Tag Archives: Italian

Corporal (Corporale) by Paolo Volponi

I boughCorporalet Paolo Volponi’s novel in Rome as a souvenir during my brief stay in that incredibly beautiful city this July. I gave it preference over the selfie sticks, cheap Colosseum replicas, and t-shirts with provocative slogans. Corporal has a reputation of a difficult book, and when it is mentioned in different overviews of modern Italian literature the word “experimental” is invariably attached to it. Alberto Moravia held this work in high regard, writing that “Corporal is an almost impressionistic recovery of magma in which a man incapable of relations with the world moves, and here emerges the extraordinary quality of Volponi as a writer”. These words have become the staple blurb for the novel which is rarely read, has not been widely translated (there is only French translation to the best of my knowledge), and has a nasty habit of regularly going out of print. Now that I’ve read it, I can confidently say that we’re dealing with a literary treasure that is due to various reasons is not treasured at all these days. Corporal is a stylistic gem, a profound exploration of an anxiety-ridden consciousness in the atomic age as well as a skilfully designed and orchestrated narrative that rewards a patient and attentive reader.

The general mood is set from the outset by the epigraph, which is taken from Elsa Morante’s essay Pro o contro la bomba atomica (For or Against the Atomic Bomb):

Our bomb is the flower, or rather the natural expression of our contemporary society, just like Plato’s dialogues are of the Greek city; the Colosseum – of the Imperial Romans; Raphael’s Madonnas – of Italian Humanism; gondolas – of Venetian nobility; tarantella – of some southern rural populaces;  and the extermination camps – of petit-bourgeois bureaucratic culture already infected with a rage of atomic suicide.

That is a very powerful passage, but, if the reader expects Volponi’s novel to be just one of the numerous post-Cuban-Missile-Crisis nuclear-holocaust ephemera, they couldn’t be wider off the mark. Although the topic of nuclear destruction is prominent in this book, it is just one of the several motifs which are explored in painstaking detail via the disturbed and distorted consciousness of the main character Gerolamo Aspri.

Aspri’s stream of consciousness to which we are exposed from the very first page is bound to disorient and exasperate even the most seasoned readers of experimental fiction. My personal impression when reading the book  was akin to watching a David Lynch movie: extremely preposterous actions were carried out and utterly absurd and illogical statements were made with such an air as if all the violations of common sense were the most mundane occurrences not worth any second thought. The main character of Corporal most probably suffers from a mental disorder.  His narration is erratic, jumpy and volatile. He tends to fuse reality and hallucinations to such a degree that it is almost impossible to tell which is which. He splits the language the way scientists split the atom to create the nuclear weapons he is so paranoid about. On many occasions  his rants and diatribes transform into something reminiscent of automatic writing or William Burroughs’ cut-ups: incompatible concepts are put together, familiar phrases are divested of their usual meanings, syntactic relations are disrupted, all this to create an alienating effect. That being said, it is not that difficult to follow the general plot of the novel, and although some of the reasons for the characters’ actions remain vague, we are never completely in the dark as to what happens.

The first part of the novel is narrated in the first person by Gerolamo Aspri. When we first meet him, he is on vacation in Rimini with his wife and two kids. As we learn later, he is currently employed as a school teacher with an Italian Communist Party membership and a managerial post at a factory left forever behind. He takes long walks along the beach, inspecting the place where a murder has been recently committed. He is morbidly obsessed with the unknown perpetrator. This fascination is as strong as his another obsession: an erotic longing for a teenage girl called Ivana whom he meets on the same beach. Eros and Thanatos are Aspri’s faithful companions wherever he goes, and their most sublime embodiment seems to be the hydrogen bomb whose explosion he expects with a mixture of horror and excitement.

