The great influx of Irish into Scotland in the nineteenth century can sometimes obscure the fact that there were other immigrants arriving here in search of a better life. Notable among these were the Italians who began to arrive in 1890s, with their numbers increasing significantly after the First World War. Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship and Italy’s participation in the Second World War as one of the Axis powers, however, brought unwelcome attention to the Italian community in Scotland. Families were sundered and men interned.
It is this situation that attracted the attention of Dan Gunn. A Professor of Comparative Literature and English at the American University of Paris, Gunn is co-editor of four volumes of Samuel Beckett’s letters and the beautifully illustrated Cahiers Series, which includes works by Muriel Spark and Anne Carson. His research interests also produced Psychoanalysis and Fiction and Wool-Gathering, or How I Ended Analysis. And if that is not enough, The Emperor of Ice-Cream, in which he explores the predicament faced by the Scots-Italian community during the last war, is his third work of fiction, following Almost You and Body Language.
In a 2014 interview Gunn was asked if it is more challenging being a novelist or academic. ‘For me, writing fiction is the hardest thing,’ he said. ‘Nobody can indicate how long a story or novel should be, nobody can tell me in what accent or with what tone the characters should speak, nobody can tell me when I’ve written (or edited) enough, and in any case nobody is demanding the novel of me in the first place.’
It’s true. Nobody insisted that Gunn write a novel about an almost forgotten injustice, the internment of Italian-Scots in distant, disused mills in 1940. In it, he explores the life of Italian immigrants in the camps, but he is also interested in difference – ethnic, political, sexual – and what being perceived as different teaches us. The book is heavy on lesson-learning, historical detail and allusions to influential texts. The title, for instance, is taken from Wallace Stevens’ eponymous poem about death or, perhaps, the Brian Moore novel of the same name.
The Emperor of Ice-Cream centres on the fictional Pezzini family who migrated from the northern Italian town of Maclodio in the 1920s. They seem stereotypically Italian: passionate, argumentative and food-infatuated. Four children and their parents crowd into a top-floor flat on Broughton Street in Edinburgh, where Clydesdales still clop up and down the road. Papa is a Nativity carver while Mamma is a ghost figure; early on she announces she will die and then she quietly does. The oldest boy, Dario, is aggressive and pitifully dumb. He sets up a social club, the Fascio, in a run-down hut between Leith Links and Dalmeny Street. With other ex-pat Italians including the Edinburgh Consul, they don black shirts and pledge allegiance to Il Duce. Emilio is sickly and a bit useless, being an aspiring poet. Sweet and lonely, middle brother Giulio later renounces the Fascio and tries to save the world with his innovative blends of gelato.
Still a child, the youngest daughter, Lucia, is the unlikely narrator of these male power struggles. But as the token female, she is on the outside of a group of outsiders. She doesn’t have the tiresome obligation to prove her toughness in an already tough place, making her an impartial observer of male stupidity. She also has the freedom to create a blended personality of a true Italian-Scot, judging by her fluent use of local slang.
Gunn doesn’t describe Lucia physically, but I imagined a small and dark-haired girl traversing Edinburgh’s hills. I enjoyed her sage observations and her determination to find her own way. And I understood why she spends her days in McVitie’s cafe learning the ways of the world from Auntie Sandie, a good-time kind of gal. Lucia suffers from an absence of role-models, something this fellow newcomer to Edinburgh can sympathise with.
Gunn’s characters embody a lesson in the perils of immigration that I know only too well; they are always caught between places and contending notions of ‘home’. Underwritten by the Fascio, the Pezzini children are able to travel back to Italy and revel in how much they’ve changed. Lucia herself goes when she is a bit older and more opinionated: ‘Home for the very first time! Even if home is so small & everyone so poor & there’s such a pong…’ Holding a bow and arrow, she wears a Fascist tunic and marches with other girls in front of Mussolini. Later she meets Il Duce and her photograph with him becomes a prized possession. She also falls for a Roman boy named Valerio, who supports the novel’s themes of difference and human suffering by turning out to be Jewish. This information is mostly delivered in letters to Giulio, sent to Scotland with love.
