it is to be a woman, particularly in cultures heavily dominated by male points of view. It brings to mind seminal works written by women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century: Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Kate Chopin’s Awakening, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Agus revisits the concept of “feminine hysteria,” as well as ideas of the “proper woman” that have led to witch hunts, in cultures both ancient and modern, where women have been persecuted for not conforming to society’s conventions.
Italian literature has found a fresh and prolific voice in Milena Agus. Since her debut in 2005 she has written seven books. Mal di Pietre, her second, won the 2008 Zerilli-Marimò / City of Rome Literary Prize. This prize aims to introduce Italian authors to American readers. Ann Goldstein’s new translation opens the door, allowing us to enter the world of Milena Agus’ fiction.
From the Land of the Moon is a family story, focused so tightly on that family that it’s rare for a character to be called by his or her given name. All of the major characters are referred to by their relationships to each other: Grandmother, Mama, Papa, Great-Grandfather, et cetera. This makes for a few confusing moments when reading the novella, as well as some necessary awkwardness in writing about it. However this nomenclature is a deliberate and effective device. By using it, Milena Agus allows her readers to feel much closer to the characters than we otherwise might feel. In a way the reader becomes a part of the family.
A young woman, musing over her family’s story as she prepares to get married narrates From the Land of the Moon. Not surprisingly, she is not named. When we meet the narrator in scene and watch her childhood and adolescence play out, we see the great effect that her grandmother has had on her life and her personality—far more than anyone else. Grandmother died before the narration begins, but she lives on in the memories of this young woman. Because the story she chooses to tell in the novella focuses mainly on Grandmother, we might do well to call our narrator Granddaughter.
Grandmother is a mysterious and complicated woman who was born around 1913 in a small Sardinian village. She grew up misunderstood in an insular world and was considered an old maid at the age of thirty until she married a man she did not love. Over several years of marriage, Grandmother had a series of miscarriages. We are told on the first page, “she was sent to the thermal baths to be cured.” There she met the Veteran, a man with whom she had a brief and passionate love affair. Her only son was born exactly nine months after she returned from the baths, and so her husband, who never knew of the affair, had no reason to doubt that he was the father. Throughout the book, the narrator wonders who her real grandfather is, but it seems that no one knows, not even Grandmother.
Accounts vary about Grandmother’s personality and mental stability, particularly in her youth and the early years of her marriage. In fact, accounts vary about what actually happened in so many different instances that the reader is left to wonder whether anything we’re told is true at all.
Our narrator is unreliable, not because she wants to deceive us but because she doesn’t know the full story herself. Granddaughter reflects on the stories surrounding her grandmother, who was so different from everybody else that she has become a family legend. She is reminiscent of the woman confined to her bedroom in “The Yellow Wallpaper” as well as Rebecca Nurse and the other unconventional women in Salem who were hanged as witches.
Grandmother tells our narrator stories that nobody else in the family has heard. Therefore readers are privy to the secrets of a legendary figure. But of course both the narrator and the reader must rely on either those stories or the accounts of others to recount Grandmother’s youth, her marriage, and her life before the narrator was born. Her sisters say she was a madwoman who threw herself down a well, so out of touch with reality that she had to be locked in the hayloft or tied up with rags so she wouldn’t hurt herself. But when we listen to grandmother’s side of the story, she seems more like a woman who just didn’t fit into the patriarchal culture of her small village, a woman who wanted not just marriage and children but true love, a woman who didn’t understand why it was not appropriate to send sexually explicit love letters to her suitors.
On Sunday… [she] went to church to ask God why, why he was so unjust as to deny her the knowledge of love, which is the most beautiful thing, the only thing that makes life worth living, a life in which you get up at four in the morning to do the household chores and then you go to the fields and then to the school for boring embroidery… .So if God didn’t want her to know love he might as well kill her, any way he wanted. In confession the priest told her that such thoughts were a serious sin and that there are many other things in the world, but Grandmother didn’t care at all about other things.
I have no idea which of the many stories or points of view to believe. I do know that there can be a fine line between insanity and genius. I also know that society is often crazy itself, that it makes unreasonable demands and creates a value system in which doing frequent chores is more important than finding love.
In some cases, reading a book written in the first person by an unreliable narrator can frustrate the reader. In this case, I found myself exhilarated. I wasn’t confused. The book’s mysteries enthralled me. I am still trying to piece it all together, satisfied to stay in the dark. Agus has created a mood in which everything is true, and yet nothing is true. This is often the case in life: I know that in my family—and many others—even in history books— certain stories will always be told in different ways by different people. There’s a certain freedom that arrives when we admit we don’t know all the answers— and that we never will. From the Land of the Moon echoes this essential fact of life. Then it goes one step further. Almost immediately, the book’s intimate and particular language transcends the present moment, until readers arrive at Milena Agus’ land of the moon. There, we are given the chance to experience life as Grandmother did, in a mysterious world devoid of constricting rules, full of possibility and wonder.