Italy's love affair with Aharon Appelfeld

The Israeli writer delivers a message of peace as he accepts the Grinzane Cavour Prize's Dialogue between Nations award.

Aharon Appelfeld 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy, Frederic Brenner)
Aharon Appelfeld 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy, Frederic Brenner)
Aharon Appelfeld is a beloved literary figure in Italy, but it is difficult for him to accept this fact. The wounds of his Holocaust childhood in Europe haunt him, and his memories, transformed by his great writing talent, pervade the narrative content of his books. Deported from Czernowitz to a concentration camp after his mother was murdered by Nazis, he escaped at age eight and wandered in the Polish woods for three years. Italy's love affair with Appelfeld seems to have reached an apex this year. Just over a month ago, he gave the opening speech at the Turin International Book Fair in the presence of Italy's President Giorgio Napolitano. He told the audience they could read his speech in the hand-out translations, but he would speak in Hebrew "because the language is more musical." Perhaps this was his sly response to the anti-Israel protests that had been organized by the extreme Left and Palestinian groups against Israel's being the Guest of Honor at the 2008 Fair, marking Israel's 60th birthday. Last week, he was back in Turin to receive the "Dialogue between Nations" award for the Italian edition of his novel, Badheim, 1939, in the framework of the prestigious international Grinzane Cavour Prize (named for the town near Turin where the Count of Cavour, the Kingdom of Italy's first premier, served as mayor in 1839 at the age of 29). In August, Appelfeld will be on the Adriatic coast of Italy in Rimini to speak at the annual international "meeting" organized by the Catholic movement, "Comunione e Liberazione." Standing on the platform of the ceremonial tent erected on the grounds of the historic Grinzane Cavour Castle, Appelfeld responded to warm applause by sharing some musings with his audience. "You know, we Jews are not loved," he said. "We are not loved in Europe and we are not loved as Israelis. But I love, and I give love. Peace in the Middle East will come about when Palestinians and Israelis both read my books, and then discuss them." With these words he moved to step down, but then the host of the event, Giuliano Soria, symbolically sealed Appelfeld's prophecy by inviting renowned Moroccan novelist and President of the Jury Tahar Ben Jelloun to congratulate Appelfeld personally. The embrace between the two elicited a loud and long ovation, expressing the public's desire for peace in the Middle East. MANY, IF not most, of the world's most famous writers have collected this prize through its 27 years of existence. The jury is composed of distinguished Italian and international literary critics and writers. The Grinzane Cavour Prize can also boast that eight of its winners have gone on to receive the Nobel Prize for literature: Nadine Gordimer, Wole Soyinka, Josè Saramago, Guenter Grass, Vidiadhar S. Naipaul, John Maxwell Coetzee, Orhan Pamuk and Doris Lessing. Israeli authors, translated and published in Italian, have been frequent guests and winners of the Grinzane Cavour, too. In 1994, A.B. Yehoshua received an award; in 1997, David Grossman did, too (and he came back to receive another prize in 2006); in 2004 it was the turn of Sayed Kashua; and in 2007 Amos Oz was honored. A basic premise of the prize is its belief in the power of literature to establish bonds between peoples and to inspire young people to become readers by proving to them that literature can be exciting. Consequently, the choice of two Grinzane Cavour super-prizes selected from the six winners in the sections of Italian and International Literature was entrusted to juries composed of high school and college students. These young people were enrolled in Italian language and literature courses in 11 cities in Italy and 16 other cities across the world - Belgrade, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Fiume, Cairo, Lisbon-Coimbra, Moscow, Prague, Salamanca, St. Petersburg, Stockholm, Tokyo, Athens and Leeds-Manchester. Each of the student voters had read all six competing novels without discussing them. And in the end, the youth jury chose Bernardo Atxaga from Spain for Il Libro di Mio Fratello and Michele Mari from Italy for Verderame as this year's winners. German writer Ingo Schulze, one of the International Section winners not promoted by the students, commented skeptically, "Giving 16-year-olds all this power is all very well, but we mustn't take them too seriously. We must not let them 'judge' us as if literature were comparable to a race or competition..." Several of the winning authors expressed amazement at the event's Italian generosity, with festive meals of regional cuisine served with great elegance, lunch at the Ferrero Foundation in the town of Alba and dinner in the historic Martini & Rossi wine cellar and museum - all cultural and social landmarks. The cherry on top was a guided tour of the recently restored Venaria, the Royal Hunting Lodge that hosts outdoor concerts against the backdrop of illuminated fountains, and where the history of Piedmont comes alive through audiovisual installations. The winners were awarded 5,000 euros each, while the international "A Life for Literature" prize, won by the celebrated US author Don DeLillo, amounted to 15,000 euros. DeLillo confessed to The Jerusalem Post that he was deeply moved, in view of his personal background. His family, who had immigrated to the US from the Italian Abruzzi region, would be very proud of his achievement, he said. Ljudmila Ulicraja - a Jewish novelist who has also been published in Israel - was another international winner. The "promising new writer" award went to Leonora Miano from Cameroon for her deeply insightful writing on African themes in her novel, Notte Dentro. Elisabetta Rasy and Serena Vitale were the other two Italian winners for their novels, L'Estranea and L'Imbroglio del turbante, respectively.