Aspri’s infatuation with Ivana is never destined to consummate because of a devastating tornado that strikes the beach. She and her boyfriend are riding in a paddle boat when this happens. The drowned boy’s body is recovered later, whereas Ivana is never found. Distraught and heartbroken, Aspri moves on. He will be meeting more people, and doing things one hardly expects from a school teacher. An overheard conversation about a lawyer and art seller from Urbino who is rumoured to have killed his son refuels Aspri’s obsession with the mysterious murderer: he superimposes his image with that of the man mentioned  by the speakers. Equipped with the knowledge that the possible perpetrator’s last name ends with “ati”, Gerolamo travels to Urbino where he soon enough finds a certain attorney called Trasmanati. The attorney’s collection of paintings is likely to interest Aspri’s German friend with whom he maintains a long-lasting correspondence. Without hesitation, he telegraphs Overath to come to Urbino. This Overath is a very strange and elusive person. I’m tempted to view him as some kind of Mephistophelian presence in Aspri’s life. Art collection is just one of many activities pursued by Overath, and only few of those seem to be legal. Their visit to Trasmanati’s house ends up in a scuffle as Aspri suddenly attacks Overath, intending to bludgeon him to death with the host’s cane. The teacher goes haywire when the German, overwhelmed by the dark beauty of Trasmanati’s Renaissance paintings, utters a pompous disquisition on the immortality of the soul. Nobody is seriously injured and the friends part their ways, but only for a while, as they are to be reunited again under very specific circumstances.

The second part is narrated in the third person, which does not prevent it from being as confusing as the first one. We come to know the Mr. Hyde side of Aspri’s personality as we encounter him in Milan actively involved in drug trafficking and prostitution under the alias Joaquin Murieta, which is the name of the notorious 19th century Mexican outlaw. Aspri’s alter ego keeps a diary and some of its entries  appear in the narrative. Murieta keeps a colourful company consisting of smugglers, pimps, drug dealers, whores and hustlers of any stripe. There is also an Ivana, but this time she’s anything but the nymphet from Rimini: she is a prostitute married to her own john who is simply referred to as Ivana’s husband. There is a competition between Murieta and the omnipresent Overath for Ivana’s attention, and her husband doesn’t seem to mind. When we come to think of it, why should he, with as many as forty street walkers under his control? Besides the forty prostitutes, we are also introduced to the same number of greyhounds whose names are abstract nouns like Equality, Liberty, Fraternity, Mendacity, Death, Wickedness: Murieta and his associates decide to expand their business by opening a dog race track. The accounts of these nefarious characters’ wheeling and dealing  often include lengthy political and philosophical discussions which are tinged with the sense of the grotesque, not the least due to the way the main character perceives and interprets reality.

For some time, the shadowy existence as Joaquin Murieta is everything Aspri the teacher, constrained by societal norms, could wish for. However, the protagonist’s stint in the criminal underworld, despite all the adventures, dangers and passions, can neither stop his growing alienation from the surrounding world  nor curb his terror of nuclear war. Eventually, he casts the adopted gangster persona aside to become a mere teacher again. The catalyst for Aspri’s decision to leave Milan is his son’s tragic death in a boating accident.

The third part, again narrated in the first person, is set in the magnificent city of Urbino. Aspri has moved there to work at a local school. His main mission, however, is scouting the nearby foothills of the Apennines in search of the most appropriate place for an atomic shelter. Aspri also enters in a relationship with Trasmanati’s housekeeper Imelde who, after the lawyer commits suicide, is left in charge of his home and the numerous art pieces pending the auction. But when Gerolamo finally rents an estate that satisfies his goals both geographically and meteorologically (he is very meticulous about the direction of the winds that are likely to carry radioactive fallout), he does not even conceive the possibility of sharing his ark with anyone else. In fact, fully aware of the Biblical undertones of his project, Aspri calls the shelter Arcatana (literally arklair or arkburrow). Exhibiting enviable capacity for work,  he manages to construct the facility single-handedly in less than two years.  Aspri is portrayed as a kind of Anti-Noah whose primary goal is not to preserve the seed of humanity for the future regeneration, but rather to create conditions for his complete detachment from mankind and its history, reaching the state of ultimate solipsism that he is going to maintain until and beyond the atomic annihilation of life on the planet.  Rather than pondering on conservation of the human race, Aspri fantasises about a new species that will evolve out of his mutating organism:

[…] man-animal-emerald prepared to get resurrected (this word is so ugly, religious, and so papally filled with lead that it won’t bring back to the surface even a cork, not even a turd) to re-emerge different, encrusted, made thinner, split in half, discoloured, one-eyed, rendered bat-like by darkness, lizard-like by earth, eel-like by mud, monoped, coelenterate, with or without fur, mute, feathered, carnivorous, omnivorous, virus, bacterium, blue alga, moss, sponge, fungus, mould, jellyfish, disflagellated (here we go again, religious thoughts), flagellated (but has nothing to do with some column of Hellenistic imitation, and Palestinian portico, centurion’s red tunic), multi-cellular, capable or incapable of photosynthesis, provided that it is alive, alive, alive, and therefore able in its own way to think, to grow, to reproduce, and different, different, different from the present fearful creature, naked and covered in sticking plaster (not me, dear Imelde of the blue little nose, not me) sedentary and stercoraceous, with the brain, the nose, the prick chasing after services to give and to receive.

