Old Favourites: Torregreca (1969) by Ann Cornelisen

There is poignancy and humour in these observations of an impoverished area of southern Italy

 In  Torregreca, Ann Cornelisen wrote about an impoverished area of Lucania (now Basilicata) where she established a nursery school and oversaw a building project. Photograph: Touring Club Italiano/Marka/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In Torregreca, Ann Cornelisen wrote about an impoverished area of Lucania (now Basilicata) where she established a nursery school and oversaw a building project. Photograph: Touring Club Italiano/Marka/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

 

Many books have been written by well-meaning Americans, who went to “backward” southern European places determined to improve them, but few if any are of the quality of Torregreca. Ann Cornelisen was a young Protestant-American divorcee who worked for Save the Children in southern Italy for about 20 years in the 1950s and 1960s.

Here she writes about an impoverished area of Lucania (now Basilicata) where she established a nursery school and oversaw a building project. She smoked, drove a car, sometimes drank in the village bar, so she quickly became the subject of gossip as an independent Protestant woman in a traditional Catholic society bound by ancient mores.

There is both poignancy and humour in the culture clash, but Cornelisen’s resourcefulness in the face of an almost medieval and overwhelming sense of fatality is tenacious. “No matter what the problem, my solutions were greeted with ‘it can’t be done’, but it could be and it was.”

It could be claimed that the “stock” characters of this type of book are present in Torregreca’s leading lights, such as the convent mother-superior, the mayor, the bishop, the police chief, the village officials and one understanding doctor. But that would be a misreading. Their distinct personalities emerge as they help to clear some obstacles for Cornelisen but often create new ones. Her no-nonsense pragmatism in her dealings with them never degenerates into callousness, condescension or self-righteousness.

The account of her personal interactions with Chichella, who is both her landlady and maid as well as the widowed mother of three young children, shows Cornelisen at her most effective. Chichella vividly describes her employment and marriage in conditions of extreme poverty, which helps to elucidate the bitter and suspicious nature of so many of the locals.

“At its heart, Torregreca is the moving testament of a sensibility reshaped by its encounter with the obdurate truths of a foreign reality,” was one reviewer’s valuable insight. As her New York Times obituary in 2003 remarked, Cornelisen was an acute observer and a sensitive, incisive, often humorous writer.

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