Gunn uses these letters to compare life in Italy and Scotland when both places were on the brink of war. They cement the close relationship between Lucia and Giulio, who express their sibling tenderness with salutations like ‘tanti baci’ and ‘love and affection from your fondest’ and they create the necessary sense of distance and nostalgia so common in the recently migrated. Yet the letters, which rise from the page in darker font, are also dissatisfying in their quick way of dispensing information. It’s like reading a flat series of emails between people you hardly know. Gunn, with his talent for gracefully describing the tone and tenor of landscapes, probably misses a trick here.
Meanwhile, Edinburgh, with its grime and its pigeons, is where the action is. Gunn accurately identifies the bizarre feeling that one can sometimes get in Scotland when something terrible and humiliating happens out of the blue. Lucia acquires a nemesis, a gormless idiot by the name of Ewan McEwen. His father owns the local fish and chip shop, which rivals the Italians’ new crop of chippies. Out of lust and violence, McEwen teases Lucia for years, first playfully, but then his advances become a violent obsession. One day when they are adults, he pushes her down on the street and sexually assaults her.
But not all Scots are portrayed as hostile to incomers. The Royal Bank of Scotland is a contentious brand today, but acts as a saviour in this novel, through an ice-cream loving bank manager called Mr. Morton. By now Lucia has graduated with a typing degree from the Pitman’s Training Institute. She becomes a dedicated RBS employee and politely inquires about a loan for Giulio’s business venture. But instead of ice cream she mistakenly utters that Giulio’s shop will be selling ‘Ice, Mr. Morton, ice’. With a stern face, the manager declines. Lucia is saved however, by his sweet tooth: ‘Now, had you said ice-cream that would have been a different matter.’
Eventually Giulio opens his Ice Palace on Annandale Street, an antidote to the testosterone-filled Fascio clubhouse. Through ice cream Gunn injects some hope, beauty and sweetness into the story. In an interview, he recalled how when he was growing up Italian ice cream was a symbol of exoticism. His father used to drive him to Musselburgh, home to Luca’s famous ice cream parlour: ‘It’s hard to transmit now, in this era where the exotic is so instantly available, how big an impression these places made on me as a child, the sense that I was entering a world—a language and a group of people—that I could barely begin to understand.’
Hence the keen sense of wonderment in the sensual descriptions of ice cream. Giulio revels in the look and taste of the various flavours as if they are lovers’ bodies: ‘Stracciatella creamy with little flakes of dark chocolate. Walnut with lumps like tiny shrunken brains. Hazelnut so very smooth. Peach which as you remember is a fruit with a furry skin.’ It’s pistachio, though, that reminds him of Scotland, ‘an amazing bright green colour’. Over time, the flavours become more evocative of the body and heightened human emotion: ‘Bitter Cherry and Blood Orange so tart it sets the roof of your mouth on fire.’
In May 1939, Italy and Germany signed the so-called Pact of Steel, which in the months that followed was to have a grave impact on Italians living in Scotland. A little over a year later, Mussolini declared war on Britain and Winston Churchill is said to have ordered all enemy aliens, including Italians, to be interned. ‘Collar the lot!’ he is reported to have said. Gunn has recalled that while hiking on the Hebridean island of Colonsay, he happened upon a commemorative plaque to the sinking of the SS Arandora Star which was torpedoed off Ireland while transporting Italian and German internees to Canada. This episode is also cited in the novel which is strongly underpinned by real-life events. It may even have a template in the story of Leith-born artist sculptor and artist Eduardo Paolozzi who was interned at Saughton Prison. Paolozzi’s family owned an ice-cream parlour and his father, grandfather and uncle were killed on the Arandora.
As a recent immigrant to Scotland, required to jump through hoops that sometimes seemed designed to exclude rather than welcome, I am drawn to stories about migration, belonging and identity. Gunn’s detailed research and graceful prose are employed on behalf of a community that faced challenges that make mine seem minor by comparison. But I occasionally found myself looking for the author in his characters’ thoughts and not finding him. I wondered about the novel’s parallel lives and how different it would have been as a work of non-fiction. Perhaps that work is still to come.
The Emperor of Ice-Cream
Seagull Books, £19.50, ISBN 13 978 0 85742 223, PP288