While Aspri is building the fallout shelter, he begins studying his new scripture,  a sacred text that will prepare him for the world to come: an issue of a medical journal dedicated to the survival during and after nuclear war.

The fourth and final part is very short. Just like the second, it is narrated in the third person. The main setting is the hospital where Aspri is admitted after sustaining a pelvis injury at the farm. Confined to his ward, he nevertheless tries to manage various issues related to the up-keeping of the rented property by employing a waiter from the billiards bar he used to frequent. The waiter is happy to run errands for him, but gradually it becomes apparent that he is hiding something from his employer, as well as that Overath, unbeknownst to Aspri, might be interfering with his grand project of resurrection from the nuclear ashes. But there is no way to be sure if any of Gerolamo’s suspicions are true, as his dreams, hallucinations and reveries keep re-inventing the drab reality he is incapable of escaping.  Straddling a rocking horse on his bed, brought to him so he could look through the window, he cuts a solitary and grotesque figure. The waiter reports to him that some unknown vandals have started raiding the estate, and the dismantling of the fallout shelter is just a matter of time. Where will Aspri go when he is dismissed from hospital? What will he do? How much of what has been seen or told by him is true? I am afraid that the burden of answering these questions has been laid on the readers, provided that they have managed to reach the novel’s end.

Corporal was written between 1966 and 1974, the period which corresponds to the heyday of Italian auteur cinema. Fellini’s 8 1/2, Pasolini’s Il teorema, and Antonioni’s L’avventura were made during that time. There is a certain affinity between Volponi’s novel and those groundbreaking films. Corporal manages to encompass the existential void of Antonioni, the eroticism of Pasolini, and the carnivalesque dreamscapes of Fellini. It is in many ways a product of its time with its hysteria around the atomic bomb and the preoccupation with leftist politics. But, just like those great cinematic works, Volponi’s novel succeeds in transcending its topicality, which is now a mere curiosity, a bizarre insect in the amber of the Cold War era. After all, the main concern of this astonishing monument to the Italian language is neither nuclear war nor the split personality, although these topics are most likely to attract the attention of the reader. In this unusual, uncomfortable, often frustrating novel Paolo Volponi, like nobody else, makes us aware of the two grand complexities that we cannot avoid, no matter how we try, no matter what kind of shelter we try to build around us: those of the world we are born into and of the language we use to make sense of it. That sounds hopelessly trite, I know. But it takes a genius to express this idea in such a grandiose, multi-layered verbal symphony that is Corporal – yet another great unknown patiently waiting for us to catch up with it.

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Forthcoming: Numero Zero, English translation of Eco’s latest novel

NumeroZeroEng

Finally, there is some information available on the English translation of Umberto Eco’s new novel. The US edition will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on November 3, 2015. The UK publisher Harvill Secker will release the book two days later. Judging by the preliminary information, the title of the English translation will remain the same as that of the original: Numero Zero. However, the November of 2015 is still pretty far away, and anything can change by that time. The novel’s translator is Richard Dixon, who has also translated Umberto Eco’s penultimate novel The Prague Cemetery. It will be interesting to see the reception of the novel by the English language reader. The Italian response was a tad lukewarm, which is understandable since the events discussed in the novel are too familiar for most of Italians; as a result,  Numero Zero didn’t offer them that thrill of discovery which was definitely present in his other novels. As for myself, I ended up quite liking this small book, which could serve as a perfect introduction to Umberto Eco’s formidable oeuvre as it has all the major themes of the Italian intellectual in homeopathic doses. And you know what, when I come to think of it, I realise that I am rather discombobulated by the zero translation of the title. Is it really impossible to come up with any appropriate equivalent in English? If you think that my variant Zero Issue is lame, you can offer your solutions. The translator of  On Literature Englished it as Dummy Run.

