Guido, le roman d'un immigrant by Rita Amabili-Rivet

Copertina del libroMontreal: Hurtubise HMH, 2004. 350 pp.

With this historical novel Rita Amabili-Rivet, a French-language Quebec writer of Italian origin, pays homage to her father – and to all immigrants  – and calls for acceptance and tolerance among all cultures. Guido is also atribute to the notion of holding on to our roots – the places and the people who have contributed to the making of our present.

Guido is the story of the author’s ancestors and particularly her father. (The author was born in Montreal in 1954 to Guido Amabili and Éva Lofort.) The book illustrates the power of conjugal and familial love, which allows one to surmount injustice as well as physical and emotional pain. That love comes through in the narrative voice, indicating the narrator’s affinity for the characters – some were real people the author knew growing up in Quebec, others she created to facilitate the narration in Italy.

The narrative begins with Guido’s birth in Italy in 1912 and ends with his death in present-day Canada. Guido arrived in Montreal in 1929 at the age of 17. His immediate and extended family were agricultural labourers who scraped a meagre living in the Marche region of central Italy. Set in rural Italy, the first half of the novel is a detailed description of the relationship of men, women and children to the earth, which recalls novels by Zola and Ringuet. At the age of five, Guido is already trained to work the vegetable garden without supervision. Amabili-Rivet’s characters live a daily routine of intense labour essential to their survival.

Amabili-Rivet tries to stay faithful to historical events, describing in detail the effects of World War I on Italian peasants, many of whom were forced onto the battlefield. When the narrative moves to Quebec, the author minutely describes the difficult socio-economic situation of French Canada between the wars as well as the racism that Italian immigrants encountered upon their arrival.

Guido is about bridging cultures – the Italian, the Canadian, the Italian-Canadian and the Quebecois – and about establishing a dialogue between the present, the past and the future generations. Just before Guido’s death, the narrator reiterates the narratorial refrain: ‘Mon enfant te perpétuera.’ In the Prologue Guido’s daughter emphasizes the importance of roots ‘pour un arbre comme pour les êtres humains’ – a notion she has imparted to her own children. Vincent, Guido’s grandchild and the author’s son, says about the tree that Guido had planted in the yard: ‘Un arbre que mon grand-père  a planté de ses mains dans la terre de son pays d’adoption, pour lui faire prendre de nouvelles racines en se gardant d’oublier celles qu’il avait déjà et qui partaient de sa sève.’  Valuing our heritage is important, but so is establishing new roots and building on them: ‘Des racines entremêlées, il n’y a rien de plus fort.’ As a final indication of intercultural and intergenerational dialogue, at the end of the book, the author includes a letter (in the original Italian and French translation) from a distant cousin that she encountered while researching the book.

Guido: Le roman  d’un immigrant is a significant contribution to Quebec literature, Canadian writing and to the field of ethnic minority writing. Amabili-Rivet’s text is an important account of the socio-historical events which led to the migration from Italy during the inter-war period. As such, Guido is a refreshing outlook on immigration, setting itself apart from the majority of literary texts on Italians in Canada which tend to focus on the post-World War II period.

Best known as a writer of children’s drama and poetry, Rita Amabili-Rivet dedicated nearly a decade to researching and writing Guido. The extensive bibliography included in the book attests to the author’s detailed research. Guido is a well-researched, well-written historical novel which will appeal to the general public. It is also a valuable tool in academic circles. We can only hope that the English translation, which is already being planned, will be available soon.

First published in Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal, Vol. XXXVII, No. 2, 2005, pages 129-130.