Sandro Veronese ‘Terres Rares’

–Today’s news is the prawn warning. It’s in all the papers, and not only in the local pages for Rome. Killer prawns from Louisiana.IMG_1119 There is a worrying tone to the articles because this particular strain, imported from Louisiana about fifteen years ago by a farmer from lake Bracciano, has flourished in the whole of Latium thanks, if would seem, to its exceptional reproductive ability. From ditch to ditch, from irrigation channel to irrigation channel they have advanced to the Malagrotta waste dumps and from there, once again according to the press, last night they launched their assault on Rome by crossing the Via Aurelia at the thirteen kilometer marker.***

Pietro Paladini, the main protagonist from Veronesi’s previous book Quiet Chaos, who lived in Milan and which concerned a reaction to the sudden loss of his common-law wife Lara, finds himself several years later in a seemingly stable situation living and working in Rome. As with the opening quote, where there is in fact a rational explication, to the irrational newspaper article, all is not as it seems, there are indications waiting to be read of the instability of his situation. Firstly he has a steady relationship with a woman of his age, D, but keeps his life with her separate from his life with his daughter: 

–Nevertheless, whilst I feel a tenderness towards her, hold her in high esteem,  feel a need to protect her, share a complicity, respect, besides a physical attraction that can’t be ignored, all of these indications have never converged to a shining cohesive whole. I don’t believe that I love her, you see, at least not in the traditional sense of the word and I do not think that she loves me.***

Pietro works with an old school friend of his, Lello, whose company repossesses luxury cars which Pietro then sells. Suddenly one day Pietro’s life falls to pieces, all is not as it seems, when, as for the first time, he is asked to recover a car from a young starlet who escapes from him at high speed and as he pursues her, his world begins to unravel. He is stopped by the traffic police for speeding and is found to be over the limit, in quick succession he loses his driving license and his telephone, his daughter leaves home, D leaves him and Lello disappears as the fraud squad take over the company’s offices.

Pietro then decides to disappear and is slowly forced to review the whole of his life beginning even before the death of Lara, his relationship with his wealthy father who ran off to live in Switzerland with the nurse he had hired to care for Pietro’s mother in her final illness, with his daughter who has not fully come to terms with her mother’s death, with Lello who had used him without his knowledge as a respectable front for his criminal business, even up to his own represssed love for another woman and as he is eventually forced to understand:

–Humility is being humble with those that humiliate us.***

This story is full of anecdotes linked to the previous book, it can be read independently but is better read after the Strega Prize winning Quiet Chaos.

First Published in Italian as “Terre Rare” in 2015 by Bompiani
Translated into French by Dominique Vittoz and published as ‘Terres Rares” in 2016 by  Grasset
*** My Translation


Niccolo Ammaniti ‘As God Commands’

–Three stars.
Cristiano ranked his father’s rages on a five-star scale. No, three to four. Already in the ‘approach with caution’ area, where the only strategy was to agree with everything he said and keep out of his way as much as possible.IMG_1102 His father turned round and kicked a white plastic chair, which hurtled across the room and fetched up against the pile of boxes where Cristiano kept his clothes. No, he had been wrong. This was five stars. Red alert. Here the only thing to do was to keep shtum and blend in with your surroundings.

Who would want to be Cristiano Zena, brought up in terror by a violent alcoholic father who taught him that the only thing in life that counts is the bond between father and son. Ammaniti, in stubs Strega Prize winner, takes us on a trip into the consequences of Berlusconi’s impact on Italy. Rino Zena has drifted out of work in the new Italy, and is a Nazi sympathiser. His two friends are Quattro Formagi, an unstable halfwit who has been watching the same pornographic film for many years in private so that he knows the lines and is hovering between reality and fantasy, and Danilo Aprea a drunken night watchman whose life fell apart at the accidental death of his child, that spends his nights stalking his ex-wife at her home or on the telephone. And to complete the background, this is Italy, there is religious mumbo jumbo throughout:

–God comes down hardest on those that are weakest, you’re a doctor and you need to know it’s important Enrico, evil is attracted by the poorest and the weakest, when god strikes he strikes the weakest.

When the story does go off the rails each of the pals falls fowl of his own particular weakness, Danilo wants money for no real purpose, Quattro Formagi thinks he recognises one of the actresses in his old American porn film (a school friend of Cristiano’s):

–Quattro Formagi on the saddle of the Boxer was climbing back up around the hairpin bends of the Saint Rocca woods, a fire burned in his shoulder, every rut that he crossed was agony, but that too was a sign that god was with him, just like the holes in padre Pio’s hands.

Rino’s known weaknesses are violence and misplaced loyalty, we discover another weakness that Ammaniti throws in unexpectedly and as for Cristiano, Well you’ll just have to read it, how far can you take filial loyalty? This is not a book with hope as a central theme.

First Published in Italian as “Come Dio Comanda” in 2006 by Mondadori
Translated into English by Jonathan Hunt and published as ‘The Crossroads’ in 2010 by Canongate Books
Also published in English as ‘As God Wants’ in 2009 by Black Cat

Erri De Luca ‘La Nature Exposée’

–As you can see it is a piece of art worthy of a renaissance master. Today the Church would like to restore it to its original form. Which means removing the drape.FullSizeRender
I examine the contrasting stone cover, which seems well attached at the hips and to the naked skin. I tell him that in removing it the nature will inevitably be damaged.
–what nature?
–The nature, the genitalia, that’s what we call male or female nakedness where I come from.***

Erri De Luca’s short book read in French as La Nature  exposée or in English as Nature Revealed*** is the story of a man who values people and shared experiences. The main protagonist lives in a mountain village in the north of Italy, this mountain village has always been situated on a crossroads, a route between the north and the south, as he describes the women of his village:

–Our village isn’t a village for women. They have all left for the towns, married or not. Traditionally they possess a beauty that comes from the passage of migrant populations. They have caravans in their blood.***

So in this isolated village where he has lived all of his long life and where everyone knows the business of everyone else, he carries on the age old business of guiding migrating populations across the Alps. He feels however a certain solidarity with these people forced from war afflicted countries to search a new life far from home and who are exploited at each step of their way. He quietly takes their money and then once over the mountains he returns it, until, after a grateful migrant mentions this act in a book, changing his village life totally as the other mountain guides learn of this treachery:

–The blacksmith and the Baker no longer greet me, the worst snub in the country village expelled from the list of living.

Forced to leave his mountain village he leaves for Genoa and takes up residence in a boarding house which serves meals each evening, once again a point of passage where he meets hard working migrant workers from Northern Africa who either work on the boats or in the marble quarry and feels comfortable with these people,  one of whom gifts him the marble needed for the ‘Nature’. As he looks for work he is chosen, because of his humility, to carry out the work of sculpture hinted at in the opening quote, where he must sculpt a penis for Jesus. I’ll leave you here with this story only to say that in empathy with the subject he goes to extremes:

As if, to be able to interpret a Muslim or a Jewish character, an actor asked to be circumcised in order to blend into the role: taking the Stanislavsky method to its extreme limit.

First Published in Italian as “La Natura Esposta” in 2016 by Feltrinelli.
Translated into French by Danièle Valin as ‘La Nature Exposée’ and published by Gallimard in 2017
*** My translation

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