Forgotten favourites - Enchanted Isle. Tim Parks delights in a story of Mediterranean boyhood that tackles the debates of the postwar period, while seeming to exist outside history

Arturo's Island

Elsa Morante <em>Translated by Isabel Quigley</em> <em>Steerforth Press, 368pp, £1

A young boy has complete command over his dog and is slavishly adored by it. The boy's father has complete command over his son and is adored by him, slavishly. There is also a woman, not the boy's mother, whom again the father commands in everything, and who serves him, unfailingly, and is afraid of him. The three of them live entirely cut off from any society. The boy would like the woman, who is not much older than himself, to be afraid of him, too. He would like her to look at him with the melting eyes of a dog. But much of the time he spends alone, thinking of death, wondering if he will ever overcome his fear of death, if he will ever grow up and command men instead of dogs.

That would be one way of looking at it. If we add that the work was published in 1957 on the continent of Europe, then you will no doubt imagine we are talking about some grim existentialist play where life is reduced to its most essential impulses in a couple of acts of bleak humour. Nothing could be further from the truth. All the themes and debates of the postwar period are here, and treated with a comedy and profundity that matches Beckett at his best. But Arturo's Island, by the Italian novelist Elsa Morante, is wonderfully rich, melodramatic and strangely, somehow naturally, balanced between realism and myth.

Like any great novel, it announces its themes in the opening lines with great charm and assurance:

One of my first boasts was my name. I soon learned (it was he who first told me, I think) that Arturo is a star: the swiftest and most radiant in the constellation of Bootes, in the northern sky. And what's more that this was the name of a king too, in ancient times, commander of a band of faithful, who were all heroes, like their king himself, and treated as equals by him, as if they were brothers.

Unfortunately, I then found out that this famous Arthur, King of Britain, wasn't definite history, just legend; so I put him aside for other more historical kings (I thought that legends were childish). There was another reason, though, that sufficed, for me, to give a heraldic distinction to the name Arturo: it was that the person who gave me this name (without knowing, I don't suppose, its noble symbolism) was, so I discovered, my mother. In herself, she was no more than an illiterate girl; but more than a queen, for me.

Arturo imagines a world where absolute power (wielded by his namesake) is contained in the harmony of brotherhood. Alas, this turns out to be a myth. And he is for history, for a less idealistic understanding of power; yet the thought of his mother undercuts this resolve, suggests a form of sovereignty that might be based on the affections, not the sword. This tension will never be resolved. Arturo, in fact, is the son of a half-German, half- Italian father, Wilhelm, and a 17-year-old Neapolitan mother who died giving birth to him on Procida, a tiny volcanic island off the Bay of Naples. Illegitimate and unconnected, Wilhelm has nevertheless managed to inherit a house and income through his relationship with the ironically named Romeo, a misogynist businessman, now deceased, notorious for throwing strictly all-male parties at his isolated castle home, the House of the Rascals.

It is here, in what is actually an ex-monastery, that Arturo grows up. His father is almost always absent. After an early infancy with a male nanny, the boy is left entirely to his own devices with just a dog - Immacolatella! - for company. Unkissed by any woman, roaming his tiny kingdom (Procida measures 1.5 square miles), reading only books written by men and about male heroism, he dreams of the day he can leave the island with his father, whom he supposes to be a great traveller, explorer, perhaps military hero. Instead, as Arturo approaches 15, Wilhelm brings home a 17-year-old bride, whom he promptly gets pregnant, before returning to his dubious wanderings. Arturo's first kiss will thus be with the one woman forbidden to him, Nunziatella, his stepmother.

Morante's book is an extraordinary evocation of a Mediterranean island and a wild, seaside boyhood, and is steeped in the vocabulary of sovereignty, enchantment and imprisonment. The three are related. The island houses a high-security prison; Arturo feels that the island, like his boyhood, is a prison, but certainly enchanting, too. Every time he tries to row away from it in his little boat, he is overtaken by a terrible nostalgia that draws him back. Positive and negative visions of the same experience constantly intertwine. His father exercises complete, sometimes cruel sovereignty, over him - but this is beautiful, because Arturo is enchanted by his father.

Wilhelm, on the contrary, rejects any authority. Raving against the reproach of his wife as he sets off on another trip, he announces: "Obligations and duties don't exist for me, I AM A SCANDAL." A woman, he complains "always wants to hold you prisoner, like the time she was pregnant with you". "People shouldn't love each other any more," he concludes.

In complete opposition to Wilhelm's modern notions of freedom and individuality, the child-wife Nunziatella has an entirely traditional sense of duties and relationships. After being subjected to a speech of appalling, drunken misogyny from her husband, she lays a blanket over him when he falls asleep. The gesture almost drives Arturo mad for its beauty, its blind self- sacrifice. For despite being in love with Arturo, Nunziatella will never go beyond that first kiss because "Wilhelm is my husband". The last violent scenes, in which a desperate and violent Arturo tries to get his unwilling stepmother to understand that Wilhelm is "IN LOVE WITH A MAN" - imprisoned and enchanted, despite his libertarian aspirations, by a brutal young convict - are among the strongest I have ever read.

The genius of Elsa Morante's book is its investigation of the relationship between beauty and power, the mind's eagerness to be enchanted. Her own prose is very much part of the equation. The whole novel presents itself as an enchantment that seizes the reader's mind. At the end, we are released, for what it's worth, into the world of history. Leaving the island for the first time, immediately after his 17th birthday, Arturo discovers that the Second World War is imminent. He will volunteer. It is the first time that we have any inkling of a date.

Tim Parks's most recent novel is Judge Savage (Secker & Warburg). He teaches literature and linguistics at the Universita IULM in Milan