The Archeology of a Good Ragù: Discovering Naples, My Father, & Myself
(Guernica World Editions, 2021)
Novelist John Domini hails from a famiglia of brave Neapolitans, men who defied Nazi occupiers and the Allied Command and the Camorra. It is a different species of courage, yet coraggio nonetheless, that Domini displays in tackling the genre of memoir in which a benighted adult son probes his father’s European haunts to mine buried war exploits. That Vincenzo Vicedomini’s hometown is Naples, already immortalized in the popular American consciousness by Elena Ferrante and Vittorio De Sica, demands an excavator worthy of Pompeii. Fortunately, Domini brings the tools of a master craftsman and an astonishing depth of knowledge to his quarry in The Archeology of a Good Ragù, a chronicle stark in its candor and savory in its lore.
Domini shapes the narrative around two photographs of his teenage father. In the first, taken at a family picnic, the young Enzo is “grinning enormously,” joyful and carefree. The second photo, taken only a few years later, is of a “wary” and “tightly coiled” lad with his “head just cocked, one hand deep in its pocket” as though carrying a knife. Between the pair of snapshots, the brutal Tedeschi occupation and the anti-German uprising known as the “the Four Days of Naples” scarred both the city and Enzo. At the age of 40, having recently shed a discordant first marriage and acquired a freelance career, John Domini sets out to reinvent himself in his Papa’s city and to learn his kinfolk’s secrets.
On the surface, the skeletons of the present-day Domini clan are likely not atypical of many upper-middle class Campanians: a physician who treats the wives of Mafiosi in return for their husbands’ respect, but refuses to accept mob lucre; a pianist-turned-engineer unable to overcome the city’s pervasive corruption. Even the history is, on its surface, unremarkable: A Jewish musician, Professore Flavio Gioia, hidden by his grandparents through the duration of the war; a grandfather who avoids a firing squad by chance a la Pierre Bezukhov. Yet Domini has a gift for capturing nuances and inflections, of giving life to the shadows lurking around corners, and in doing so he renders his relations both compelling and extraordinary.
Archeology’s structure proves deceptively simple. Domini, who studied under the post-modernist luminaries John Barth and Donald Barthelme, manages to generate the illusion of chronicity in a non-linear narrative. That enables him to disgorge the treasures of his quarry long after they have been excavated—shifting readers seamlessly from the Ischian lido of the 1990s to the Camaldoli of the 1940s to his father’s final days in Florida’s St. Augustine. His characters are connected in an inevitable web, but the threads are spun to surprise—and often a new player is introduced and then cleverly linked back to the main cast. So, for instance, we meet Domini’s friend, Leo the Moroccan, and subsequently learn that he has replaced Elmo the Fidanzato as the romantic partner of Domini’s own former love interest, Nunzia.
Domini introduces readers to his father with painstaking care, his key revelations occurring in three definitive conversations. In the first, while explaining sex to his 12-year-old son, Enzo warns him to deny paternity if he finds himself implicated in a partner’s pregnancy—a reminder that the elder Domini associates sexual initiation with prostitution. In the second, when discussing who will inherit his in-law’s house, Enzo warns his son that “with your family, you can’t have secrets”; Domini reads this not as a testament to “clan fidelity in Southern Italy,” but rather as an effort to abandon the secrecy of his homeland for “an American ideal, straight out of Jefferson and Madison … against the baroque and for the square.” Yet it is the third conversation, in the gloaming of Enzo’s days, that is most telling, revealing the depths of violence from which he has escaped.
If Domini’s principal subject is family, Archeology is also a tribute to Naples itself—and here, his writing glows like Vesuvius aflame. His knowledge of the city is epic, Virgilian, and readers are treated to a parade of historic cameos: Degas, Chateaubriand, Warhol, Ingrid Bergman & Roberto Rossellini. Because he is both insider and outsider, Domini has a track-side seat without a dog in the race. He is able to offer perspective on the two expressions he hears often to explain the city: “how hard it is to live in Naples” and “if it’s the Mafia that’s run Italy, then my compliments to the Mafia.” He even experiences a dose of genuine Neapolitan frustration when he advocates for the opening of a park along the Via Epomeo on the site of an abandoned factory, only to see his efforts invisibly stymied. While Domini is already the author of several first-rate novels set in Southern Italy, including Earthquake I.D. (2007) and A Tomb on the Periphery (2008), Archeology affords an opportunity to delve deeper into the city’s Sotterraneo.
Domini can be a writer of searing wit. One sees flickers of his twinkling eyes in Archeology, as when he asks the German-shepherd-wielding guards at an Italian camp for African immigrants if he can pet their dog. But as memoirs go, Archeology is an intense and serious enterprise that explores wartime ethics and family loyalty—and then, much to Domini’s credit, brings these revelations full circle to shed light on the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe.
In a memoir that features nuns hanged from the rafters of a church and soldiers knifed for their shoes, the most unsettling moments may occur in the modern-day refugee camp, where Domini—on assignment for the New York Times—interviews African migrants housed like prisoners. Although he cannot tell all of their stories, he shares one: that of Jennifer, a 29-year-old pregnant woman from Ghana who has traveled north to find her husband, fighting with the rebels in the Libyan Civil War. He realizes he cannot do much for her, or for any of the twenty migrants he interviews, but Domini promises the sole oggetti votive he has to offer: Honesty.
“I’ll tell the truth,” says Domini. Far too many memoirists do not. But one senses that Domini has, Neapolitan dirt and hidden bodies and all.