112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

Borderlands: History, Identity, and Emigration in Fulvio Tomizza’s Materada

Nathanial Peterson-More, University of California, Los Angeles

Triestine identity and literature are widely seen to result from the city’s uniquely liminal geographic and cultural positioning. But what about the other side of the border? Inspired by the observations of critics like Angelo Ara & Claudio Magris, and by the notions of living and writing in a borderland, I investigate the relations of place and borders to the problematic, interconnected issues of identity and emigration in Post-WWII Istria, as they emerge in Fulvio Tomizza’s 1960 novel Materada.


             Borders are defined by political geographer David Newman “as constituting the physical and highly visible lines of separation between political, social and economic spaces.” (Newman, 2007, 27).

            My paper starts from this notion of borders as “lines of separation” that create and/or reflect difference – on both the macro level of states as well as the personal level of ‘us and them’ or ‘here and there’ – and that also establish sharp divisions between opposing ‘polarities.’ This is indeed the traditionally accepted view of borders. And somewhat ironically – given Trieste’s history as a cultural cross-roads – this type of thinking has informed the construction of a (hybrid) Triestine identity – known as triestinità. It is this conception that Katia Pizzi has in mind in her reflection on Triestine culture and literature:


In the dialectical, confrontational dimension which characterizes border relations a range of different cultural archetypes are juxtaposed and relations become typically relations with the Other, the different, the unknown. In this particular geographical area, the Other is identified with the East of Europe, the Slav world which becomes irredeemably antagonistic both in society and on the page. While the West remains throughout a synonym for civilization. (Pizzi, 2002, 77).


            Clearly this is meant to describe an Italian perspective looking across the border towards the East. Italian observers spy a “Slav world” that is not only “different” and “unknown” but moreover “irredeemably antagonistic.” The phrase “on the page,” in the context of Pizzi’s monograph on 20th century Triestine literature, suggests this is also the predominant viewpoint adopted in that literature.

            In contrast, Tomizza’s work complicates and problematizes, if indeed it does not debunk entirely, many of the assertions above. After first noting that Materada is set entirely in Istria (though it maintains throughout an uneasy gaze towards Italy – a place that while marked as “different” is by no means “unknown” to the novels’ Istrian protagonists), we see that it treats the same problems of aggressive nationalism, ethnic discrimination, and violence that Pizzi identifies – but from an (as opposed to “the”) other side. Still, it would be highly reductive to claim that Tomizza’s text simply reverses the vantage point outlined by Pizzi – i.e. adopting one of East looking West. Materada (here it is worth noting that the novel is named after the main town in the specific area where the story takes place) as well as the actual history of the region, clearly demonstrate it would be a gross oversimplification to equate Istria with “the East” and Trieste with “the West,” as Pizzi and others often do. Rather, Tomizza’s text demonstrates that identities are highly complicated constructs, which are on one hand intimately connected to the spaces and environments in which they take shape, but on another are also subject to transformation, given changes in the environment. The characters, the first-person narrator (called both Franz and Francesco), are all too aware of the connections between place and identity. Therefore, the idea of leaving Istria for Italy as most of them resolve to do by novel’s end (they are practically forced to emigrate by the oppressive conditions in Tito’s Yugoslavia) is a source of anguish, especially for Franz, who realizes they will have to adapt themselves and their identities when they leave their birthplace. Significantly, Materada ends just before Franz and his family emigrate, thereby allowing their Istrian identity to remain intact for the duration of the work.

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