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Book Review: The Day Before Happiness by Erri De Luca

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The Day Before Happiness by Erri De Luca is a  novel that takes place in the early 1950s. The story uses flashbacks to wartime Italy.

Don Gaetano, the superintendent of an apartment building in Naples, is protecting a young orphan after World War II. Don Gaetano is a generous man and gets attached to the young man telling him about the war and the liberation of the city by its inhabitants.

Don Gaetano can also read people’s thoughts and is aware that his young guest is haunted by the memories of a girl he met who is Jewish yet still afraid to show her true self. Years later, when the girl returns, the young man must face his own demons.

The Day Before Happiness is a wonderfully suggestive book which may mince on words but not on details, selecting the perfect ones instead of spewing them off hoping to get one right. This is a character- and image-driven book that captures the soul of its narrator.

The prose is very lyrical in this tale of the search for happiness — and whether one will find it or not. Don Gaetano, the father figure of the orphan narrator, is known to be able to read people’s thoughts. Whether he does have such a magical ability or is simply an observant, warm, and understanding human being is one of the mysteries of the book.

The author’s observations are thought-compelling and provocative. Mr. De Luca makes poignant observations which are both smart and expansive. “[The Jews]are a belt around the waist of the world,” he contends in one example. “With the holy book we are the leather strip that has been holding up the trousers ever since Adam realized he was naked. Many times the world has wanted to take the belt off and throw it away. It feels too tight.”

It is obvious that Mr. De Luca does not think of people as numbers. The author actually states that he doesn’t use the word “people” but “persons – I found that to be very profound. When you treat people like sheep or cattle, they stop being human beings. When one studies history it is quite obvious that the first step to genocide is to create a “herd” of people so the “sheep” you sent to do the killing won’t think of them as individuals.

Even though The Day Before Happiness is not a long book, it is full with details about life in Naples, people’s behavior and well-developed characters. The most interesting stories, to me, pertained to the popular uprising of the persons of Napoli against the German occupiers (known as The Four Days of Naples/Quattro giornate di Napoli).

An intense book which gives a lot of credit to its readers — believing they are capable of reading beyond the plot and between the lines — The Day Before Happiness touches on many universal themes and does so with style and grace.

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