The Day Before Happiness

Written by Erri De Luca Michael F. Moore (trans.)
Review by Ellen Keith

De Luca’s tale of an orphan boy in Naples after World War II is short but powerful. Our unnamed narrator tells of being raised in an apartment building by the doorman, Don Gaetano. He has a foster mother who pays his expenses, but he lives alone. Due to his slight frame, he makes himself indispensable to the local boys who play soccer, retrieving the ball from precarious places, and in the process, hoping the neighbor girl is admiring his prowess. When the boy is a teenager, the mysterious girl returns, and he falls even more hopelessly in love with her than before. She could be crazy and dangerous, but love only makes those qualities more exciting.

The tale is so much more than a love story. It’s also the story of a young man being raised on stories of the occupation of Naples by the Germans. Don Gaetano is a wise and loving mentor who shares with the boy just as much as he can handle at the time, teaches him the repairman trade, and, when the time is right, tells him the story of his parents and gives him a knife, not forgetting that he is a Neapolitan.

I experienced this book more as a series of impressions than a sustained narrative, and I have no complaints about that; I think it’s one of the book’s charms. Don Gaetano’s tales of the German occupation, when he hid a Jew in the cellar recall those dark days in history. The title comes from something the Jew tells Don Gaetano when he asks him to cast a stone in the water for him the day before the Jewish New Year, making that day the day before happiness. Postwar Naples, an orphan’s longing, and a man’s wisdom are vividly rendered in this evocative book.