Stolen Figs: And Other Adventures in Calabria
by Mark Rotella
Release Date: 01 July, 2003
In a perfect union of writer and subject, Publisher's Weekly editor, Mark Rotella, returns to his grandparents' homeland of Calabria. "Spurred" by Gay Talese's book, "Unto the Sons", to explore his southern Italian heritage, the author, an unabashedly, and self-admitted "romantic", provides an excellent introduction to this often overlooked region, conveying his own passion for familiarizing himself with it in the process. Largely untouched by tourism, and writers, for that matter, Calabria is both financially depressed and culturally rich, with large emigrant populations in Niagara Falls, New York, Toronto, Canada, and Danbury, Connecticut (though Rotella grew up primarily in Saint Petersburg, Florida). Whether traveling solo, with his father, wife, or postcard salesman, Guiseppe, Rotella captures the unique personality of each village he visits, with a superb eye for atmosphere, setting, and aesthetically outstanding visuals. Political and historical background, including foreign influences on the region, and effects of the Mafia, provide a framework and understanding to current situations. Rotella intersperses snippets of other writers' experiences, local legends, folktales, proverbs, customs, and traditions, lending an uncommonly expansive insight to Calabria. Combining past and present also lends a certain fascination for the reader, and includes the author's reunions with relatives, relationships formed over his several trips there, his dad's poignant remininsces, a visit to the church his grandparents were married in, and the elaborate Easter celebrations he attended. Though not without a sense of humor, Rotella's writing is most impressive for its unaffected style. Descriptions of the rugged, yet beautiful landscape, and harsh geography have a cinematic quality, and his writing becomes completely poetic over the mouthwatering cuisine he abundantly partakes of. In the end, and seeming to mirror the author himself, what emerges is an enticing picture of a gracious, highly social, and charmingly "masculine" society. Woman reader from New York
STOLEN FIGS reads almost as much a paean to food as it does to Calabria, the southernmost tip of Italy and the author's ancestral home. Rotella doesn't pass up any chance to tell us about the meals he indulges in and how those meals relate to life in Calabria. This doesn't mean the book is bad...it isn't...it just means that any reader who picks it up thinking he is going to read a travelogue of southern Italy had better think again.
Rotella tells us how he was on holiday with his father and persuaded the older man to visit the tiny village of Gimigliano, his ancestral home. Although his father was against going, he finally conceded and Rotella encountered a vast array of aunts, uncles and cousins he didn't even know he had as well as a huge, seemingly neverending meal. Although Rotella's father could only manage one more visit, Rotella has journeyed back to Calabria every other year...to see his relatives, to make new friends, and, most of all, to explore the wonderful region of Calabria.
Rotella's guide and companion on his journeys through Calabria is a man named Giuseppe Chiarella, a local postcard photographer and map maker. Giuseppe proves invaluable to Rotella (and to readers) as he and Rotella make their way from village to village and market to market.
There are way too many "travel" books out there, but STOLEN FIGS is a little different from the rest. For one thing, Rotella didn't move to Calabria. For another, this is no whimsical, light-hearted romp a la Peter Mayle (who is extremely good, by the way) or Frances Mayes. Calabria is one of the harshest regions of Italy; people don't keep returning there unless something they love pulls them to the region. Calabria is also one of the poorest regions of Italy and one of the ethnically most diverse, being made up of Albanians, Greeks, Saracens and more. The harsh dialect bears little resemblance to the limpid and beautiful Tuscan dialect that has evolved into "standard" Italian, thanks to Dante Alighieri. Much of the rest of Italy, especially the residents of the north, look down on Calabria and go out of their way to avoid it. This is definitely not a tourist mecca, something that can't be said for Mayes' Tuscany and Mayle's Provence and, for that reason alone, it might interest many readers who are simply tired of the more "touristy" places of the world.
The landscape of Calabria is also quite different from that of Tuscany or of Provence. The gentle, rolling hills, the greenness, the fertile valleys, the bounty of fruit and flowers have been replaced by sun-baked rock, harsh and unyielding, dizzying plunges into the sea below, the rocky outcrops that shelter hikers from the sun and plenty of sand.
STOLEN FIGS is not nearly as well-written as are Mayes' books about Tuscany or Mayle's books about Provence. Rotella doesn't seem to be a natural storyteller and many of his metaphors are clumsy and cause the reader to grimace. His love for Calabria shines through his narrative, however, but it doesn't quite make up for the quality of the writing.
I'm planning an extended stay (possibly a move) to Italy in the near future, so I've been reading quite a few Italian "travel" books. I would have to say that STOLEN FIGS falls somewhere in the middle of the ones I've read. It is, however, the one that concentrates most on Calabria, but any reader should be aware that the writing is not fluid throughout and that there are several historical errors in the book. Recommended only to those who can't get their fill of Calabria.