Grandmother met the Veteran in the
fall of 1950.
From the Land of the Moon
by Milena Agus
translated from the Italian
by Ann Goldstein
In her novel, From the Land of the Moon, Milena Agus wrote an ending that made me say "wow" out loud. It's simply brilliant. One of the best endings I've ever read. I so wish I could tell you about it.
I'm not sure I can say much at all about From the Land of the Moon without spoiling the ending, but I'll try. It's an amazing book, a novella really at 108 pages.
The narrator of From the Land of the Moon tells the story of her grandmother, the woman who raised her, who spent most of her life in Caglairi, a city on the Italian island of Sardinia. Her grandmother was the last of her generation to marry, failing to find a husband until she was 30 when her mother basically forced her to marry a much older man from the mainland. The family had feared that the strange, openly sexual letters grandmother sent to every prospective young man who came along had so scandalized the town that no man would marry her.
After her marriage, she is so fearful of her husband that she sleeps as far away from him as she can while still sharing the same bed. Her new husband has no trouble with this, once she announces that he can continue visiting the prostitutes in the town brothel, since she can't expect him to give up sex simply because she refuses to have it.
You can see already that this is not a typical love story. After a while the two form a comfortable, if loveless and sexless marriage. One day she notices that her husband finds great pleasure in smoking expensive pipe tobacco that he cannot afford because he must spend a good deal of money to keep the household running. As a favor to him, she agrees to have sexual relations, she even agrees to take on the role of the women he sees in the brothel, agreeing to play all the games that the women there play, etc. This way her husband can save enough money to run the house and still purchase the pipe tobacco he enjoys. She still continues to sleep on the far edge of the bed, but her husband is basically happy none-the-less.
However, they remain childless. After five miscarriages, her family sends her to an sauna on the mainland for treatment. It's not clear from the narration exactly what sort of illness the sauna is for. It is clear to me that the grandmother has some sort of mental illness. Someone with more experience may be able to determine exactly what is wrong with her, but I could not.
While at the sauna, she meets a war veteran who has lost his leg. She falls completely in love with him even after coming to believe that she would never fall in love with anyone. The two spend all of their time together; she even works up the courage to show him her private journal including the poetry and stories she has been working on. When their time at the sauna ends, the two return to their marriages, but the grandmother will spend the rest of her life thinking about the veteran.
Nine months after her return she gives birth to a son, the narrator's father.
And that's all that I can tell you about the plot in spite of how desperate I am to give away the ending.
While this may sound like a novel of magical realism, since the events are so extreme, there is no "magic" in the book. Everything that happens, while unusual to say the least, is fully realistic and completely believable. This is part of what gives so much power to From the Land of the Moon and part of why the ending packs so much punch.
Ms. Agus's writing, via Ms. Goldstein's translation, is wonderfully lyrical. If From the Land of the Moon were nothing more than a love story, it would still be a great book. A woman who cannot love until she falls in love with a man not her husband. A child born after many failed attempts under circumstances that make his father's identity a mystery. These are enough elements to make for a wonderful novel, and they do.
Then there is the ending that changes everything with a single word.