My First Seven Years (Plus a Few More)
Dario Fo, the 1997 Nobel laureate in literature, explains his choice of the title My First Seven Years (Plus a Few More) for this volume about a fragment of his childhood by citing Bruno Bettelheim’s dictum that all that theorists needed was information about the first seven years of a person’s life to know all the relevant information about that individual’s formation of character and intellect. Fo adds fragments of a few more years, including some much later experiences, in unfolding the story of his development into a world-renowned performer and writer. Together, these memoirs form a fascinating look at his early formation among the peasantry on the shores of Lake Maggiore, his early formal education as a graphic artist and engineer, and, more important, his talent for telling stories patterned on the tall tales and spellbinding narratives he heard as a child in the lakeside villages in Italy. Indeed, it seems as if Fo’s childhood was a period of formation for a writer and performer of tales, a formation he did not recognize at the time and an element that makes his reference to Bettelheim all the more compelling.
With an eye and an ear for the comic and absurd, Fo narrates segments of his experience as a child, reconstructing some thrilling accounts of scrapes with young hooligans, the omnipresent influence of the Italian railway for which his father worked, the lure of the Ticino in Switzerland across the great lake, and his first visit to the fabled land of chocolate. Not above mentioning his own naïveté, he often paints himself as the butt of jokes and the victim of practical jokes in this rather anti-Romantic depiction of the child as father to the man.
Filled with myriad characters drawn from country life, the book teems with memorable portraits, such as that of the lay-sister novice who rescued the schoolboy Fulvio (Dario’s brother) from a quagmire and emerged with her garments so plastered to her body that she seemed to Dario and his companions like Aphrodite rising from the waves. The ghostly visitations Dario’s mother Pina Rota experiences in the same chapter, “The Novice and Fulvio in the Mud,” add an otherworldly dimension to the narrative that infuses several of the other tales of the lakeside. One such arresting tale borrows elements from the nineteenth century vogue of stories about the “Gods in Exile,” the gods of the ancient world gone underground during the advent of Christianity and reemerging from time to time to interact with people in the modern world. This narrative, “The Mystery of the Amorous Statues,” explores the familiar theme of statues of Apollo, a nymph, and a centaur coming to life and reenacting a tragedy of jealousy in which the caretaker of the grounds where the statues were placed seems madly complicit. In characteristic fashion, Fo’s gardener ends up in a madhouse, proclaiming his sanity as do other ostensibly mad people in Fo’s world. In that world, the supernatural freely interacts with the natural as if, in the magical time of childhood, all things are possible and explicable.
One remarkable and life-changing series of encounters for young Dario was his life among the glassblowers of Valtravaglia, an international community of artisans specializing in casting, molding, and glassblowing in a small port on the lake. In particular, here he listened to the fabulatori, the storytellers who invented the most outrageous tales of the commonplace, infused with classic and classical themes that were to shape his own career. Born of asides, improvisation, apparent chance phrases, or situations, these stories would reach beyond the improbable and still retain a plausible base in reality. The stories Fo recounts in chapter 8, “Foreigners and Strangers,” he realized later in life, could have been drawn from the great fabulists, such as Rabelais. Moreover, the apparently chance openings of the tales would inform his own improvisational style in later years, as he explains in chapter 9, “The Discovery of the Body,” a style associated with stand-up comedy as it developed in the twentieth century. Also in chapter 9 he recounts his great success as a student of the saber and his successful adaptation of the saber drills to quayside boxing. Whereas before his training regimen he had been soundly beaten up by the ruffians of the port town, his newfound feints and charges helped him level his...
(The entire section is 1801 words.)