Inès Cagnati is such an author. Her novels and short stories about the Italian immigrant community in France in the middle of the 20th century resurrect a transitional era that might otherwise have passed without leaving a trace. Her quietly devastating debut novel, Free Day, which won France’s Prix Roger Nimier in 1973, offers an insider’s view of what it feels like to be an outsider, not only in the land in which you live but in the family to which you were born.
In the last century, between the wars, an unprecedented “massive” and “sudden” wave of immigration flooded the southern French region of Aquitaine. Eighty thousand Italians, mostly agricultural workers, moved to the severely underpopulated departments of Lot-et-Garonne and Midi-Pyrénées, lured by reports of plentiful jobs, gigantic tomatoes, and “dreams of El Dorado.”* Illiterate for the most part and unable to speak French, many of these economic refugees found work on marshy, rocky farmland that had been abandoned by Frenchmen who had fallen in the Great War or who had moved to the city. The arrival of the Italians revived a failing region, but it also prompted French anxieties about alien invasion and cries for quotas. How did the French farmers in the region treat the economic refugees? How did the Italian newcomers treat one another? And what were the actual conditions of daily life in the tightly knit rural communities where the newcomers settled?
In 1997, a symposium in Bordeaux addressed these questions. The historians and sociologists in attendance concurred that Cagnati’s “lucid and unsparing” fiction was an “indispensable” resource, and built upon it by soliciting oral histories of other first- and second-generation Italo-French southerners. They had plenty of statistics, of course (population figures and percentages), but to understand the vécu, the lived reality behind the numbers, the scholars needed to speak with individual men and women who remembered what it had been like to be a child in that time of privation, prejudice, and migration, because, as Cagnati writes, “A child is life’s memory of itself.” And for those stories to gain a human complexion, they needed names attached to them. “It’s important for every thing to have its own name,” Cagnati emphasized. When you name things, she explained, they become “less neglected, because once you give them a name, people can know them and talk about them.” In Free Day, she gives names to the unnamed and voices to the voiceless. As in most of her later fictions, she tells her story from the point of view of a little girl—as helpless as the child narrator of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows—who relates her daily life without judgment and with brutal, unrestrained truthfulness that kindles pathos in the reader.