Manuele Fior: 5,000 km per second

Fior, Manuele (2016), 5,000 km per second, Fantagraphics
[Translated by Jamie Richards]

ISBN 978-1-60699-666-9

I can’t believe I never heard of Manuele Fior before. 5,000 km per Second is an extraordinary book – succeeding on all levels: as story, as a set of characterizations and as a graphic narrative. In fact, the art is to me the most astonishing aspect of it. I think we sometimes make allowances for comic books, for the limitations in the way comic books carry a narrative visually. I’ve never read a book like Fior’s, with it’s extraordinary approach to exactness. I kept going back and forth in the book, admiring his work. Until, that is, the end of the book, when the sad music of the book’s song of love and loss comes to a beautiful elegiac end and I needed a break. This is an absolutely gorgeous book, with only the sometimes angular dialog as an occasional weakness. Fior is Italian and the book was translated into English for Fantagraphics, not that the publisher is particularly forthcoming with this information. Ir’s not until the final page of the book that we find, in small print, the name of the translator, a man called Jamie Richards, who translated the novel, originally called Cinquemila chilometri al secondo, into this English that’s less than ideal. My Italian isn’t good enough to figure out whether a sentence is aesthetically pleasing so I cannot compare, but there’s a kind of awkwardness that I tend to associate with translations. That said, whatever misgivings I might have regarding the dialog, it’s never a very important element. Fior’s skill as an artist is such that for much of the book, we would understand the story even without any dialog. If you read only one comic book this year, make it this one.

too little too late

The story isn’t written as memory – it is an interrupted love story that stretches over a long period of time, told in the moment rather than as something remembered, but at the same time, Fior captures the complexities of memory with a rare skill, singling out moments, situations, gestures in a way that invites all of us who have had broken hearts, unfulfilled longings, tragic amorous histories to share in this story. And while the basic structure of the story isn’t remembrance, memory, and the stories we tell each other about our past, all these still play a central role in the book. The episodes are connected by the two protagonist remembering earlier episodes, remembering each other, creating a sense of what could have been rather than an anticipation of the future. Every new episode, every jump ahead into the future represents a significant change in the life of the protagonists, but the book doesn’t, I think expect us to anticipate these developments. Instead, every episode is a layered composite of all the previous ones, and represents one path taken of many that could have been – and there’s a tragic, melancholic sense of loss in this. The loss of all the other possible futures, that is. If you’ve ever looked at the path your life took and wonder where things shifted, went wrong (or well) to lead you to where you are today, you have a sense of how the book works. There’s no “glo up” in the book – at best there’s a feeling, in the end, of some tired acceptance of everything that has happened. Things never go entirely well, hopes dissolve, futures turn cloudy and unhappy.

Look at the hands in these panels

Have you ever looked at the evening sky and wondered where the day, the week, the month, your life has gone? Much of this is communicated by Fior’s book. We meet Pietro and Lucia as young Italian teenagers, and then find them again and again, until we are offered, towards the end, a completely dispiriting hasty attempt at sexual congress between two sad, bloated middle aged versions of their younger self. Lucia tells Pietro not to look at her, out of a shame that must have grown in her in years and years of bad experiences and shame, very little of which is shown in previous episodes. When he fails to rise to the occasion, she blames it on his having looked at her. This is the saddest scene I have read in any book, in any genre this year, and I’ve read some very unhappy literature. It’s important to understand that when we remember episodes of the past, they are not a complete, or even largely complete guide to who we are today, how we ended up as the people we are today. Fior understands this, and he doesn’t use the episodes as full explanations for how the characters end up where they are – partially, sure, but middle aged Lucia’s shame and embarrassment’s source is hinted at in one episode, but fundamentally, we are presented with the way she is, and are asked to fill in the sad, but inescapable facts of her life. Every moment of our lives we have a choice – a choice of where to go, what to do, who or what to pursue. At the same time, we are already locked into our moment by our past choices.

