Munthe spent many years working as a doctor in Southern Italy, labouring unstintingly during typhus, cholera and earthquake disasters. It was during this period that he came across the ruined Tiberian villa of San Michele, perched high above the glittering Bay of Naples on Capri. With the help of Mastro Nicola and his three sons, and with only a charcoal sketch roughly drawn on a garden wall to guide them, Munthe devoted himself to rebuilding the house and chapel. Over five long summers they toiled under a sapphire-blue sky, their mad-cap project leading them to buried skeletons and ancient coins, and to hilarious encounters with a rich cast of vividly-drawn villagers.
Seeing this for the first time in a bookshop I thought I knew what I would be getting and that would be, a lovely jaunt through a wonderful mediterranean island, where lots of magic and mystery will be uncovered as well as many eccentric and lovable locals. The cover and read up on the book didn’t dissuade me of this folly at all.
We get surprisingly little of the above, although what we do get of it, is as sublime as you would expect, with the beauty of the landscape and architecture melded almost seamlessly with glorious Roman history. What we do get is the curiously eclectic life of Axel Munthe which involves earthquakes, cholera and dogs being shot in the face, to mention just a few of the adventures within, as well as a nice cross section of different societies and cultures.
Once I had adjusted to this new direction that the book was taking, it became an enjoyable read, probably one of the best travel books I have had the pleasure of perusing, although it transcends genres the more you think about it. It has everything, it’s odd, whimsical, a surprisingly honest portrayal of the people Munthe has met and the places he has been.
It isn’t the lighthearted romp that the cover would have you believe either. Although the overall style is a fusion of the playful and analytical ,it is sometimes surprisingly brutal and has enough tragedy to make you appreciate life. Essentially its very much a work of its time (mid 1800’s to the mid 1900’s).
it’s an interesting book, not quite an oddity but not easy to classify either but always diverse and entertaining, taking in as it does a plethora of places, and Peoples from all classes in a number of countries. Overall it is a nice overview of the back and front end of two different centuries and a reminder of how cultures, customs and medicines have evolved. Besides anyone who favours animals over people must be the on the right track in my opinion.
There is one thing that annoyed me and that was the dubious imaginative dialogue he has with himself, I appreciate artistic licence but it detracts from a work that is very impressive. This is a personal issue and I’m sure you fine readers will make up your own mind so don’t let this put you off reading what is a fine and varied and interesting book.