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Zero Issue (Numero Zero) by Umberto Eco

NumeroZeroEco

Losers, such as autodidacts, always possess knowledge vaster than that of  winners. If you want to win, you have to know one single thing and not to waste your time on knowing everything: the pleasures of erudition are reserved for losers.

This bitter statement by the main character of Umberto Eco’s new novel refers primarily to himself. He is an extremely well-read loser who failed to get a university degree neglecting the lectures to work on translations from German, a very lucrative language at the time. His subsequent jobs included tutoring, writing for newspapers, editing, reading manuscripts, and ghostwriting. It is the experience in the last activity which helps Colonna (we never learn the protagonist’s first name) to land a well-paid but rather strange job which will turn his life upside down. It is the April of 1992, and the fifty-year old Colonna arrives in Milan to meet a certain Simei who wants him to ghost-write a book titled Tomorrow: Yesterday to be released under Simei’s name. The book in question is supposed to be his memoirs recounting a year of work on a new daily newspaper called Domani (Tomorrow) that will never get published. The sponsor of the doomed project is Vimercate, a rich owner of hotels, nursery homes, TV channels, and tabloids. For the duration of a year, the eccentric tycoon wants to create and maintain a simulacrum of the editorial staff who will produce a dozen of “zero issues” of the newspaper, that is not “real” issues, but just mock-ups not meant for wide circulation. Except for Simei, who has been designated as the editor-in-chief, and Colonna, who will work as his assistant, the newspaper staff are to stay oblivious of the fact that the daily will never be launched. The six editors, five men and one woman, are employed to create sensationalist content that would  predict political and social upheavals as well as claim to reveal shocking truths liable to ruin the reputations of the rich and the powerful . According to Simei, Vimercate’s ultimate goal is to snake his way into the so-called salotto buono, a small circle of  industrialists, politicians, and bankers controlling the economy of Italy. Vimercate will make sure that the dummy issues purporting to unmask the members of this clique will be seen by some of them, which will lead to his admission into their club  in exchange for scrapping the dangerous newspaper. Without much hesitation, Colonna accepts Simei’s proposal and knuckles down to work in the Potemkin village that  passes itself off as the editorial office of Domani. From this point, we follow three major narrative threads: the daily work of the editorial staff (which allows Eco to lampoon the vices of contemporary journalism),  the love story between Colonna and the only female editor of the newspaper called Maia, and the conspiracy theory developed by Bragadoccio, Colonna’s other colleague. The descriptions of heated discussions during editorial meetings sparkle with Swiftian satire, ridiculing the way newspapers and magazines distort facts and create sensations out of nothing. When briefing his subordinates on the modus operandi for breaking news, Simei explains the basic principles of manipulating the available information to achieve the desired effect on the reading public.  A classical example is putting four disparate pieces of news with a common “theme” on the same page to create a fifth news item.  At Simei’s request, Colonna lectures his colleagues on the techniques of writing a retraction as a response to an accusatory letter from a disgruntled reader condemning one of the newspaper’s articles as mendacious. Using the assassination of Julius Caesar as the subject matter of this imaginary correspondence, Colonna composes a retraction which instead of refuting the rogue article contrives to reaffirm its allegations. Once the general policy of the daily has been established, each staff member comes up with various topics for articles, most of which get discarded in the course of editorial meetings. Some of the rejected material includes: the negative influence of the environmental pollution on the size of the penis, the strange longevity of an unpopular pizzeria which might be used by mafia for money-laundering, the scams practised by numerous fake Maltese orders offering knighthood for a considerable remuneration. Maia who is tasked with preparing horoscopes, becomes increasingly upset with the policy of the editor-in-chief, as all her creative ideas are summarily dismissed without much consideration. She finds consolation in the affair with Colonna who persuades her to stay in the team despite Simei’s slights and the unscrupulous ambiance in the office of the newspaper. The love between Colonna and Maia, while being important for propelling the plot, is not the most successful element of the novel. Not that in his previous novels Eco has been especially good at describing romance. The Italian writer’s true might is manifested when it comes to re-visiting seminal historical events, drawing unexpected connections and exposing hidden conspiracies. That is why the most fascinating episodes of the novel are meetings between Colonna and Braggadocio in which the latter gradually entrusts his colleague with a complicated plot he has recently disclosed. Braggadocio is a tragicomic figure whose name, despite sounding Italian, comes from an English word derived from the Italian-sounding name Bragadocchio coined by Edmund Spencer for  a conceited character in Faerie Queene. Driven by compulsive mythomania and probably paranoia, Braggadocio comes up with an outlandish theory regarding the fate of the Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini. The journalist is convinced that in 1945 it was Mussolini’s double who was executed, whereas the real dictator managed to escape unscathed to Argentina, a popular destination for many WWII criminals. He shares this discovery with Colonna, supporting his claim by presenting a number of well-known facts glazed with conspiracy-based interpretations. The most macabre evidence of Braggadocio’s theory is Mussolini’s autopsy report, which he extensively quotes and comments upon. As a matter of fact, this symbolic disinterment of Mussolini’s corpse marks a watershed  in the novel, as the narrative becomes more morbid and grotesque, as if the violent and tragic past of Italy began to invade the present and infect it with its horrible diseases. Colonna lends a sympathetic ear to the delirious myth-making of Braggadocio,  perfectly realising that the man must be bonkers. Braggadocio’s paranoid vision acquires maximum complexity when the notorious operation Gladio enters the equation. To tell the truth, I had not known anything about Gladio before reading Umberto Eco’s new novel. There is  a two-and-a-half hour BBC documentary about it, but I didn’t have the serendipity of stumbling upon it prior to the publication of Numero Zero. Gladio used to be a network of stay-behind paramilitary groups secretly formed in the territories of all Western countries after WWII.  The primary function of these troops was to offer armed resistance behind the enemy lines if the Soviet Union invaded Western Europe. These shadow operatives recruited mostly  from right-wing organisations were supervised by the American and British secret services. When the existence of Gladio was revealed after the Cold War, a series of investigations shocked the public by connecting the stay-behinds with terrorist acts against civilian population and functionaries within state institutions who allegedly had used the secret army to effect the so-called strategy of tension. The main goal of this strategy was to demonstrate to people the danger of the rising left and to induce them to ask the government for additional security. One of the key scenes in the novel is Colonna’s and Braggadocio’s visit to the church San Bernardino alle Ossa. The conspiracy-seeking journalist has chosen its famous ossuary as the most appropriate place to tell Colonna about Gladio and its role in a number of violent and mysterious events. The bone-encrusted chapel of San Bernardino becomes a powerful symbol of Italian history. Not just a cupboard with a skeleton or two, but a vast chamber packed with bones and skulls: it will take more than one generation to sort out the multitude of shameful secrets hidden from the public by the powers that be.

