Paolo Giordano ‘The Human Body’

—In the years following the mission, each of the guys set out to make his life unrecognizable, until the memories of that other life, that earlier existence,img_1064 were bathed in a false, artificial light and they themselves became convinced that none of what took place had actually happened, or at least not to them.

Paolo Giordano’s The Human Body was written using his experience as an embedded journalist in an Italian peace mission in Afghanistan. The title loses its double meaning in the translation being both a body and a military unit in the original Italian, this story investigates a military unit by following a number of individuals through the senselessness and boredom of their mission, their ill preparedness for the intense stress caused by a mission outside of their base that goes terribly wrong and how this incident transforms them, illustrated by the opening quote.

In particular we meet the squad leader René, a career soldier respected by his men and who when he is not on mission is a Gigolo with a string of middle aged paying customers, the loud mouthed Cederna and his young acolyte, the “virgin” Ietri, as well as Mitrano who is bullied by Cederna, Zampieri the only woman in the unit who has continually to prove herself and Torsu, who from the mission outset has health problems. When they arrive in Afghanistan they are joined by Egitto the garrison Doctor has decided to stay on for another mission, Paolo Giordano talks us through everyday bored military life as here in a discussion between Cederna and Ietri

—The embarrassing truth is that Ietri has never been with a woman, not in the sense that he considers complete. No one in the platoon knows this and it would be a disaster if they were to find out. The only one who knows is Cederna; he told him about it himself one evening at the pub when they were both smashed and in the mood for confiding. “Complete? You mean to say you’ve never fucked?” “Well, not . . . fully.” “A goddamn little virgin! Hey, I have a new name for you: verginella…. Listen up now—it’s important. The tool down there is like a rifle. A 5.56, with a metal stock and laser sighting.” Cederna shoulders an invisible weapon and aims it at his friend. “If you don’t remember to oil the barrel from time to time, it will end up jamming.” Ietri looks down at his mug of beer. He takes too big a swig, begins to cough. Jammed. He’s a guy who’s jammed. “Even Mitrano manages to shoot his wad every now and then,” Cederna says. “He pays.”

For their peacekeeping mission they are stationed in an inhospitable landscape, their base camp is on the top of a hill, isolated from the country they are there to help in order to provide its own safety:

—The truth is, as in all of the operations since the start of the conflict, the clearing of the area has only been partial, the secure zone extends for a radius of 2km around the base, some dangerous pockets of guérillas remain within this zone and outside of the zone it’s hell…***

After several moral sapping isolated months on the hill top, peacekeeping, they are forced to leave their base in convoy to escort some Afghan  lorry drivers who have had their lorries taken from them through the inhospitable zone which surrounds their hill. Paolo Giordano conveys to us just how easy a target they actually are, up to and including the moments of the tragedy.

A study of futility, the smallness of our individual lives and the impossibility of the peacekeeping mission in this inhospitable territory.

First Published in Italian as “Il corpo umamo” in 2012 by Arnoldo Mondadori.
Translated into French by Nathalie Bauer as ‘Le corps humain’ and published by Seuil in 2013
Translated into English by Anne Milano Appel as “The Human body”and published by Viking Penguin in 2014
*** My translation

Giovanni Arpino ‘Scent of a woman’

‘Love isn’t polenta. Get married and then you’ll be happy. Better to get married than hang yourself,’ he continued mockingly. image‘You’re just like my cousin the aunt: she lives on proverbs. But she’s seventy years old. Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?’

As Fausto says to Ciccio in this, ‘Scent of a Woman’ by Giovanni Arpino one of my Italian lit targets for 2016.

Vincenzo and Fausto have been blinded whilst demining an explosive device during an army exercise.

The narrator, a soldier on leave arrives at Fausto’s cousin’s house, sent by his commanding officer in the barracks, to accompany Fausto, who lives hidden away in the countryside near Turin, on a trip to Naples. Fausto is a ‘gentleman’, as people used to be in the mid 1900’s, his cousin says

‘Until the day of the accident I didn’t know him very well. He was always roaming around the world, boarding school, academy, the military.’

From the outset we learn that Fausto is overbearing and calls all of his assistants Ciccio, in an attempt to dominate them. An example is the episode where Fausto teaches Ciccio to walk with himself, a blind person, disciplining him with a cane. The two of them embark on their rail trip to Naples, via Rome as the narrator, Ciccio,  slowly gets to know Fausto, but can you really get to know Fausto, as he says to Ciccio:

‘You’re not a friend,’ he went on. ‘You don’t speak, you don’t sing, you don’t wag your tail.’

