Saturday, 18 November 2006

In Search of Elisa Marchetti, Tessa Duder, 2002

In Search of Elisa Marchetti: a writer’s search for her Italian family, by Tessa Duder, Penguin, Auckland, New Zealand, paperback, 2002, 220 pages, NZ$29.95.

In Search of Elisa Marchetti begins with a young Italian wife standing with her baby at the San Marco gates of the Livorno railway station in 1875. ‘Elisa clutched Geremia tightly as the crowds and noise continued to swell around her….The travellers were easy to spot, They were the shabbily dressed people with bags, holding children, hugging their families, all weeping or stoney-faced

It is a dramatic and convincing chapter, not at all weakened by Duder’s later revelation that it is ‘forgive me, a little indulgence – a novelist’s five-finger exercise.’
Actually it is a strength of this account of her search for her great-grandparents, Nat and Elisa Lenzini, that Tessa Duder is a skilled journalist and talented storyteller. Where a conventional family history would have trudged through chronology and documentation, she uses the novelist’s varying viewpoints and slips smoothly through time to develop aspects that interest her.
I won’t reveal what she found, because that would spoil some of the delight of discovery which she shares with the reader. Sufficient to say that even if she had found nothing at all, this book would have been worth reading for its picture of an Italian port and its people.

Tessa Duder recreates Livorno for us. She draws in such visitors as Smollett and Shelley, Byron and Browning, quotes Dickens and disagrees strongly with Henry James. We enter churches and libraries, newsrooms and villas, see pottery being made in a form unchanged over the centuries and attend the opera La Fanciulla del West by Puccini, ‘a man who lived just up the road’. Stereotypes are rejected: the Livornese don’t buy their vegetables in open-air stalls; they go to supermarkets. Parallels with Auckland – another slandered maritime settlement – help us to recognise Livorno (known to some as Leghorn) as one of our many Kiwi homelands.

We are all familiar with Wellington’s Italian fishing community, but this book draws our attention to the four shiploads of Italian settlers who came in 1875 and 1876. Many were from Livorno, and unrealistic expectations on both sides led to disappointment and rejection. Many of these migrants, however, stayed on and I am certain their descendants will find inspiration in Duder’s search for her Italian roots.

Engagingly, Duder admits she began her quest by doing all the wrong things, and ignoring Rule 1. [Rule 1: Start research at your public library.] This charming frankness is what raises her book above all those dusty volumes of family history. The Lenzini family history may be patchy, but it is also a great story well told. Its mixture of suffering, loneliness and family warmth will be widely appreciated and recognised.

Trevor Agnew

First published in the Press, Christchurch, New Zealand on November 2nd 2002.

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