Diaspora in flow of history

Working from family letters and documents, Petrie Harbouri recreates the lives of three brothers born in 18th-century Cephalonia in «The Brothers Carburi» (Bloomsbury). This is more than a family history, however, as each of the men goes out into the world to play a part in the changes that shaped the Enlightenment. For Giovambattista, Marino and Marco Carburi, growing up speaking Italian and Greek, the metropolis of their island is Venice, where they go to study. Giovambattista, the eldest, leads the way, adopting a quasi-parental role that is only partially accepted by his younger siblings. Harbouri imaginatively deploys archival material – particularly letters – to depict the individual characters and the family ties and tensions which move the story forward. The loves and liaisons of the brothers, their children, or their failure to reproduce, all complicate relations further. It is a remarkable portrayal of family love and loyalty construed as mutual obligation, and honored for the most part. On the larger stage of 18th-century Europe, the brothers contribute to the ferment of the times. Giovambattista, a physician at the court of Versailles, and a conservative by inclination, does not challenge the social status quo, but pursues his enquiries into medical science in the modern spirit, never satisfied with the received explanation. Marino, the rebel of the family, leaves Venetian territory under a cloud and settles for a time in Russia, where he uses his talents as a practical engineer to retrieve and move a huge rock which the Empress Catherine wants made into an immense equestrian statue of Peter the Great, and later goes in for experimental crops on his native island. Marco, who is attracted to the new political ideas that were to shake the old regimes of Europe, is a chemist and teacher who clearly articulates the spirit of empirical enquiry. Among the pleasures of this book are the authorial asides; here is Harbouri on the untranslatable notion of philotimo. «In every life there may be a certain tension between the public and the private, between the areas where ambition may apply – for success, for distinction, for recognition, for furthering of the family – and the areas that concern no one else, where no glory is sought but only moments of swift, strange happiness. Perhaps if philotimo is ineradicable, this is because it grows from the fertile soil where the public and private selves meet.» It is from the same fertile soil that the author has created this book.