Is Fausto living normally, in control of his life, or just getting by from day to day, we see him take control when organising a suit for Ciccio who was still in his army uniform or when visiting his cousin, a priest, in Rome and sensing his unease, his doubts. But then he slowly spirals into extreme drunkeness and pushes Ciccio to look for women criticising with some irony the changes in modern Italy:

What a country this is! Completely laughable. Nothing works, so what do they come up with? Shutting down the bordellos. The country’s only real salutary institution.’

The story then moves into the true subject matter as they arrive in Naples and Fausto is reunited with Vincenzo, but apart from their accident these two seem to have nothing in common, as Young Sara who is in love with Fausto says to Ciccio

‘Oh, poor Vincenzo doesn’t count.’ She dismissed him with a grimace. ‘Haven’t you seen how he is, a nothing, a nobody? A good man, a saint, certainly, but what does it take for him to be one?’
‘They don’t even seem like friends.’
She laughed, a sharp burst, then said harshly, ‘Nobody can be his friend.’
‘I heard them talking, out on the terrace. I couldn’t understand. It sounded like some kind of pact.’

The pact: but events don’t go ahead as planned, and Sara’s devotion to Fausto plays out to the end. If you want to know how, read the book!

First Published in Italian as”Il Buio e il Miele” by La Scala in 1969
Translated into English by Anne Milano Appel and published as “Scent of a Woman” by Penguin in 2012

Dario Fo ‘Accidental Death of an Anarchist’

A flash back to the seventies and early eighties for me, Dario Fo and the posters for his plays in the west end, ‘Can’t Pay Won’t Pay’ or as here ‘Accidental Death of an Anarchist’, titles that invited curiosity.imageSo who was Dario Fo? He was a successful actor producer and playwright who in the sixties left the mainline theatre behind to better criticise the political situation in Italy.

‘In 1967 he put on his last production for the bourgeois theatre “La Signora non è da buttare” (The lady’s not for Discarding), in which a circus was made the vehicle for an attack on the United States and capitalist society in general. It again attracted the attention of the authorities. Fo was called to police headquarters in Milan and threatened with arrest for “offensive lines” not included in the approved version, attacking a head of state, Lyndon Johnston.’

Fo went on with his wife Franca Rame And their company La Comune to write and produce political satire. Including the subject of this post.

An introduction from the authors notes would be useful here:

‘On the 12 December 1969 a bomb exploded in the Agricultural Bank in Milan. It was a Massacre – more than 16 dead. The anarchists were immediately blamed for the slaughter. One of them, Giovanni Pinelli, having been taken to police headquarters, flew out of the window on the fourth floor. The police declared that Pinelli had committed suicide……Ten years later, at Catanzaro in Southern Italy, the trial resulting from the slaughter in Milan came to an end. Three fascists were condemned to prison for being materially responsible for the crime. One of them Giannettini, turned out to be an agent for the Italian secret police;’

The play opens in police headquarters in Milan a few weeks after the incident, in a first floor office directly below the fourth floor office of the “Accidental Death”. We make the acquaintance of the Maniac who has been arrested for impersonation, as Inspector Bertozzo says:

‘This isn’t the first time you’ve been up for impersonation is it? In all you have been arrested…let me see…Twice as a surgeon, three times as a bishop, army captain, tennis umpire….’

As in any farce, we have the central character “the Maniac” who is clearly farcical and able to do and say anything outside of normal behavioural norms amid ordinary people, and by the end of the play we may not know who is farcical and who is normal.

After the first introductory scene, the maniac is put in the situation whereby he impersonates the judge that we learn has been named to carry out a second inquiry into the “events”. So initially impersonating the judge, the maniac turns the police explanations inside out

Maniac: Let us see what provoked this anxiety in our anarchist therefore. We shall reconstruct the exact events beginning with your entrance Superintendant
Maniac: I’ll play the anarchist. Go on.

Superintendent: I entered
Maniac: Go on then
Superintendent: What?
Maniac: Enter.
Superintendent: ‘It’s no use trying to pull the wool over my eyes, sonny.’
Maniac: That’s not what I’ve got here. This is a documentary reconstruction. I want the exact words in the exact manner.
Superintendent re-exits and re-enters aggressively
Superintendent: ‘Right you filthy pox-ridden pansy you piss me off about one more time and I’ll…!
Maniac: Sorry to interrupt. It was ‘piss me about’?
Superintendent: I think so.
Maniac: Good. Carry on.
Superintendent: ‘We’ve got incontrovertible proof you’re the murdering turd who planted the bombs in the railway station.’
Maniac: You had this proof I assume?
Superintendent: Of course not.’

And to reinforce the farce, when a journalist arrives, they agree that the judge ( maniac) will play a police inspector and this time defend them, doing of course as much damage to their case as when he was investigating them.

I laughed a little uneasily throughout this easy to read play but recommend it whole heartedly as a historical document, I mean, nothing like this could happen now could it?