SanBernardinoOssuary

Detail of the Ossuary Chapel in San Bernardino alle Ossa

The place was deserted save for a little old woman who was praying  in a pew in the first row with her head between hands. Death’s heads squeezed into high recesses between pilasters, boxes of bones, skulls arranged in the shape of the cross set into a mosaic of whitish stones which also were bones, perhaps fragments of vertebral columns, articular joints, clavicles, sterna, scapulae, coccyges, carpi and metacarpi, patellae, tarsi, tali, who knows? Bone edifices rose everywhere leading the eye vertically to a Tiepolesque vault; luminous and cheerful,  it was enveloped by pink and creamy clouds with angels and triumphant souls hovering in between. On the horizontal shelf above the old barred door skulls with gaping eye-sockets were aligned like porcelain jars in apothecary cabinets. In the recesses level with visitors, protected by a wide-mesh grille through which it was possible to slip fingers, the bones and skulls were polished and shiny like the feet of St. Peter’s statue in Rome through the centuries-old touch of either devout or necrophiliac hands. There were approximately a thousand skulls, at least, and as for smaller bones, it was impossible to count them; on the pilasters stood out monograms of Christ composed of tibia which seemed to have been removed from the Jolly Rogers of the Tortuga pirates. “These are not only the bones of lepers”, Braggadocio told me as if there was nothing more beautiful in the world. “They are skeletons coming from other burials in the vicinity, especially the corpses of convicts, patients who died in the Brolo hospital, the beheaded, prisoners who died in jails, probably also thieves or brigands who came to die in the church because they didn’t have another place where they could bite the dust in peace — The Verziere was a quarter with awful reputation. This old woman makes me laugh: she is here to pray as though it was the sepulchre of a saint with holy relics, whereas these are remains of rogues, bandits, damned souls. And yet the old monks were more compassionate than the buriers and exhumers of Mussolini, just look at the care, at the love for art (and also the cynicism, who would deny it?)  with which they arranged these skeletal remains as if they were Byzantine mosaics. The little old woman is seduced by these images of death, mistaking them for images of holiness;  I won’t be able to show anymore where exactly, but beneath this altar it should be possible to see the half-mummified body of a girl who during the night of the dead, they say, comes out with other skeletons to perform her danse macabre.

