A lizard peeks out between the barbed wire and the wild grass under the Salento sun: it is the opening of In God’s treacherous land in its comic adaptation, published by Sergio Bonelli Editore. Scripted by Maurizio Colombo and illustrated by Giuseppe Baiguera, the work is the transposition of the penultimate novel in chronological order by Omar Di Monopoli, published by Adelphi in 2017. His Manduria is never itself in his works, it is not (only ) Salento, is that particular rugged and astonishing portion of it, the center of gravity of the Brindisi-Taranto-Lecce triangle, where the ghosts remain when the tourists leave: this too on the occasion of the release of the graphic novel we chatted with the writer, from years recognized for having declined the Italian southern gothic and chiseled the grammar and brutality of an Apulian neo-western. His journey among the talking clouds starts from far away, from the days of the DAMS in Bologna.
From the dream comic to the dream of the comic: as you tell in the afterword, it is the closing of a circle. What’s inside the circle?
I think we can say there is a training path, the path of a storyteller who has gone through a series of stages: the fruitless aspirations as a cartoonist, the discovery of literature, the commitments in underground cinema and in the printed in writing schools and finally comics all over again: an electrifying experience, in which I think we can also glimpse some psychoanalytic insight since, at least in words, all my adolescent aspirations seem to have come to fruition. But I feel far from resolved.
Hugo Pratt said: considering comics a poorer art is a foolishness. If anything, it is the richest. Consider In God’s treacherous land enriched by this transposition?
Luckily today, an extremely insignificant minority of readers still consider comics to be something for kids, and having started writing after an apprenticeship as an artist, I could only welcome the possibility of seeing my stories transformed into talking clouds with great enthusiasm; the result is not only a captivating visual variant of my work but it is also a splendid confirmation of the fact that stories, if they work, do so regardless of which media is responsible for disseminating them: In God’s treacherous land it is clearly a story that impresses whoever reads it (and, allow me to boast about it, it is no coincidence that it managed to make Roberto Calasso fall in love with him, certainly not one with easy tastes, who was the first to decide to publish it with Adelphi).
He also said that comics are scary. Prose is one of your hallmarks: generous, damask, present. Did the idea of giving up scare you?
I had already experienced what it means to put aside any stylistic pretensions with cinema (the subjects that circulate with my name among our local directors are dozens: unfortunately realizing my ideas always costs too much for Italian producers), but luckily I am in the field of a few years in which I understood without too many dramas how much each medium has its own language: first of all because in literature I remain a vocabulary maniac and the work I do on the written page does not decrease, on the contrary, with the profession it is becoming more and more more precise, attentive and personal; and then because my books ended up in Bonelli, who have been doing this job magnificently for eighty years, so they are in the hands of great professionals. Baiguera designed in France for the best publishers and Colombo is one of the inventors of Dampyr: top-level people, true artists. Working with them has been an honor and an enrichment. I limited myself to providing photographic, dialectal, scenographic advice but I left with confidence that it was the authors and the editorial staff who reshaped my imagination, according to their rules.
Fire, air, earth: three of the four elements in the titles of your works. Your narrative is indeed governed by an ancestral, wild balance. Not primitive: there is a term that evokes something wonderful. Quite the contrary: gone too far. Rotten.
Well, think that I live in Manduria, a city known for its Primitivo (wine)! Out of jest: it’s now more than fifteen years that I’ve been building an idea of the South as an epic and disastrous land, a sort of Homeric battlefield in which brutal, extreme, and all-encompassing passions are consumed. In this key, the titles recall a deliberately biblical dimension. Primeval, to be precise. Although obviously, I never tire of repeating it, I speak of the land I know using it as the epitome of something more universal, sometimes ancestral: my South is not just the South, that’s it.
In God’s treacherous land it becomes a cross-media work, there has always been a lot of cinema in your works, and at least on one occasion the opposite came close. Speech only postponed?
