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Where Pretty and Ugly Go Hand in Hand

Updated: May 24, 2023

Annemart Pilon

Listen to Annemart reading her own Mammoth in Dutch:

For the past few days, I’ve feverishly been looking for cheap airplane tickets to Naples. This happens to me more often. The city is not my home anymore, and it doesn’t have to be, but sometimes I just need to go.

Ever since I moved back to the Netherlands for good, thirteen years ago, I have returned to Naples regularly, and every time everything I thought was in the past comes back to me in all its intensity. Suddenly, I’m gesturing wildly when I talk, but walking slowly, like an Italian; my moods go every which way, although melancholy predominates; and before I know it, I’m entangled in some animated discussion with someone about which fried pizza is the best. But most of all, I am seized by the type of dolce far niente I only ever experience there: I’m in such a beautiful place, that just to be there is enough.

I was eighteen when I first moved to Naples, to be an au pair, and I wrote that the city was diverse: from its strong, caressing sun to its fierce winds that toppled me unexpectedly. Back then, I was convinced I was being so poetic. But it does illustrate quite nicely what it’s like to live in a city where nothing goes smoothly, where there’s a permanent sense of chaos in the air and almost everything is dirty or run-down, where it’s full of people – who mainly live in the streets, with all their smells and colours – and where pretty and ugly alternate so quickly that it seems like the two go hand in hand. In the middle of the city centre are some old working-class neighbourhoods that have actually been designated as world heritage sites, but are nonetheless still the same working-class neighbourhoods, with girls living in dark, single-room apartments and plucking their eyebrows in the streets because there’s enough daylight there. In these same neighbourhoods, one church houses an authentic Caravaggio, and you can descend into the quiet, underground Neapolis that the Greeks and Romans built. If you look closely at the many palazzi, you can discern much of their past grandeur from a time in which Naples was one of the main European metropoles and the Grand Tour ended here. And from the big villas in the district of Posillipo, the luxury neighbourhood at sea, you can get an insanely beautiful view of the bay with its many islands and with the ever-imminent sight of the Vesuvius as an anchor. In what other European city would you find such a combination?

The glorious past stands in stark contrast with today’s decline and with Naples’ everlasting reputation as some deserted corner of Italy where you’re not safe, which is strengthened by books like Gomorra. But things are changing, however slowly. In neighbourhoods that friends discouraged me from visiting thirteen years ago, they now organise cultural tours to show how the district has changed for the better with the help of citizens’ initiatives. I noticed that some restaurants even have menus in English. Because the dark, narrow alleyways, where the air smells perpetually sweetly of garbage, fried eggplant and laundry that’s being hung out to dry, are now frequented by young tourists looking for the Naples they think they know from Roberto Saviano and Elena Ferrante. Maybe they’re on an Instagram tour, so that they can take the exact same pictures they’ve already seen online. They walk from coffee bar to coffee bar, taking pictures in the alleys of other people’s authentic misery. Oh, isn’t Naples characteristic… But the people they’re capturing don’t have the money to travel to a more European place.

Every time I return, the city seems to have moved on without me. Bus tickets have become more expensive, the new metro line is finished and one of my favourite restaurants is permanently closed. The square I looked out onto from my room, back then the social hub of Naples’ nightlife, now only appears to be good enough for a handful of tired thirty-somethings. I don’t know where students meet at night these days – I only know that I’m no longer part of life there.

Famous Neapolitan writer Erri De Luca, who exchanged his hometown for Rome, puts this kind of return into words in his book Napòlide:

When I get off the train in Naples, it doesn’t feel like I’ve returned. On the contrary, I feel alone, more intimately entitled than I feel elsewhere. A city doesn’t forgive you for letting her go, because it always means treason. I agree with her, with the city: whoever wasn’t there, whoever hasn’t been there, is not there now, their right to be a resident has expired.

That’s why, during my short visits to Naples, I like to go to the places that are still exactly the same. I explore the city underground or walk towards the sea, if only because the noise is less loud there. And I will never tire of the view of the bay, which is different on every single corner of the boulevard. In The Day Before Happiness, Erri De Luca’s novella about an orphan boy growing up in a Neapolitan working-class district right after the Second World War, we read:

Sometimes I’d see the bay from a bend in the road on the hill. All that beauty, invisible to someone who lived inside the city, seemed impossible. We were fish in the net, and all around us was the wide open sea. From up on the hill, I’d look for our alley, but I couldn’t find it – the streets were packed like sausages.

For me, that wide open sea will always be a place to catch my breath and leave all the impressions of the city behind me. The sea has the same function in The Day Before Happiness. In it, the orphan boy walks to the sea at times, by himself or with Don Gaetano, who takes care of him, teaching him the card game scopa, telling him stories about the city during the war and teaching him about the practices of love. The boy needs the sea, it’s his refuge. Because the sea ‘gives you absolution’ when your thoughts are ‘churning chaotically in your head’.

These kinds of ideas, and this language use, make the story stick with you. I tremendously enjoyed translating this summery novella, and while I was working on the translation, I very coincidentally met one of the characters from the novel, who apparently exists in real life: the bookseller, Don Raimondo. The man was visibly proud of Erri De Luca, who grew up in a poor working-class district himself and achieved success both nationally and internationally. You come across his work all the time in the city, and there is even some street art dedicated to him, in classic Neapolitan style: in one of the districts, you can spot his portrait on a wall. The writer’s wrinkles seamlessly dissolve into the cracks in the old wall. The history of Naples can be read on its walls, and De Luca is a part of that history.

Annemarts Dutch translation of Erri De Luca's The Day Before Happiness was published by HetMoet in June. Order a copy here or get it at your local bookstore!


Annemart Pilon (1988) is a literary translator and an Italian and Spanish teacher. After living in Naples for two years to learn Italian, she obtained her Master’s degree in Literary Translation at the University of Utrecht. During her Master’s degree, the Dutch Foundation for Literature and the Master’s program of Literary Translation awarded her the ‘Talent Scholarship’, providing her with the opportunity to be coached by renowned literary translators such as Manon Smits and Pietha de Voogd. She has translated the works of, amongst others, Teresa Ciabatti, Erri De Luca and Nicola Pugliese.

She has also published articles in the translation magazine Filter and the daily paper NRC, in which she raises awareness about the terrible income of translators. To this end, she has also assembled an elaborate file about the financial position of translators in the Netherlands and Flanders for the Centre of Expertise for Literary Translation.

Translation: Fannah Palmer. Read the original Mamoetje in Dutch here.



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