Not unlike the monks of San Bernardino, Braggadocio creates a mosaic of great conspiracy, arranging facts, half-truths, speculations, and downright fantasies into an intricate pattern. I am not going to examine in detail this complex edifice populated by politicians, ecclesiastics, war criminals, terrorists, law-enforcement officers, mafiosi, Freemasons, and other noteworthy representatives of Italian society. Braggadocio thinks he has now enough material to publish it in twelve installments in all the twelve zero issues of Domani. We may find it rather amusing: a make-believe conspiracy to be revealed in a make-believe newspaper. However, a seasoned reader of Eco’s writing by now should have realised that a pandora’s box of real consequences is about to be opened, for quite often reality is far more unbelievable than any penny dreadful. Zero Issue was supposed to be Eco’s fourth novel. He started writing it after The Island of the Day Before was published, but at some point he abandoned it and wrote Baudolino instead. In his collection of essays On Literature Umberto Eco reveals to us that one of the reasons he shelved Zero Issue was that its characters were too similar to the ones featured in Foucault’s Pendulum. No doubt about that.  This slim novel could easily become one of the subplots of the Italian writer’s sprawling second book. Colonna cannot help but remind us of Casaubon, and the editorial staff working on the sensationalist newspaper immediately brings to mind the employees of the publishing houses Garamond and Manuzio, who, for their own amusement, concoct a plan of world domination. Nevertheless, there is a substantial difference between the two novels. The main message of Foucault’s Pendulum is an admonition against looking for connections where there are none. In case of Zero Issue, I would argue, this idea is less prominent, although it is obviously there; suffice it to look at the epigraph by E. M. Forster: “Only connect!”  In his last novel, Eco wants to alert us to the fact how inured we have become to truly outrageous  events through our overexposure to the media. The blasé consumer of news regards a disclosure which in another time and place would lead to mass riots and perhaps a revolution as just another sensation and forgets it the next day because there are always more to come.

Finally, if anyone would like to read up on the events mentioned in the novel while waiting for the English translation, here is a list of recommended literature:

Daniele, Ganser. NATO’s Secret Armies: Operation Gladio and Terrorism in Western Europe .

Dickie, John. Blood Brotherhoods: A History of Italy’’s Three Mafias.

Foot, John. Milan since the Miracle.

Ginsborg, Paul. A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics, 1943-1988.

Hibberd, Matthew. The Media in Italy.

Hibbert, Christopher.  Mussolini: The Rise and Fall of Il Duce.

Luzzato, Sergio.  The Body of Il Duce: Mussolini’s Corpse and the Fortunes of Italy.

Willan, Philip. Puppetmasters: The Political Use of Terrorism in Italy.

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Zero Issue (Numero Zero): a New Novel by Umberto Eco

Here goes the main publishing event of 2015. Those who follow the various titbits around the Italian writer’s literary output might remember that after finishing The Island of the Day Before, Umberto Eco began writing a novel about a group of journalists who start a daily newspaper. In search of popularity and influence, the editors of the rag concoct false sensations not unlike the bored intellectuals from Foucault’s Pendulum who spawn a monstrous fictional plan of the world domination. After two years of work, Eco abandoned the novel to write Baudolino, which also dealt with lies, mythmaking and forgeries, albeit in the medieval setting.

