August 20, 2010

The last of the Romans

Time for another post about books. But this time the subject is more an author and his work in general than a specific book. And this just because I can’t think of one of this author’s books without thinking of the others too. Not that I have read them all …, actually only four : Empire of Dragons, Ides of March, Akropolis. La grande epopea di Atene (which is not translated in English), and The Last Legion, that was sold to a major film production in the US—the homonymous film, starring Colin Firth and Ben Kingsley, was released in 2007 (see Wikipedia). I’m talking about Valerio Massimo Manfredi (website).

Manfredi is an Italian historian and archaeologist who since 1978 has spent his time teaching in several European and American universities, digging ruins in the Mediterranean and in the Middle East, and writing novels, including the enormously successful Alexander trilogy, published in thirty-six languages in fifty-five countries. His wife, Christine Fedderson Manfredi, translates his published works from Italian to English. Manfredi was voted Man of the Year 1999 by the American Biographical Institute.

Of course, most of Manfredi’s novels are historical fiction, and that’s just the reason why I started reading them—I love history much more than literature (especially fiction) per se. The first novel I read by Manfredi, a couple of years ago, was The Last Legion. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It exceeded my (not so high) expectations in several ways: well written, fascinating, never boring, the kind of “books that give you emotions and enrich your soul with values and ideas,” as Manfredi himself said in an interview. The story is set in the 5th century, notably at the time of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire under its last Emperor, Romulus Augustus. This is coupled with other facts and legends from the history of Britain and fantastic elements from the legend of King Arthur. Enough to make me stop reading … in other circumstances, but not in this one.

Obviously, as Professor of Classical Archaeology, Manfredi has extensive knowledge about the classical world, which helps him enormously when he writes about the age in which the story is set, but asked “how much research is still involved when he writes a new book,” he answered that

technical knowledge is just grammar, basic elements on which one recreates a credible environment from which also the story and the characters take credibility. Language, mentality, gestures, costumes, landscape, food, climate, everything must be impeccably authentic and has to be recreated in the most natural way. Yes, sometimes you have to check some detail in the sources because you can't remember everything by heart but the real task is to blow passion and feelings in the dramatis personae and in their actions. You have to recognize what part of those men and women survives in you as a modern man, how deep your roots go in the ground.

But then again, although in Manfredi’s own words, “It’s only a question of quality, intensity, visionary capacity,” his “technical knowledge”—or, better still, both his “technical knowledge” of and his genuine passion for the classical world (and the combination of the two)—is one of the reasons, if not the main reason, why I am tempted to say that he is a unique case in the recent history of world literature. Another reason is his sense of mystery. Again in Manfredi’s own words,

In an overpopulated world, in a swarm that loves the reflectors and kills the mystery, people need to dream. When I was a child and lived in the country, you could perceive the unknown just going out in the night. Trees’ branches like giants, the owl’s cry, everything was big, magic, frightening. Nowadays they’re WWF’s affairs...

However, in the case of The Last Legion, the mystery is intriguing—one of the main characters is a certain Ambrosinus, whose real (Druid) name is Merlin…—but not the main object of the novel, but rather it is the relations between Romans and barbarians: an extraordinarily well-crafted piece of European and Western history that should be read in schools.

In the case of Empire of Dragons, instead, the main object is not, despite the appearances to the contrary, the extraordinary Chinese adventures of Marcus Metellus Aquila—legate of the Second Augusta Legion, hero of the empire—but rather it is the ancient Roman concept of virtus, which included strength and courage, poverty and frugality (“so highly and continuously honored”). Fides, constantia, dignitas ... the virtues of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, the famed farmer-soldier who saved the state of Rome from the Sabines …

What a great history lesson, and what a wave of nostalgia.