This is one of the saddest panels I’ve ever seen

What’s truly remarkable about Pietro and Lucia’s story is not the deflating trajectory it takes, but the almost miraculous way their paths keep crossing, the opportunities that keep accruing, the way each failure is followed by another opportunity. It’s tempting to see the book as a kind of love story, but really, it’s about the way adulthood is often a mixture of compromises, disappointments and small hard won successes. The recurring tale of Pietro and Lucia just serves to show that what the two follow is indeed a path and not a random selection of episodes. The way they change, not just as individuals, but also how they change as friends, lovers and acquaintances shows the winding path to sexual inadequacy, loneliness and the small compromises many of us take to evade. Manuele Fior’s success as a storyteller is almost impossible to overstate. Structurally, this easily keeps up with some of the best short novels I’ve recently read. I say short novels – to be clear, this text depends on being a rather short book. Blown up to the proportions of the unbearably unbearable One Day by whatshisname it would lose almost all of its appeal. All the episodes are brief, showing short moments. A meeting over coffee, am unpleasant morning in the car, a nighttime arrival in Norway and and a midnight romance. Even the one episode that strictly speaking takes place over a longer period, is told succinctly and efficiently. Whatever the comic’s page count, this is, structurally, a novella kind of story.

To be clear – I am not trying to say that this book could have been prose. It was just to situate it among the other books I read this year. No, Fior’s greatest strength is his unbelievable skill as an artist. I have never read a comic where the artist had such a sure, such an exact sense of what counts in a given panel. No character or setting is ever completely drawn, much of it is full of the vague clouds of Fior’s watercolors – but Fior is incredibly good at concentrating on one gesture, one facial quirk, one interaction. Sometimes this can be the whole shape and movement of a pregnant woman in a tub, sometimes it’s just a hand holding a chin, or a hand reaching out, or a face that can’t believe what it’s hearing. This is true for every single panel – and in every single panel, the sometimes vague, sometimes expressionistic elements serve to underline the importance of the one exact, relevant gesture. The combination of evocative, inexact vibrancy and the sharpness of small elements makes the memory/immediacy double structure of the story told work so well. It also contributes to our reading of the story as efficient and sharp rather than maudlin, no small feat given the sometimes overwhelming feeling of melancholy that the story is dipped in. Manuele Fior offers us a novel about life as a series of repetitions of diminishing returns, of the stupidity of hope, and the sadness of middle age, and the betrayal of the heavy bear that walks with us, our bodies, and yet when we finish it we are elated, and left with admiration, and that strange feeling of happiness that always accompanies the reading of a true masterpiece. Or maybe that’s just me.

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Erri de Luca: God’s Mountain

De Luca, Erri (2002), God’s Mountain, Riverhead
[Translated from the Italian by Michael Moore]
ISBN 978-1573229609

montedidioFirst things first: despite the title of this post and the bibliographic info at the top, I didn’t actually read this book in English. Nor, I have to say in shame, in Italian. The copy I have is in French, mostly due to financial reasons. That said, French is a great language for reading translations for me as far as Romance languages are concerned. The title of the book in Italian is Montedidio. Similarly, the French, German and sundry translations also opted to use that title. “Montedidio” is a Neapolitan word meaning “God’s Mountain,” as well as the name of a neighborhood in Naples and the English translator (or his editor) elected to take that title. On a forum, I once asked the translator of the English version of Jean-Claude Izzo’s novel Total Khéops why he elected to translate it as Total Chaos, since “Chaos” is not a translation of “Khéops” and the latter is a rich reference to the popcultural allusions in the book, especially to the Marseille rap scene. He pointed me to the publisher’s influence. I assume the same reasoning is at play here because within the confines of this novel, “Montedidio” makes more sense. The novel is written in Italian, not in Neapolitan dialect, and this is important for the book, so much so that the narrator addresses it in the very first chapter. The narrator explains that while he understands Italian, he doesn’t speak it. He writes in Italian, because it’s a kind of quiet, safe space, unlike the noisiness of the dialect that informs and forms the world around him. Italian is the language of books, of knowledge, of the powerful people. It scares his father who only speaks dialect. The novel specifically elected to take a title that derives from the local dialect. So I’m a bit unhappy about the English title. The book meanwhile is hard to gauge for me. Not that it’s hard to read or complicated – it’s a smooth, quick read which wears all its concerns on its sleeve. But, as I will point out below, there’s a thin line between cheesy and enchanting and the novel spends a lot of its time trying to straddle that line. I have not read a lot of Italian books these past years and they have been mostly terrible. This, despite its flaws, is the best of the bunch by miles.

