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Antonio's eye is a novel that won't soon disappear from your retina

'Him, dammit. Do I need to be any clearer?' With those words from unrepentant photographer Alessandro Pavia, who appoints orphan boy Antonio as his new assistant, the novel's protagonist begins Antonio's eye by Raffaella Romagnolo, a new life. Antonio Casagrande, already almost 12 and blind in one eye, had almost given up hope of ever leaving Pammatone orphanage - what does anyone see in him? But Pavia takes him under his wing and becomes almost like a father to him.

Antonio's life story unfolds against the backdrop of a politically and socially changing Italy. Pavia is a supporter of General Garibaldi, who forged Italy into unity, and from 1860 with his over a thousand red-shirts, i Mille, fights for Italy's freedom. The photographer portrays Giuseppe Garibaldi himself and the Mille, meanwhile teaching Antonio the tricks of the trade. Although the boy is thus blind in one eye, he appears talented at treating the glass plate with collodion and silver nitrate.

Visions of death

However, his blind eye sees very different things from his good eye. At times when his eye is not covered by an eye patch, Antonio is sometimes assailed by terrible images of disaster. It takes him a while to decipher what it means: Antonio sees the announcement of a near death of the person he is photographing. He still rarely takes off his eye patch.

It is May 1898, Antonio is now 43, when his life takes a decisive turn. Riots break out in Milan among the poor, hungry people, which are put down bloodily. As Antonio shoots photographs of the events in the streets, a vision of the fate of a midwife he sees walking in the crowd overwhelms him. She will die from violence. He decides to intervene and tries to get her and her colleague to walk a different route so that they will not pass by the place he believes he recognised in his vision as the scene of disaster. But he makes a fatal mistake and the woman dies precisely because of his intervention in the way he had foreseen.

Italian writer Raffaella Romagnolo © Maurice Haas

Yet this fateful event also brings forth something good: Antonio meets Caterina, the colleague of the fallen nurse, and she becomes his wife. Although Caterina once lost a child and therefore cannot conceive again, fate grants them a son after all: the child of a young, unmarried girl who does not survive childbirth. The scene of Alessandro's birth is chilling and magnificent at the same time.

To intervene or not?

But as reassured as Antonio was by the fact that his blind eye remains blind when he photographs his wife - Antonio cannot help but put it to the test, but now knows he will not see her die -, he is worried by what he sees in his son. So when the day arrives when those images become reality, the question is: can he change his son's fate? Should he intervene, or not?

Romagnolo manages to bring a bygone era to life in sepia, as it were, with evocative descriptions, some delightful and engaging characters and sentences that keep your eye hooked just a little longer. The often brutal events in the outside world and the nasty images that torment Antonio are a nice contrast to the sensitive characters. Although they have all taken blows from life, underneath the rough husk they possess a certain tenderness. Although the tension that the 'gift' of Antonio's eye initially evokes gradually fades, the novel's ending certainly makes up for it.

Antonio's eye is a novel that won't quickly disappear from your retina.

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Rafaella Romagnolo, Antonio's eye. Translated by Hilda Schraa.
Signature, €22.99, 320 p.





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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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