Michela Murgia

From “Accabadora”

“As she cut the onion into thin slices, Maria mulled obsessively over this difference, arranging the ingredients for supper with the same hypnotic slowness with which she was trying to order her thoughts. Andría’s words had been as crazy as the light in his eyes as he was saying them, and they had made no sense to Maria, though when set against certain memories they began to take on some sort of meaning. As she cut the tomato into pieces, she could see again the figure of the old dressmaker huddled by the fire that same morning, fully dressed and with her hair done as if she had just come home, or already knew that she would soon need to go out. Maria had long ago stopped pondering the mysterious nocturnal expeditions of her elderly adoptive mother, but now these suppressed memories came back to hit her like the elastic of a catapult, prompting the thought that Bonaria Urrai might have something serious to hide. It was the first time such a thought had ever struck Maria, and she did not know how to cope with this suspicion which fitted so badly with the confidence she felt in the woman who had taken her to be her daughter. Bonaria could not possibly have lied to her, because there are things you should do and things you should not do, she reminded herself as she dropped the rest of the finally chopped vegetables into the sizzling oil. The wooden spoon evoked fragrances and memories among the browning onions and, as she slowly stirred them, Maria opened herself to both, and remembered an afternoon from many years before, only a few months after she had first become soul-daughter to Tzia Bonaria.”

“When the once-beautiful Bonaria Urrai adopts Maria, the unloved fourth child of a widow, she tries to shield the girl from the truth about her role as an accabadora, an angel of mercy, who acts as a midwife to the dying. The rural community fear and revere her in equal measure, but they understand that just as only a woman can bring life into the world, only a woman should take it away.

Moved by the pleas of a young man crippled in an accident, she breaks her golden rule of familial consent, and in the recriminations that follow, Maria rejects Tzia Bonaria and flees Sardinia for Turin. Adrift in the big city, she strives to find love and acceptance, but her efforts are overshadowed by the creeping knowledge of a debt unpaid, of family ties that have nothing to do with blood, and of a destiny that must one day be hers.

A powerful and yet delicate novel set in the 1950s rural Sardinia, written in a rich, limpid prose that perfectly captures the hidden ties between life, love and death.”

Accabadora Review

Birth and death are the two constants circumscribing our lives. They accompany us every day, if we are aware of them or not. Most religions venerate life and protect it. 'Thou shalt not kill' is one of the ten commandments and similar rules exist even in the most primitive societies. Today we are convinced that life is something holy and that nobody has the right to end it before the time. Except during a war and in self-defense murder is a crime, no matter the reasons. Euthanasia is a much disputed topic and Michela Murgia deals with it in her novel Accabadora although it's not really in the centre of her attention as the title makes expect.

Michela Murgia was born in Cabras, Sardinia, Italy in June 1972. She studied Roman Catholic theology and worked among others as religious studies teacher and a saleswoman. Her debut novel Il mondo deve sapere (The World Must Know) developed from a blog about her experiences working in a call centre and came out as a book in 2006. Her biggest success so far is the bestselling novel Accabadora from 2009 which received several literary awards and has been translated into many languages. Her latest published works are the narrative L'incontro (The Encounter) and her contribution to the diary of four Italian writers titled Presente (Present).