Erri de Luca is, in Italy, a very successful author, and a public persona who takes part in debates. In fact, he is currently being sued for his participation in one of these debates, accused of inciting violence. Meanwhile, God’s Mountain is not an openly political novel, per se, and it’s hard to assume that the same novelist who produced this book would in other situations also produce political novels. If anything, the book is a gentle moral fable, almost, even though it is shot through and through with social realism; a realism, however, that is tempered by the calming element of historical distance. A story from a poor area in 1963 Naples, it tells us the story of a year in the life of a boy who learns to recognize love, desire, violence and the magic of words all at once. It is not an unpleasant read but the amount of prizes this book and its author have won is mildly puzzling, because this book frequently skirts the border between beautiful and saccharine. It’s probably best described as intensely overdetermined magical realism, with various important topics thrown in, from pedophilia, abuse, death to the Shoah, all of which happens, in my edition, in only 230 pages. That page count even oversells the amount of material offered by the book: the whole novel is structured in small, 1-3 page chapters that sometimes offer consecutive events, sometimes have temporal gaps between them. The effect is an aphoristic one, an overly precious gesture of cuteness, a stilted suggestion of form, elegance and a mild, heightened sense of melancholy. Throughout the whole novel it’s as if we could hear the mildly sad music of a soundtrack to a romantic French movie from the 1970s. People are sad, people look lost, nobody really communicates well, or is misunderstood when they attempt to. Conflicts are ended in silent violence.  And yet one of the oddest and most fascinating choices the book made was one that’s connected to that stilted melancholy.

In the year depicted in the book, one of the things that happen is the protagonist’s sexual awakening. The whole novel is narrated from his point of view and when a neighbor’s daughter decides to have a relationship with the protagonist, and his body responds to her attempts at seduction, the author decided to apply the same sense of puzzled distance to that process as well. Thus, his first erection is described as some kind of alien protuberance. The book’s whole treatment of male sexuality is endlessly fascinating. Speaking as a man myself, I have strong doubts that this moment, 13 years of age, is the first time that boy has learned he has something down there that can change in size and that has odd feelings when handled sensitively. I don’t want to universalize my own biography, but from my life and the life of others around me, I have my doubts that the author, who is male himself, considered this description of male sexuality believable and realistic. I think the strangeness of the boy’s nascent sexuality is a literary effect that de Luca specifically aimed for, That disconnect likely has a function in the book, especially since it clashes strongly with the social realism of the book’s treatment of Montedidio. There are basically four levels of realism in the book. There’s the description of the poverty in the neighborhood. There’s the slighly displaced realism of a survivor of the Shoah, Don Rafaniello (whose real name is Rav Daniel) who speaks a bit of Yiddish now and then, and craves to travel to Jerusalem, and then there’s the downright magic (or rather: imaginary).elements that include the idea that the Shoah survivor, who is a hunchback, hides a set of wings under that big bubble on his upper back. The narrator never breaks with that fantasy, it’s treated as fact throughout.

And into all this is added the odd sexuality of the boy. This only concerns the boy. The girl, due to not entirely pleasant reasons, is already well acquainted with her own body as well as the male physique. In this review’s first paragraph I mentioned the artificial alienation that the use of Italian has for the boy whose father only speaks dialect and who himself only writes in Italian. His sexuality, one of the few elements of the book where the narrator could connect with (half of) the novel’s contemporary audience is thus shown to be in a similar limbo as the boy’s language. Aroused, but disturbed, part of one’s body, but an odd and maybe not entirely welcome transformation. To be clear, this is no story of a strange desire, or of learning what desire is, really. This is an act of miscommunication with one’s own body. There is a sense in which the boy is utterly alienated from himself and some of his most elemental physical aspects. We only have to think back to writers like Wilhelm Reich to remember how central and important child sexuality is. The topic of distorted identity is continued elsewhere, for example with Don Rafaniello. At one point, the boy asks him: doesn’t living in Naples for so many years make you a Neapolitan? Rafaniello answers in a way that makes his allegiance to his Jewishness clear. And his Jewishness means that he can either live at home, the small village destroyed in WWII, or in Jerusalem, the home for his people,. He is enormously insistent. It’s also Rafaniello who connects the book’s physicality to the discussion of dialect and the Italian language, to oppressive majority discourses and the simple vernacular of the working class. Somewhere in the second half of the book he compares dialect to a naked body and Italian to a dress draped over that body. More, he describes Italian as a dry language, dry as in literally lacking saliva, and Neapolitan, by contrast, as a language overflowing with saliva, with wet glue. He then compares it to Yiddish.

