What Hell is Not: Alessandro d’Avenia

★★★★

Don Pino Puglisi is a ray of light in the bleak Palermitan suburb of Brancaccio. More than fifty years ago, he was brought up in this claustrophobic neighbourhood and now, as a priest, he has returned to minister to his flock. And to the children most of all. For Brancaccio is a hell on earth. Dominated by the Mafia, it is a place without hope, without prospects, overlooked by the government ministers who are too frightened, or too corrupt, to intervene. There is no middle school; there are no parks; no space for children to grow. And so Don Pino comes home to fight for Brancaccio’s visibility: to campaign for a better world. Love, hope, compassion: these are things which challenge the Mafia’s stronghold and which try to make hell a better place. But of course the Mafia don’t take kindly to meddling priests. Gritty and heartbreaking, this is a story of one man’s struggle to change the world. It will appeal to those who’ve read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, but there’s a twist in the tale; for this is a true story.

Alessandro d’Avenia studied at the Vittorio Emanuele II high school in Palermo, where Don Pino was his religion teacher. In this novel, the author becomes the sometime narrator Federico, a young man from a comfortable Palermitan background who encounters Don Pino through school and who is drawn into his passionate attempt to make Brancaccio a better place. Despite having spent his entire life in Palermo, Federico is horrified by the squalor and misery of this quarter of his own city, where anything that threatens to free the kids from the local system of omertà is doomed to failure. Don Pino encourages Federico to come and help out at his youth centre, where he offers the children of Brancaccio the chance to play games, play football, eat snacks and hang out without the hand of the Mafia constantly hanging over them. Every single child who enters that centre has already been marked – they might have lost a father, or had their home threatened, or been asked to spy on someone, or been lured into child prostitution – but Don Pino offers them a place where they can be children again.

Yet Federico doesn’t just visit Brancaccio out of the goodness of his heart. On his first visit with Don Pino, he accompanies the priest to visit a poor family, where he meets their eldest daughter Lucia – literally a blazing light in that hopeless darkness. Intelligent and educated, Lucia dreams of becoming a schoolteacher. She loves books and Federico, a wannabe poet, sees a kindred spirit in her. Caught up in dreams of Petrarch, Dante and courtly love, Federico believes that he can help show Lucia a way out of Brancaccio – but his budding relationship with this fiery, proud girl will teach him that he, too, has an awful lot to learn about the world. Soon, Federico’s love for Lucia binds him ever closer to the fate of the children in Brancaccio, until he too learns that this wild quarter doesn’t welcome outsiders poking their noses into its business.

The narration skips from first to third person and can move between a number of characters in a single chapter. It isn’t always immediately obvious when the point of view changes, although that’s probably down to formatting issues in my advance review copy. Some sections are written very simply and powerfully: the exchanges between Don Pino and little Francesco, for example, are wonderfully vivid. Yet I found Federico’s sections slightly tedious, because when d’Avenia speaks in his voice he becomes very poetic and a bit too pretentious (the book opens with a chapter in Federico’s voice: don’t be put off by its pomposity). But it makes sense for the character, and the wonderful thing about d’Avenia’s book is that he shows us the good and bad sides of all the characters, even the Mafiosi themselves, who can murder a man in cold blood and then go home and play with their beloved children. The implication is that no one is entirely bad; everyone, given a chance and sufficient courage, can be saved. It seems that this was Don Pino’s own belief, and the reason that he kept reaching out to the community – to young couples whom he was counselling before their marriages; to teen mothers; to the sick and elderly; and always, above all, to the children, whom he sought to introduce to beauty and the wider world and a sense that there is a life beyond Brancaccio.

Don Pino Puglisi was born in 1937 and was murdered in Brancaccio on his 57th birthday in 1993. He was beatified in 2013 at a Mass attended by 50,000 people and his tomb, in Palermo Cathedral, has become a point of pilgrimage. Regarded as a martyr to the Mafia, his legacy continues to inspire people long after his death. When d’Avenia published his novel in 2014, a middle school dedicated to Don Pino had opened in Brancaccio. Normally saying things like this would count as spoilers, but in this case I think it’s important to stress the impact that this wonderful, caring man had on his community and to salute the efforts he made to give children another way of life, in a world where brutality and oppression tried to block any means of escape. A great man.

A deeply moving book, which doesn’t always flow entirely smoothly, but which gets its claws into you. To paraphrase something that Don Pino says in the book, it shows the importance of compassion in confronting hatred. You may not be able to solve it straight away, but compassion is the drop of water that, over time, will eat away at the stone. Highly recommended.

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review

Don Pino

Don Pino Puglisi

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