I asked at the start of this who was Dario Fo? I will now finish off with who is Dario Fo? He is of course the 1997 Nobel literature prize winner

First Published in Italian as “Morte accidentale di un anarchico ” by Dario Fo in 1970
Translated into English by Gillian Hanna and published as “Accidental Death of an Anarchist” by Pluto press in 1980

Alessandro Baricco ‘Trois fois dès l’aube

imageThis novel by Alessandro Baricco, best known for ‘Silk’ was released in French last year thus making it onto my 2016 Italian reading list.

Barrico tells us that in his last book Mr Gwyn, there is at one point a reference to a short book called ‘Trois fois dès L’Aube’, an entirely imaginary book and He decided out of pure pleasure to follow an idea and write the book.

Barrico describes three meetings of two characters, that are impossible except in a book, first of all a woman that enters the lobby of a hotel.

‘..a woman entered, straight from her taxi, at this odd time of night, apparently lost in her thoughts. She was only wearing a yellow evening dress with a low neckline but without the hint of a shawl to cover her shoulders: this gave her the puzzling look of someone who has experienced something noteworthy. There was an elegance in her movements, maybe like an actress returning back stage, freed from the need to act and becoming herself once again, but more earnestly. Thus she advanced with precision , a little tired, holding her tiny bag close, ready to let it go.  She was no longer very young, but this suited her, this is sometimes the case with women who have never doubted their own beauty.’***

And then the man she meets,

‘….no one would have seen the woman enter the hotel had it not been for a man wedged into the back of an armchair back in a corner of the lobby – hardly reasonable at this time of night-, who saw her, and crossed his left leg over his right, whereas until then the right was resting on the left, for no reason.’***

We sense Barrico’s precision in his descriptions right from the start, he is enjoying himself with these character studies. The woman is then sick and the man lets her use his room to freshen up.  We learn that she has had a child when she was seventeen years old and he tells us of a fire at his home when he was ten years old. We learn that he has a gun on him. Is this meeting fortuitous and why were they up just before dawn? The first story ends revealing sides of the two characters which then appear in the other two stories.

In the second story, a night porter (was it the same man as in the first story but years later), helps a young girl to escape from her violent boy friend. Again Barricco works the colourful descriptions,

She was a particularly young girl, and her woman’s clothes made her seem even younger. Her makeup had the same effect : her red lipstick and the grey markings around her pale eyes like those of a wolf.***

The man reveals to the girl that he had spent thirteen  years in prison for murder and that he had been arrested in a hotel room at dawn. This again is a crossing of the same two characters, he many years older and she much younger.

Then finally in the third story, the same two characters appear as a young boy of ten who has just witnessed a fire at his home and has been lead to a hotel room for the night by an ageing policewoman as Barrico further develops traits of their characters.

First published in Italian as Tre Volte All’Alba by Feltrinelli in 2012
Translated into French by Lise Caillat as Trois Fois Dès L’Aube and published by Gallimard in 2015
***My translation

Giorgio Scerbanenco ‘A Private Venus’

Back to the 1960’s and to my Italian lit targets for 2016, with this early writer of Italian noir and the first of his Milan quartet ‘A Private Venus’.imageThis book recently translated and re-edited in English was written in the ’60’s, is an interesting historical work, picking up the workings of noir fiction, a lone investigator, disgruntled or damaged or both working outside of the regular police framework to solve crimes he becomes emotionally entangled with.

In this case Duca Lamberti, a disbarred doctor who has just been released from prison after three years for practicing euthanasia on a begging patient is asked by a police officer he is friendly with (through his father who was a police officer) to help a rich industrial engineer with his son who has become a drunkard, as Duca suspects, the drinking is only a symptom and as the story moves on it leads us into a white slave trade story tied in with the mafia.

The 60’s view of society through the writer is however seriously dated, I’ll give a couple of many examples, firstly a woman, Livia Ussaro, who is a history and philosophy graduate and who is willing used as bate to catch the traffickers, describing herself as follows

‘Ever since I was sixteen, I’d wanted to experiment with prostitution,’ she said, she had stopped laughing, and that tone had returned, not bureaucratic, but professorial, she was expounding a theory, which was as good as any other, that much was obvious. ‘It wasn’t morbid curiosity. You may be able to tell from my physical type that I’m frigid. Not completely. The gynaecologist and the neurologist have established that when the physical and environmental conditions are right, I can be a perfectly normal woman. Unfortunately these conditions are difficult to produce, and in practice it’s as if I was frigid. Some people who aren’t very perceptive think I’m a lesbian, which I find quite amusing.’

