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

David Lodge ‘Small World’

—There are three things that have revolutionised academic life in the last twenty years, though few people have woken up to the fact: jet travel, direct-dialling telephones and the Xerox machine. img_0986Scholars don’t have to work in the same institution to interact , nowadays they call each other up, or they meet at international conferences.

Back to 1984 to close my year on a third book loosely linked to literary theory, after The Night and La Septième Fonction du Langage, through mostly imaginary characters, with a few exceptions such as Saussure and Roland Barthes. Was 1984 so long ago? This was pre-internet, the revolution had not yet happened. In hindsight, as one of the characters, Morris Zapp explains to us in the opening quote, the great changes of the previous twenty years which are at the heart of the book, these changes seem tame and so far away compared to the changes that have occurred since then.

A second reflection on time passed is that this book is clearly also pre-AIDS, with the book’s morals linked to my memories  of the seventies:

—Well you see, about ten years ago those two were nominated for our exchange scheme with Euphoria – in America, you know. Zapp came here for six months, and Swallow went to Euphoric State. Rumour has it that Zapp had an affair with Hilary Swallow, and Swallow with Mrs Zapp…one day…he and Hilary Swallow flew off to America together, and we really didn’t know which pair we would be getting back: Zapp and Hilary, Philip and Hilary, Philip and Mrs Zapp, or both Zapps.

So this book takes place in the academic jet setting world of English professors, with foreign travel, hotels and sexual encounters being the driving force, the conference subject matter being merely the oil that keeps the machinery going. The two main intrigues concern firstly a new well endowed UNESCO chair of Literary Criticism, with all the main characters vying for this appointment and secondly the relationship between the young  Persse Mc Garrigle from university college Limerick and The mysterious Angelica Pabst who herself is trying to finish her doctoral dissertation on Romance, as she herself explains later on in the book:

—The paradox of our pleasure in narrative, according to this (Roland Barthes’) model, is that while the need to ‘know’ is what impels us through a narrative, The satisfaction of that need brings pleasure to an end….Romance, in contrast, is not structured this way. It has not one climax but many, the pleasure of the text comes and comes and comes again. No sooner has one crisis in the fortune of the hero averted than a new one presents itself.  No sooner has one mystery been solved than another is raised. No sooner has one adventure been concluded than another begins.

And effectively speaking, Persse spends most of the book seaking out Angelica, constantly moving from one climax to the next as Angelica seems continually to be something else than he at first imagined.

Who will be awarded the UNESCO chair, who will leave his or her partner for whom? Will Persse and Angelica end up together, is romance more about the quest than the finding?

First published in English as ‘Small World’ by Martin Secker & Warburg in 1984

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

Katherine Pancol ‘The Yellow Eyes Of Crocodiles’

I decided this time to check out a French best selling author ‘Katherine Pancol‘ . Colourful books on female themes I thought, so why not give my feminine side a chance to shine through!image Tell me more