So, I want to write about Italian books and Italian books in translation. Where do I start? Well, I guess a book about Italy is about as logical a place as any. And not just Italy in general, but my little part of it: Abruzzo.
The book I’ve just finished reading is Il Baffo Del Diavolo by Sergio Marciani, published by Pescara-based publishing house, Edizioni Tabula Fati.
But before I go on to describe Il Baffo Del Diavolo… let me just put it into context. I came over to Italy after a summer spent at the Edinburgh book festival and a week translating with acclaimed literary translator Howard Curtis at Birkbeck summer translation school, only to be drawn into the kind of story that is trying to tell the world through fiction just how crazy life is getting (has always been?) in Italy. (If you haven’t been keeping up to date or are not familiar with the tragic and horribly farcical decline of Il Bel Paese, then a quick visit to the extremely well written Italy Chronicles blog by Alex Roe will very quickly fill in any gaps.)
So, my decision to write about Il Baffo del Diavolo actually started with Paolo Sorrentino’s Everbody’s Right (Tutti Hanno Ragione), translated by Howard himself and excerpts of which we worked on together in a previous translation master class. The book describes Italy’s descent into the crazy, corrupted and crackpot reality that it is today. (For more of the same, read Niccolo’ Ammaniti’s riotous social satire Let the Games Begin/Che la festa cominci.) Through the main character and anti-hero Toni, the reader learns of the crooner’s excesses of money, drugs and women, accompanied by his furious psychoanalytic and philosophical interior monologues which make for a very jolting and potentially lethal narrative, especially in translation, but Howard deals with it expertly. Speaking as an Italian to English translator, his handling of the torrent of thought, the (odd?) metaphors and unusual imagery (I have wanderlust instead of underarm deodorant / love is like the way rats escape when the sewers are flooded with water) is truly masterful. After such a “furious, idiosyncratic and unexpurgated torrent, capturing Italian modernity through the lens of a monstrous character” the lasting message from this story for me was that life in Italy “is all just one huge rape“…which pretty much sums up the general feeling in the country at the moment.
Everybody’s Right brought to mind other gloomy takes on the Italy problem, all of which seem to split the country into a dichotomy of light versus dark, good versus evil, agreeing that it seems to be the turn of the latter at the moment. I’m thinking of “The Dark Heart of Italy” by Tobias Jones, and Bill Emmot’s “Good Italy, Bad Italy“.
These are themes that many Italian writers feel almost obliged to comment on, as literary critic and writer Rolando D’Alonzo suggests in the introduction to Il Baffo Del Diavolo – they feel it is a civil obligation to use the imagination as a way of seeking liberation. Il Baffo del Diavolo has all this and more in common with other portraits of Italy. It explores the “baffo del diavolo” or the “evil shadow” hanging over Italy, but in a different way… adding an element of fantasy to a seemingly realistic plot to produce a very interesting read. Just when you think you’re on a trip into a provincial corner of Italy, with all its religious and crazy Italian idiosyncrasies, the author surprises you with the suggestion that there is something – or someone – evil manipulating society and the administration of local government, encouraging people to believe that power and wealth are the only way to beat death, and that pursuing one’s own interests is the secret to never-ending success. As each of the characters in this quaint corner of society gradually succumb to the charm of this hidden evil, we gradually learn that the corruption of the political class, the disintegration of society and the erosion of traditional values, are actually the work of evil incarnate…the anti-christ, in the guise of the political party secretary. The devil in disguise.
As I’d sensed from the atmospheric readings of the book in the local library, the early chapters give the reader the very insights and experiences of characters and customs, places and people, that any good piece of translated literature must contain. But as you read on, getting a glimpse into the day-to-day dynamics of life in a provincial village, a black shadow slowly works its way into the narrative. To begin with, this seems merely to be the cloud hanging over the future of a centuries-old oak tree that features in many of the individual episodes, but later becomes something more sinister, an illness affecting society at large, not just the fate of a diseased tree. The single, apparently disconnected episodes chronicling innocent events like children’s games under the oak tree, a village festival, a day in the life of a chimney sweep, histrionic female belief in soothsayers and oracles, a wedding lunch and the tales of an aged sailor, start to give way to the second and more in-depth part of the story: the build up to and consequences of a general election. The insights of an anthropological and historical nature continue nevertheless, painting an ever-more vivid and disconcerting picture of the many contrasts in Italian society (back to the good/bad, dark/light dichotomy again). In a village that is devoutly catholic, populated by church-goers and people observant of religious tradition and teachings, evil is hiding. Evil is at work in a parallel world… and the boundaries between the two are becoming increasingly (and intentionally) muddled.
The story “proper” progresses, and we are introduced to the crazy world of Italian politics. To fully grasp the cleverness of the twists and turns in the plot, and to make the connections to current political leaders, some knowledge of Italy’s political past and present would be helpful. For example, the current state of affairs in the story – a society that has lost its bearings just like modern Italy – appears to be the similarly unfortunate legacy of decades of Christian Democratic and socialist politics, while the future is overshadowed by the same ruthless pursuit of fame and fortune through international finance or an internet connection a’ la “Big Brother”. The direction that the election ultimately takes is more a product of the author’s own personal experience in local government and as a environmental and political activist. To find out what that direction is, I thoroughly recommend Italian lovers to seek out this book. The prose is light but rich, with plenty of opportunities for non-natives like myself to broaden their vocabulary, but without ever losing the suspension of disbelief that carries you from place to place, person to person and event to event through this unusual and very intriguing take on what’s wrong with Italy today.