And secondly when Livia is at a clandestine photographers waiting to have naked pictures taken for the traffickers to be able to entice people to pay for her, (yes pornography was only a cottage industry before the internet) and realises that the photographer must be homosexual

‘Livia took them and went into the bathroom. She undressed in a flash, without even closing the door. It was obvious the place had almost never been used, there were no toiletries, not even soap, just two brightly-coloured towels. As she left the bathroom she heard the young man swear, and from the way in which he uttered the swear word, a very vulgar one, she realised immediately, beyond any doubt, what he was: a homosexual, some ghastly new species. She thought that explained the colourlessness of his physical person, she thought it was like the monstrous colourlessness of the mutants described in science-fiction novels, exactly halfway through their mutation, when they still have the outer wrapping of humanity but their minds and nervous systems already belong to some ghastly new species.’

I won’t comment on the 60’s perspective, but many of the ideas peddled around this story are preposterous seen today and reduced the interest of what was already for me at best a mediocre story.

First published in Italian as Venere Privata by Garzanti SpA in 1966
Translated into English by Howard Curtis as A Private Venus and published by Hersilia Press in 2012

Milena Agus ‘While The Shark Is Sleeping’

This book is the first of my 2016 Italian lit target And the first book by Milena Agus.

Milena Agus is a Sardinian author who has imagebeen nominated for Italy’s Literary prizes (Strega, Campielo) with her second novel From the Land of the Moon **. This post is on her impressive first book, read in one sitting!

This story is about the Sevilla Mendoza family narrated by the 20 year old daughter, the line between real life and her story is blurred

“I write stories because when I don’t like this world here, I move into my own and I feel great. And there are a lot of things I don’t like about this world. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s ugly and I much prefer my own. In my world, there’s also him. He already has a wife.”

There is a tragic sadness running through the story, something particular to Sardinia, epitomised by the story of the people of Sardinia and mirrored here by the inability of the characters to face facts, to withdraw not so much inland as into theirselves.

“History tells us that we Sardinians are no sailors, that we withdrew inland for fear of the Saracens when actually we could have built a fleet and confronted them instead of escaping into the mountains.”

The inward journey of the narrator is punctuated by the events concerning her immediate family, her parents who are shadow figures and who for very different reasons abandon her, her brother, their aunt, Zia, and their grandmother, Nonna. We feel the weight of the narrator’s flawed character and her family member’s maladictive search for love. Her mother commits suicide we think

“Then one day she decided to leave, in accordance with her idea of beauty. For a while she’d been saying she didn’t like the posts supporting the canopy on the terrace, that they were rusty and needed repainting. So, I reckon, one morning she set up the whole scene. She bought the paint and the anti-rust and flew away brush in hand. It was clear to everybody that she’d got dizzy and lost her balance. But why had she put on her favourite dress? Why was her hair freshly washed and perfumed and the house all in order? Was it because she didn’t want our family to look bad? Besides, she’d always been strangely interested in covert suicide.”

But then later again the blurring is evident when her lover, the vet, sees the events as a story she can control

“I decide to let my vet read my stories. He likes them a lot. Only he doesn’t understand why they always have to end badly. I often tell him that there’s going to be a death and then he gets angry.
‘Shit, darling, you’ve already killed off one, two is overdoing it. Two deaths are ridiculous in any story that’s not a tragedy.’”

There are various men in this story, all of them without exception live for themselves, they are outsiders, and mostly absent, the three women in the story, the narrator, the mother and the Zia are all sufferers in need of a love that is incompatible with the men. No punches are thrown describing the Zia’s and the the narrator’s sexual experiences and the narrator’s attempts at understanding them.

This is a lyrical novel and reminds me of an earlier Italian post ‘Live Bait’

I recommend this story.

First published in Italian as Mentre dorme il pescecane by Nottetempo in 2005
Translated into French by Françoise Brun as Quand le requin dort and published by Liana Levi in 2010
Translated into English by Brigid Maher as While the Shark is Sleeping and published by Telegram in 2014
** First published in Italian as Mal di pietre by Nottetempo in 2006

Italian Lit targets for 2016

In an attempt at spreading my European Literature targets for 2016 more evenly, and following my German Lit targets, here are my 9 Italian Lit targets for 2016, Once again anyone wishing to read along will be most welcome, only the Baricco has yet to be translated into English.

Stabat Mater by Tiziano Scarpa won the 2009 Strega Prize, Translated by Shaun Whiteside


Bloodlines by Marcello Fois


Dino Buzzati Un Amour



Giorgio Scerbanenco a private Venus 20/02/2016



Milena Agus while the shark is sleeping 27/12/2015



Sandro Veronesi Quiet Chaos won the Strega Prize in 2006


Sergio Atzeni Bakunin’s Son



Giovanni Arpino Scent of a Woman 11/07/2016


Alessandro Baricco, Tre volte all’alba (to be read in French as Trois Fois Dès L’aube) 18/03/2016