Try to imagine a steel mill that takes up 2,500 acres of land, three miles of factory fence behind which are acres of decaying buildings and smokestacks, most of them ruined or partly ruined—a place that once employed 20,000 people, but in 2001 is reduced to a skeleton of its former self, with only one of its four giant towers still belching toxic clouds of bluish fluorescences, named simply A-Fo 4; A-Fo 1,2, and 3 now mostly just piles of rusting metal.
…the posthumous carcasses of the three blast furnaces that hadn’t yet been dismantled, and, down there at the far end, the coke oven where men shoveled coal by hand, by arm, as if it were still the nineteenth century.
There was no sky. There was an aviary: the purple flames of the furnaces; the swinging arms of the cranes; the tons of metal slung from the hooks beneath the hoisting tackle. The endless rows of sheds, workshops, bunkers. A self-sufficient obsession. The smokestacks, both active and extinct. Overhead, the constant crackling of flames: purple, red, black. The arms of hammerhead cranes swinging around, yellow, green, tons of metal whirling like birds, yellow clouds of carbon smoke, black at the mouths of the smokestacks. It’s called continuous integrated steel production.
This is the setting for Silvia Avallone’s best selling Italian novel, Swimming to Elba, although the meaning of her one-word Italian title is simply STEEL. I have to admit that I picked it up simply to see what a best-selling Italian novel would consist of, totally unprepared for the powerful social-political statement I was about to encounter.
On the face of it, this is a simple novel about two inseparable teenage girls, thirteen, almost fourteen—both beautiful, and both convinced that “the world arrives when you are fourteen.” Anna is dark and brave and intelligent, Francesca blond and incredibly beautiful, both are admired and envied not only by their peers, but by the hungry adult steel mill workers and their already old at thirty or forty wives.
An expert eye would have immediately sensed that this kind of beauty lasts for only a moment in the course of a lifetime. But in that crowd there were no expert eyes.
The two girls live in a factory town at the edge of the sea in one of a set of huge concrete barracks that had been constructed forty years earlier by public housing authority when government was in the hands of Christian Democrats and Italian Communists.
…the public housing authority had built the giant barracks lining the beaches for the workers at the steel mills. Even metalworkers, according to the views of the local Communist administration, had the right to an apartment with a view. A view of the sea, not a view of the factory.
While much of this novel is aimed at revealing the sad lives of the women and girls who are the abused girlfriends and wives of the metalworkers, it is clear that Avalonne is also fascinated by and sympathetic towards the boys and men who live and work inside of the mills—a world that no one outside can really understand. Certainly, she is critical of the rich bosses who profit from the blood and lives of the men who work in the bowels of the factory, owners who would never deign to dirty themselves in the nearly inconceivable conditions inside, and who are willing to shutdown, downsize, and outsource at the whims of world market economies. But her fascination with the entire process of making steel and with the history of the industry is much more complex than her mistrust of an economic system that exploits the workers.
Twenty-eight hundred degrees Fahrenheit is the melting point of steel alloy. Steel doesn’t exist in nature, it’s not an elementary substance. It’s a secretion of thousands of human hands, electric meters, mechanical arms, and every so often the skin of a cat that’s tumbled into the molten alloy.
Although there is a large cast of characters in the book, it is the stories of Francesca and Anna, and of their two families, that provide the main focus. Anna’s mother, Sandra, is socially and politically informed, active in communist party politics, and eager for her daughter to get an education and escape the cycle of poverty and abuse of most of the women around her. Sandra is disappointed that her son, Alessio, has already given up on any life outside the mill, and is destined to a life of running one of the huge cranes that move the metal in various of its incarnations. Her husband has escaped the factory, but only by turning to criminal activities in the hopes of providing a better life for his wife and children. Francesca’s father, Enrico, a giant of a man, who left the poor life of rural farming to make his fortune in the mills, spends his time worrying about his too-beautiful daughter, and flying into rages that lead to beatings of his long-abused wife, Rosa, and of Francesca. “Just an ordinary man who had left the country with a rucksack on his shoulders to come to the city.”
As the two girls grow up, they dream someday of crossing the water to Elba, the rich sister city and tourist destination that seems to hold the answers to their dreams. Francesca, who loves Anna not simply as a sister, but secretly as a would-be lover, is contemptuous of and nauseated by the attentions she receives from the boys and grown men who constantly undress her with their eyes; she hopes that her beauty will both provide an escape from her present life and win her Anna’s love. Anna understands that her beauty, alone, will not save her. She sees the strength of her mother, and at least on some level takes in the message that only education and coming to understand the social realities can help her to a better life.
This is a powerful book. While it may have become a best seller at least partly because of the titillation of peeking into the lives of two beautiful girls who are on the cusp of women-hood, its ultimate appeal rests on the lucidity of Avalonne’s understanding of the world around her. There is so much of interest in this book that my comments have, at best, merely scratched the surface. Let me close with a quote from the book that summarizes Avallone’s own questions about her characters and the industrial city in which she was raised.
What does it mean to grow up in a complex of four big tenements shedding sections of balconies and chunks of asbestos into a courtyard where little kids play alongside older kids dealing drugs and old people who reek of decay? What kind of vision do you get of the world in a place where it’s normal not to go anywhere on vacation, not to go to the movies, not to know anything about the world, to never read the newspaper, to never read a book, and that’s just how life is? The two of them, in this place, sought each other out, chose each other.