All my books are (or have been, some rights are about to expire) optioned by the cinema and even by television. The issue is still the one I mentioned above: mine are stories full of gunshots, fires, car races, explosions and dog fights, all things that cost money and that our cinema has long since ceased to be able to do. I remember that for Men and dogs – film from my first novel skipped so much since the start of filming – the production had to turn to Eastern Europe to find a worthy trainer of mastiffs. However, at the moment there are many possibilities at stake, we’ll see what turn they take. The general situation is not of great help, but the general situation is never propitious after all: the world has been, since the dawn of time, always on the brink of some apocalypse.
In the novel it is more marked, the comic has conveyed it in a table: the intolerance of morbid and clockwork information towards a certain South…
I have the impression that this stubborn attraction for the morbid is inherent in man and that it does not concern only the South, on the contrary. If anything, the South lends itself to better satisfying this unhealthy collective thirst because it is easier to find ourselves in pockets still untouched by modernity: where poverty, disorder and lack of means reign, it is easier for ignorance and superstition to take hold. And this, if you like, has always been the main theme of all my work. But it’s also a hot topic, which has often earned me the hatred of those in the South who are working, and often very well, to shake off this veneer of rough animality that seems to haunt us. The South of crime, of querulous lament, of perpetual chaos. It is of this disharmony that I speak. However, the discussion is broader: we are all beasts, and we are all noble creatures. Art has a duty to show what is repulsive, what is uncomfortable, while it is up to tourist offices to promote breathtaking sunsets and baroque churches. They are different jobs, I try to do my best.
Faulkner has always been your lodestar, here it comes to mind sanctuarythe countryside, the fixed and almost theatrical settings, the long inclined plane, violence and sin.
Exactly. A bloody and bloody South, dotted with contradictions and cracks that never seem to mend. But also an indomitable, vital, proud land. I borrowed narrative modules from overseas to try to give a name to the anarchy in which I grew up. For years (pre) I’ve been saying how much we should stop calculating the times reality has been hard on us to instead fully take charge of our destiny. In other words, stop being teenagers (seductive, full of creativity, but also irresponsible and whiny) to start looking in the mirror and get familiar with our wrinkles, our flaws, perhaps finding the courage to blame ourselves for the constant failure of certain projects.
You seem to say: absolution or catharsis are elsewhere, they are not my job. It is rather imagining how we got here. Is the past more interesting?
Man has always had an ambivalent relationship with the past. It is what, through experience, we draw the most important teachings of our existence, but it is also in the most suitable place to re-read one’s history in a distorted key as well as the ideal environment for misunderstanding about oneself and one’s neighbor. That is, it depends on how we tell it to ourselves. The narration of oneself, of one’s roots, of one’s experience and of what surrounds us ends up being fundamental in the development of any hypothesis of the future and therefore literature can only be undeniably attracted by the past. Absolution, catharsis and repentance thus become mere formulas necessary for the resolution of the third act, but the architrave of every good story is in the sounding of the past. On the written page as in real life.
One difference with the novel is the space for a spiritual, supernatural element. Compared to other views of these places, yours has always been less mystical, truly down to earth: action, reaction, consequence. An experiment that can evolve?
I grew up in Puglia still heavily weighed down by the mystical sense of things: nature, the sea, faith, the vesper rosaries recited by the elderly, the processions of the patron saint, the hooded lines during the Easter mysteries. Then all of this at some point reveals itself to you as a gigantic hoax, a terribly necessary deception. The abuse of popular gullibility at the heart of In God’s treacherous land thus becomes the cynical and somewhat grotesque synthesis of a manipulation to which we all seem more or less intentionally to submit: we cling to the Most High when we no longer know where to go, when the answers don’t come, and we are willing to do anything to get them, even get fooled. Probing this aspect has been very interesting for me so far, an instance that my next novel will explode in a supernatural key.
An certainly democratic evil walks on God’s perfidious earth, sin concerns everyone, takes root. Faith is business. What about salvation?
I think salvation interests me up to a certain point. You save yourself every day, every moment, certain to start over from the next moment to risk getting lost. Here, living in the South has helped me to ascertain this basically obvious truth, without too many filters or embellishments: heaven and earth will pass away, as someone said.