Born in Rome in the year 1914, Anna Maria Ortese grew up in southern Italy (primarily Naples) and in Lybia, the fifth of nine children of a soldier's family often short on money. Like many poor girls of her generation, Ortese left school at age thirteen, initially with the idea of studying (and then, teaching) music in mind; until the discovery of literary romanticism, particularly the writings of Edgar Allan Poe and Katherine Mansfield, and her need for creative self-expression made her turn to writing. She eventually studied with Massimo Bontempelli, proponent of the "magical realism" she herself would soon make her own as well, and in 1937 published her first collection of short stories, entitled "Angelici Dolori." Yet, although her work has garnered her native Italy's most prestigious literary prizes (most notably, the 1953 Premio Viareggio for the collection of stories "Il Mare Non Bagna Napoli" – published in English under the title "The Bay Is Not Naples" – and the 1967 Premio Strega for the novel "Poveri e Semplici"), few of her books have been translated into English; and even in Italy, she has remained controversial despite all literary acclaim.
"The Iguana" is generally considered Ortese's masterpiece, winner of the 1986 Premio Fiuggi upon its republication, 21 years after its original release. It tells the story of the Milanese count Daddo (Aleardo di Grees), who goes on a somewhat lackluster voyage of discovery and, off the Portuguese coast, comes upon an uncharted island named (as his captain tells him) Ocaña, and inhabited by three impoverished noblemen – the brothers Avaredo-Guzman – and their servant Estrellita. While attempting to strike up a friendship with the dreamy don Ilario de Guzman, don Aleardo also finds himself strangely attracted to the humble Estrellita, who, he discovers much to his shock and surprise, is not a human being but an iguana in human clothes. Initially a mere observer of the goings-on on the island, Daddo's interest in don Ilario and Estrellita draws him, vortex-like, more and more into a participatory role; and as the narrative shifts between dreamlike sequences, reality and a growing sense of lunacy, drawn in, like don Aleardo, is also the reader.