As it turns out, Eco did manage to finish Numero Zero, and it is going to be published by Bompiani this January.  Although the main setting of the novel is Milan in 1992, the book will also touch upon the mysteries and tragedies of the 1970s: the clandestine NATO operation Gladio, the notorious Masonic lodge Propaganda Due, the failed neo-fascist coup  Golpe Borghese, the terror of Red Brigades, and the death of Pope John Paul I. On top of that, Eco’s new book will tell about “corrupt secret services, massacres and red herrings” as well as “a shocking plan”. The novel will be presented at the Frankfurt Book Fair with the English title That’s the Press, Baby..., referring to the famous last words of  Humphrey Bogart’s character in Deadline – U.S.A. I do hope it will be eventually changed into a different one.

Update 1: More information is available now on the Bompiani Frankfurt 2014 Rights List, including the first glimpse of the cover and the description cited below. As a major disappointment comes the page count: just 180, which does not look like a typical Umberto Eco novel. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for this being a mistake. 

NumeroZero

A mish-mash of journalists who cobble together a daily paper concerned not so much with information, but blackmail, mudslinging, and cheap stories. A paranoid staff writer who, roaming round a hallucinatory Milan (or hallucinating in a normal Milan), reconstructs fifty years of history in the light of a sulphurous plot built around the putrefying corpse of a pseudo Mussolini. In the shadows lurk the secret right-wing organization known as Gladio, the P2 Masonic lodge, the supposed murder of Pope John Paul I, the coup d’état planned by Prince Junio Valerio Borghese, the CIA, red terrorists manoeuvred by the secret services, and twenty years of slaughter and smoke screens. A set of inexplicable events that seem pure fantasy until a BBC programme proves they are true, or at least that the perpetrators have confessed to them by now. A corpse that suddenly shows up in Milan’s narrowest and most disreputable street. A tenuous love story between two born losers, a failed ghost writer and a disturbing girl who in order to help her family has dropped out of university to specialize in gossip about romantic attachments, but who still cries when she listens to Beethoven’s Seventh. A perfect manual of bad journalism in which the reader gradually begins to wonder whether it is all make believe or simply true to life. A story that unfolds in 1992, a year that foreshadowed many mysteries and follies of the successive twenty years, just as the two protagonists think that the nightmare is over. A bitter and grotesque episode that takes place in Europe in the period spanning the end of the war and the present day – and one that will leave the reader feeling every bit as much of a loser as the two protagonists.

Update 2: The book is finally available for pre-order as Numero 0.

Update 3: You can now read my review of the novel.

Update 4: The Spanish translation will be available already in April.

Update 5: Finally, the English translation is forthcoming

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From Hell (Dall’Inferno) by Giorgio Manganelli

Dall'InfernoI can imagine dozens of Alan Moore buffs stumbling on this review, and grudgingly leaving the page as soon as they realise that it’s about a novel written by relatively unknown to the English reader Italian writer Giorgio Manganelli, not the psychogeographic exploration of the Victorian London and a paean to the mythology around Jack the Ripper. What can I say to these disappointed readers? Wait a little bit! If you are interested in Alan Moore’s From Hell, chances are you may take to this little novel too. By the way, in contrast  to its English namesake, this book is actually set in hell. Without avoiding  the inevitable nods to Dante’s Inferno, Manganelli’s work is an original and vivid description of a very personal version of hell. It is not an overpopulated canvas, but rather a  miniature, which does not render the horrors depicted by Manganelli less spine-chilling than those immortalised by the great Florentine.

After death, the narrator finds himself in a place he believes to be hell. It’s a  disorienting environment  engulfed by fog in which things are usually not what they seem. He is met by somebody called the charlatan, whose role appears to  oscillate between that of a respectful guide not unlike Dante’s Virgil  and a sadistic demon right out of  Pandemonium. The charlatan inserts a carnivorous doll into the stomach of the man, and since that moment the odyssey of this dead soul commences. What follows is a series of ceremonies and transformations interspersed by absurd dialogues. Actually, there is more of Samuel Beckett and Lewis Carroll in the infernal universe depicted by Manganelli than of Dante. Most of the characters are a weird lot that can’t stop wondering about the impossibility of making sense of their spectral existence, of time and space in hell and their experience thereof. The first ceremony is a game of dice between the narrator and the bizarre infernal denizens that seem to have stepped out of  some lurid version of Wonderland: 

I am sitting at the dice table, and around me there is a cat, a seal, a clock, and a chequered flag, a bit ruined; an experienced flag. We play: the minuscule dice fly and the doll gives me advice and pushes me. Make a bet now; now be careful. I lose hands and legs that get piled up in the corner; then I win them back, lose an eye, then an ear, then I start to win: the whiskers of the seal, the tail of the cat, all the odd numbers of the clock.