The story of Accabadora is set in the small Sardinian village Soreni in the early 1950s. Six-year-old Maria Listru is the unwanted fourth daughter of a widow who has a hard time feeding her family. When Bonaria Urrai, an unmarried woman in her late fifties, observes at the grocer's how ill the girl is treated by her mother, she decides to take her as a 'fill'e anima' (a 'soul child' translated literally into English) which is an informal kind of adoption common in Sardinia for centuries. Maria's mother gladly accepts with the secret hope of profiting indirectly from the relative wealth of Bonaria Urrai. Maria perceives leaving her family of origin to live with her new mother, whom she will always call Tzia Bonaria, as her second birth. Bonaria isn't a very affectionate person—maybe because her dream of marriage was crushed by World War I which robbed her of her fiancé, maybe because it has always been her nature—but she treats Maria well and instils strong principles in the girl. She insists that Maria go to school for longer than most villagers consider necessary and doesn't allow the Listru to exploit her when they need someone to help out. For a living Bonaria works as a dressmaker for both women and men, a profession which she teaches to Maria. However, Bonaria Urrai also has a secret occupation and she hides it from her adopted daughter best she can. Intelligent as Maria is, she knows all along that there is something about Tzia Bonaria of which she is ignorant, but she is forbidden to ask questions about the people coming to fetch her at night or about her doings. When her friend Andria Bastíu tells Maria that he watched Bonaria suffocating his crippled elder brother with a pillow one night, she doesn't believe him. Tzia Bonaria doesn't deny it and it dawns on Maria that her second mother is an 'accabadora' (most accurately translated into English as 'finisher'), a woman who kills the agonizing out of mercy. Maria is shocked and disgusted. With the help of her teacher Luciana she moves to Turin as a nanny, but stays there only for little more than a year trying to forget. In the meantime Bonaria Urrai's health is deteriorating. Eventually she has a stroke and is bedridden which requires Maria to return to Soreni. Nursing Tzia Bonaria and watching not only her decline, but also her long agony, she begins to understand the reasons why she was an 'accabadora', one of the last in a long Sardinian tradition.

The story of Maria Listru and the Accabadora Bonaria Urrai is a quiet one which focuses on the growing-up girl. With the exception of ruthless gossip, ancient superstition and a neighbourhood row which costs Andria's brother a leg and his living will, there isn't really much going on in the rural environment which Michela Murgia describes with so much skill. The characters of the novel are quite ordinary ones, but they are carved out expertly in the author's elegant language. Besides, the entire plot is embedded in the social system and the centuries-old traditions of their country which have been quietly slipping into oblivion after World War II.

Michela Murgia

Born in Sardinia in 1972, Michela Murgia is a versatile writer who has experimented with different genres since the beginning of her career. Most of her writing shows a recurrent interest in women's issues. Her first work, Il mondo deve sapere (2006), a tragicomic account of a young woman caught in the pitfalls of casual work, was turned into a play with the same title and subsequently inspired the successful film by Paolo Virzì, Tutta la vita davanti (2008). In 2008 Murgia published a guide to her native island, Viaggio in Sardegna. Her 2009-novel Accabadora received public acclaim and earned her the prestigious Campiello Prize in 2010, the Molinello Award for First Fiction, the Mondello International Literary Prize and other awards. The novel has been translated into French, German, Catalan and English.

As a writer publicly engaged in the struggle against female objectification and women's exclusion from power, culture and politics in Italian society, in 2011 Murgia tackled most of these topics in a non-fictional text, Ave Mary. This essay investigates how, over the last 20 centuries, Catholic culture has systematically belittled the role of women in society by offering them an unachievable female model in the figure of the Virgin Mary, whose celestial perfection creates a sense of frustration and lack of self-esteem in every woman attempting to aspire to it.

In 2012 Murgia published the short novel L'Incontro and contributed to Presente, a book written in collaboration with Giorgio Vasta, Andrea Bajani and Paolo Nori that describes the year 2011. With Loredana Lipperini, Murgia tackled the tragic topic of violence against women in contemporary Italian Society in their book ‘L'ho uccisa perché l'amavo’. Falso! (2013).

Some of her short stories have been published in multi-authored anthologies, such as ‘Altre madri’ in Questo terribile intricato mondo (2008), ‘Il posto è la notte’ in Sono come tu mi vuoi (Laterza), ‘Alla pari’ in Lavoro da morire (Einaudi ET), ‘Spadoneri’ in Contos (Fandango), ‘A pezzi’ in Cartas de logu (CUEC), ‘Calo di pressione’ in Granta Italia I (Rizzoli), ‘Hanif’ in Nyx: Racconti della Notte (Arkadia).

Murgia is an honorary member of the ‘Coordinamento delle Teologhe Italiane’ and of the ‘Società Italiana delle Letterate’. She writes a blog (www.michelamurgia.com) as well as contributing to a wide variety of magazines and newspapers.