I’ve read Italian author Erri De Luca before - his novel God’s Mountain - another set in the author’s hometown of Naples. The Day Before Happiness is another “Naples” novel, this time, like in God’s Mountain, about a young boy - orphaned during World War II - living in an apartment block, being taken care of by the building’s doorman Don Gaetano. Don Gaetano, a man who had taken part in the Neapolitan uprising against the Germans just as the Americans came in in 1944, is the unnamed narrator’s father figure, teaching him life lessons through a strictly Neapolitan card game called scopa, teaching him odd jobs for tenants around the building, and even initiating him into the world of sex via a widow who often called upon Don Gaetano for more than just “the odd job”. It is now the 1950s and the narrator reflects on his childhood, playing soccer with the neighborhood boys, his growing love for literature via a street bookseller, and especially his memories of Anna, the girl who lived a few floors above him. He learns a lot about Naples through the war stories that Don Gaetano tells him, sort of “life lessons” that only a boy growing up in Naples at that specific time would be able to understand - stories which teach pride, bravery and honor are very important things to possess.
The narrator is just shy of 18 for most of the story and this is around the time when Anna, who had moved away some years earlier, returns to the apartment block, looking to possibly move back into her old home and to get acquainted with the young narrator. However, Don Gaetano constantly warns him that Anna is “not the girl” for him, that she has a boyfriend - a gangster (read: camorra) who is currently serving time in prison. The young narrator heeds Don Gaetano’s warnings, not getting too emotionally involved with Anna yet at the same time unable to not have his trysts with her, knowing that there was something a little “off” about his childhood love.
The novel progresses slowly, focusing more on the war stories Don Gaetano tells him as well as finally revealing to the boy who his parents actually were, causing him a temporary sense of dislocation and the feeling that he doesn’t belong anywhere. However, Don Gaetano keeps a careful eye out for him, virtually raising the boy as if he were his own. All the lessons and stories that Don Gaetano had taught him over the years finally take root when Anna’s boyfriend is released from prison and returns to the neighborhood to “defend his honor” after learning that he had been with his girl. Our narrator is then put to the test.
There are other very colorful characters that populate the story - mostly the poor Neapolitan peasant class, the survivors of a brutal war, looking to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives as the nation slowly moves forward towards what would eventually become Italy’s “economic miracle” later in the decade - a “miracle” that never seemed to reach the south, that is. It is also a story about family - and that “family” is not necessarily a mother and a father; that the people around you who look after you, the city and streets in which you grow can also serve as much as a “family” as the normal familial unit. The novel ends on a very hopeful and touching note, with Don Gaetano doing what he feels he must do in order for the young narrator to live the rich life he truly deserves. A very touching story and highly recommended.