The main goal of the game is to lose. This ceremony is followed by another called “the pursuit of oneself”. The narrator gets involved in a wild chase of various malformed shadows, one of which is presumably himself. Undoubtedly, the self is one of the main motifs of the novel: how it is perceived by us and others, who and what we identify ourselves with.  As the narrative becomes more confusing and unpredictable, different transformations of the main character occur. To mention just some: he turns into a moon, a city, a nose, a big toe, a penis, a winged creature. The absurdity of it all borders on sheer silliness, but the beautiful language and the vivid imagery give the author the benefit of the doubt. Partly, From Hell is a bona fide  surrealist poem with free associations threaded one on another, the combination of uncombinable   images, crass violations of logic, and unexpected alliterative explosions. This is how the narrator describes himself once he becomes a city teeming with all kinds of sinners and containing all possible instruments of torture and execution:

Cittá decrepita, antica, inveterata; mutili muri, affranti anfratti, dimore diroccate, vetusti vicoli viciosi. (A city which is decrepit, ancient, inveterate; mutilated masonry, fatigued fissures, dilapidated dwellings, crumbling cruel crooked alleys).

From time to time there arise quasi-learned discussions on what hell is, what structure it has and how it relates to the rest of the world: is it a an expanding maze? does it penetrate the whole universe like some noxious vapour? does it contain other  hells? Of course, we never get any definite answers to any such questions. Even a lecture on the limits of hell delivered by a bespectacled  amphisbaena leaves some room for interpretation. Whereas Dante’s Inferno is logical, hierarchical and coherent, the hell of Manganelli is simply preposterous. When the narrator undertakes a journey inside himself, the metaforicity of this experience is somehow ousted to the background. By that time we have seen enough of the place  to accept the idea of a man literally  walking inside his own body. The hallucinatory of the world of the living is the mundane in the netherworld.  Different parts of the narrator’s body turn out to contain distinct places. Thus, in his fingers  lie menacing grottoes inhabited by dragons,and in his right leg sprawls a deserted city. Further exploration of his body once again reminds us of the fact that there is no end to confusion and indeterminacy in this place. Here is what the dumbfounded traveller says when he enters his own head:

I see something that I can define as a project. I don’t know whether it is a palace, sarcophagus, battle plan, graveyard, altar; a huge wing of an unknown animal, the morphology of a non-existent and unpronounceable language.

The confusion experienced by the narrator is aggravated by constant deception and falsification on the part of the local dwellers. During his wanderings  he meets several creatures that he exposes as false gods, one of which is a never-to-be-born foetus lying  in an alchemist retort. And why should anyone be surprised when the narrator enters into a prolonged discussion on the false nature of divinity with a  garrulous hairy ear surrounded by sentient mushrooms?

From Hell is as scatological as it is eschatological. There is shit everywhere. It threatens to inundate the poor man not only from outside, by also from within.  In the course of the whole journey the main character has to suffer the nasty doll devouring his entrails and then defecating and urinating into his abdominal cavity. What is the significance of this perverse Beatrice? There might be many interpretations, but as to the real life prototype, there is more clarity thanks to Nicolas Tripet’s documentary Giorgio Manganelli: Discourse on the Difficulty of Communicating with the Dead. In an interview Manganelli’s daughter reveals that her father openly told her that he had her in mind when creating this character. She also mentions Manganelli’s terror of children, which sheds some light on the mixture of affection and aversion the narrator feels towards the creature nestling inside.  It does seem like a very personal book, but it’s not my goal to dig deeper into the writer’s biography here.

As yet another attempt to look into the abyss, Manganelli’s novel will appeal  to anyone who is interested in creative probing of the mythological dimension of hell. The neoavanguardia treatment of the subject matter adds a certain playfulness to it, so even the grimmest episodes that will not possibly make you laugh, might cause you to smile in disbelief at what you have just read.

 

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