In one of my favourite books of literary criticism, The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist, Orhan Pamuk says that ‘Often the centre emerges as the novel is written’. This was my experience with That Summer in Puglia. I started drafting a story, and trusted that I’d gradually discover what I cared most deeply to communicate. The themes and the connections between them surfaced as the plot and character sketches became a narrative. The entire process was thus partly intuitive, partly analytical – what Pamuk calls being ‘the naïve and the sentimental novelist’.
The main theme of That Summer in Puglia is the timeless value of compassion – not ‘pity’, but the ‘feeling with’ suggested by its Latin root – towards others and oneself. Other themes feature prominently: the perils of unresolved grief; the power of love in its many forms; the importance of dialogue and mildness. However, compassion is notable for playing a vital role in them all.
It’s one of the strands running through every form of love: from a stranger’s kindness, to the affection of parents and children; from profound friendship, to romantic love, and all the way to the concept of agápē. I hope that as you read That Summer in Puglia you’ll find yourself moving from judging Tommaso to really caring for him, and that his tale will remind you of something truly marvellous: that not just in fiction, but everywhere around us, acts of love great and small can transform lives.
In the story, unpredictable combinations of factors impact the characters’ internal worlds, relationships and actions. In the process, a theme closely related to compassion is explored: the need to test the goodness of any action by asking whether love for fellow human beings would enjoin us to take it. As philosophers have cautioned since ancient times, certainty of one’s own virtue can too easily slide into self-righteousness.
This is where the theme of the importance of mildness and dialogue comes in. We live in times where the need for them at societal level is more evident than ever.
Photo credit: Head of a Gorgon by Sailko. Reproduced under CC Commons License.