Salvatore Niffoi (b. 1950, Orani) is an author and retired middle school teacher from the island of Sardinia. His literary career began in 1997 with the publication of his novel, Collodoro (Neck of Gold) (Solinas). Since then, Niffoi has written twelve novels, one of which, La vedova scalza (The Barefoot Widow) (Adelphi, 2006), was awarded Italy’s prestigious Premio Campiello (Campiello Prize). His work reflects his deep ties not only to Sardinia but also to its language. In fact, Niffoi has written a book called Paraìnas (2009, Adelphi) about the lexicon and sayings of Barbagia, a sparsely populated mountainous region in the province of Nuoro where Orani is located.
In his 2011 novel Il lago dei sogni (The Lake of Dreams) (Adelphi), Niffoi provides a window into the archaic and ancestral qualities of Sardinia in the 1960s. The novel has a magical quality like that of a fable but includes elements of neorealism and even science fiction.
The story begins in the town of Melagravida where the townspeople have stopped dreaming after a terrible earthquake. But one day a beautiful young widow named Itria Nilis, nicknamed Panedda (a Sardinian cheese made from cow’s milk) for the whiteness of her skin, begins to dream again. After four years of mourning her deceased husband, Itria goes to Lake Locorio to bathe. As though bewitched by its waters, Itria is drawn to Martine, a shepherd oppressed by his devoutly religious wife. There at the shores of the lake, Itria and Martine consummate their love. But the Melagravidesi and the Catholic Church aren’t ready for this love, and the consequences are tragic, wonderful and strange.
In Il lago dei sogni, as in all his novels, Niffoi writes in a captivating mix of Sardinian and Italian that is at once crude and poetic. He says that he uses Sardinian because he wants to call things by their names instead of having to translate them into Italian. Although Niffoi employs some words from the dialect of Orani, his Sardinian is generally that of Nuoro, or sardu nugoresu (sardo nuorese). As the examples below indicate, he incorporates Sardinian at both the lexical and syntactic levels.
Note: Sardinian is similar to Sicilian in that its singular masculine nouns end in –u as opposed to the Italian –o. Unlike Sicilian (and Italian), however, Sardinian retains the Latin practice of forming plurals in –s.
mundu (Ital. mondo; Eng. world)
In quel lago succedono cose strane, cosas de s’àtteru mundu!
In quel lago succedono cose strane, cose dell’altro mondo!
In that lake strange things are happening, things from out of this world!
theracca (Ital. donna di servizio; Eng. maid)
…perché si capiva da lontano che aveva solo bisogno di una theracca da far sgobbare…
…because you could see from a mile away that he just needed a maid to make slave away…
peccados (Ital. peccati; Eng. sins)
…cale peccados amus cummitiu pro meritare tottu custu?
…quali peccati abbiamo commesso per meritare tutto questo?
…what sins have we committed to merit all of this?
isventiare (Ital. prendere aria; Eng. to get some air)
Itria se n’era uscita di casa per sottrarsi all’abbraccio soffocante delle mura e isventiare un poco.
Itria had left the house to remove herself from the suffocating embrace of its walls and get some air for a bit.
arrampanare (Ital. sopportare; Eng. to be able to stand or to be able to bear [someone])
A parte la promessa che aveva fatto alla buonanima, lei quel tagliapietre non lo poteva manco arrampanare…
Aside from the promise she had made to the good soul, she couldn’t even stand that stonecutter…
No mi lasses! (Ital. Non mi lasciare! [you, singular]; Eng. Don’t leave me!)
Non mi lasses solu, malediscione.
Non mi lasciare solu, maledizione.
Don’t leave me alone, damnit.
Lassademi! (Ital. Lasciatemi! [you, plural]; Eng. Leave me!)
Lassademi! Lassademi istare!
Lasciatemi! Lasciatemi stare!
Leave me! Leave me be!
mea, meus (Ital. mia, mio; Eng. my)
Mama mea! Deus meus! Oddeu, oddeu, che cosa ho fatto!
Mamma mia! Dio mio! Oddio, oddio, che cosa ho fatto!
Mother mine! My Lord! Oh God, Oh God, what did I do!
sas (Ital. sue [used with a feminine plural noun]; Eng. his or her)
Vuoi vedere che qualcuno mi ha fatto sas maghias e non me ne sono neanche accorta?
Vuoi vedere che qualcuno mi ha fatto le sue magie e non me ne sono neanche accorta?
What do you want to be that someone worked his magic on me and I didn’t even realize it?
orfaneddu (Ital. orfanetto; Eng. little orphan)
Non lasciarlo orfaneddu, ti prego in ginocchio, fammi uscire!
Don’t leave him a little orphan, I’m begging you on my knees, let me out!
taschedda (Ital. taschetta; Eng. little pocket)
…con la fune dentro la taschedda e cattivi pensieri nella testa.
…with a cord inside his little pocket and bad thoughts in his head.
Dlòon, dlòon, dlòon, dlòon.
(the tolling of the church bell of Saint Predu)
Thrùùù, thrùùù, thrùùù.
(the song of two ring-doves in love)
Pùhm! Pùhm! Pùhm!
(the shots from double-barrelled shotguns)
(the first sobs of a car motor)
Turudùn, turudùn, turudùn.
(someone who is running among rows of vines)
Dìlliri, dìlliri, dìlliri.
(Lione Biccargiu’s barrel organ)
S’isbirru est chei su porcu, er vonu petzi pustis chi er mortu!
Lo sbirro è come il porco, è buono solo dopo il morto!
The cop is like the pig; he is good only after death!
Deus meu, pioghie chin tronos e lampos,
ghettae s’abba a terra,
ca sos anzones pedin’erva,
sos pitzinnos pedin’ pane,
e sos omines giustiscia chene guerra.
Dio mio, piovete con tuoni e lampi,
date acqua alla terra,
perché gli anelli chiedono erba,
i bambini chiedono pane,
e gli uomini giustizia senza guerra.
My Lord, rain with thunder and lightening,
give water to the land,
because the lambs are asking for grass,
the children are asking for bread,
and men justice without war.
Concluding Remarks: Il lago dei sogni is a beautiful book about the value of life and books and the need to dream. This lovely albeit somewhat bizarre tale has reinforced my passion for both spoken language and the written word.
In Translation: Unfortunately, Il lago dei sogni has not yet been translated into English. At present, the only one of Niffoi’s books that is available in English is La leggenda di Redenta Tiria (Adelphi, 2005), which appears under the title The Legend of Redenta Tiria (Heinemann, 2008).