A Burning Issue

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This is the tale of a baby, a book and a candle. The setting is the Sudan, the baby is our first-born, two-month-old Natasha, and the book is a great twentieth-century Italian novel. As for the candle . . .

One may as well begin with the baby.

Natasha Su-ming Sakina Plowright was born on 22 February 1966 in Omdurman, a stone’s throw from the Mahdi’s tomb, to my wife Poh Sim and me. She weighed 8lbs 6oz and was bright blue. Her nearest neighbour in the nun-run hospital was a Greek grocer’s baby weighing in at over 10lbs. We carried ours home in triumph and a Moses basket to our eccentric, edge-of-desert house, set in a garden full of mongooses.

I was working in the Sudan for the British Council, and Poh Sim, born in Malaya, had interrupted her M.Phil. on John Ford – the playwright, not the movie-maker – to join me. We’d been married eighteen months. Her reading taste was far wider and deeper than mine and among the writers she introduced me to were W. B. Yeats, whom I’d never read, and the Italian novelist Cesare Pavese, whom I’d never heard of. The novel that really spoke to her was his last, La Luna e i falò (The Moon and the Bonfires), written in 1949. It’s a powerful tale of the return of an Italian American who’s made good to the remote Italian village where he grew up before the Second World War. You never know the narrator’s name but you get to know everybody else in that small place intimately, particularly his old friend Nuto, a Zorba-like figure, exemplifying courage and freethinking in the otherwise narrow and cruel society they’ve both grown up in. Gradually, terrible events unfold, and always there’s that sense of the secret which, for me, marks out great fiction. Italo Calvino expressed this perfectly when he wrote: ‘Each one of Pavese’s novels revolves around a hidden theme, something unsaid which is the real thing he wants to say and which can be expressed only by not mentioning i

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About the contributor

After the British Council, Piers Plowright worked for BBC Radio and Poh Sim taught at Royal Holloway College. Natasha is now Head of Communications at the Photographers’ Gallery in London.

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