As you can see, all the book’s elements are carefully engineered to refer back to each other, it’s a web of symbols that all feed off each other and connect with each other. At times it feels as of Erri de Lucas worked with a laundry list of stresses he felt necessary and then worked them all into the book. But unlike another book I recently reviewed that was well constructed but lacked energy or warmth, de Luca is experienced enough to couch all this construction in a bed of relatability. The language throughout is simple, by dint of posing as a 13 year old’s reminscences. But this simplicity, combined with the shortness of the whole book, also created a feeling of unease for me. The sententious, faux-deep, popular style of magical realism has always rubbed me the wrong way. Now, there’s clear literary differences between God’s Mountain and the execrable work of Coelho and his ilk, but the divide isn’t as stark as one would hope for a book that won, among other awards, the Prix Fémina. The element of the book that most resists the Coelhofication here is the vivid, strong social realism that I haven’t even discussed yet. This nostalgic view at 1963 Naples is also a view at a neighborhood in dissolution, at lives that have so far somehow escaped the full grasp of modernity. Rafaniello’s feeling of living there in a kind of limbo between his unnamed East European shtetl and Israel somehow reflects on the way the whole neighborhood has been in a kind of stasis, isolated from the rest of Italy, a neighborhood of angels, cobblers and wondering boys. This year in the life of the protagonist breaks everything apart. Death, hunger and industrialization finally assert their power over the people in the area, and social conventions regarding family life dissolve together with the unifying power of dialect and the glue of local loyalties.

There used to be a genre that I would call “working class conservatism” in European literature and God’s Mountain fits straight in, to the extent even that the simplicity of prose and structure allows people to read and understand this book who would not normally be able to easily read a work of literature. I cannot in any way decide whether to praise this book or not. What it certainly is not is mediocre. It’s not a book that’s obviously generic. Even in its most odd, over the top moments, it’s its own brand of melancholy sweetness. It is walking a fine line (an expression that I’m sure I’ve overused in this review) but I think, on balance, it mostly pulls it off. Should you read this? Only if you have a tolerance (or a secret penchant) for overblown, extremely sweet, magical realism tinged writing. If you are in any way bothered by these things, stay away.

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Leonardo Sciascia: To Each His Own

Sciascia, Leonardo (2000, 1966), To Each His Own, NYRB
[Translated from the Italian by Adrienne Foulke]
ISBN 978-0-940322-52-3

DSC_1574How is this for coincidence. After finishing To Each His Own, the first and (so far) only novel by the famous Italian novelist Leonardo Sciascia, I decided to quickly write a review. So I was taking notes on what this exquisite little novel reminded me of. I know nothing exactly like this, but during my reading various very different kinds of texts came into my head, and I’m sure I’ll mention some of them in the review. But my main association was with one of my favorite movies, one I’ve seen a number of times already, the Italian classic Cadaveri Eccellenti starring Lino Ventura. So I opened its Wiki page to maybe find a picture to use for the review, and lo and behold – I find that the movie is based on a novel by Leonardo Sciascia, the 1971 novel Il Contesto, translated into English as Equal Danger. All this is to say that clearly, Sciascia has an incredibly recognizable style, as far as what kinds of plots he likes and how he structures the grammar of power and corruption. Given how different the settings of the books are, even though both are set in Sicily, the underlying similarities, starting with the bleak political and humanist outlook and ending with the political passion and outrage are exceptionally striking. If the movie is any indication, however, To Each His Own is the – by far- superior novel. It manages to take various staples of 1970s noir, common especially in French and Italian cinema and combine them with a powerfully charged take on the vagaries of village life in a climate of fear and resignation. Sciascia then combines these things with a complex discussion of the role of sex and women, and an angry attack on political apathy. All of this is condensed into a short, but arresting tragedy. The novel’s language is interesting in that it often appears to wear the outward marks of translation, but that doesn’t mean I disapprove of the job Adrienne Foulke has done, because the translation artefacts that have made it past translator and editor into the book, complement the novel’s often opaque dialogue and secretive descriptions very well. If, like me, you like (love, even) Jean-Claude Izzo’s trilogy or village noirs, this is definitely for you.

220px-Cadaveri-eccellenti-posterI will admit: as with some other books I recently reviewed, I may not be extremely qualified to review this book, as I have not read an awful lot in this genre. So for me there were three main associations here, apart from the movie. There was the Marseille trilogy of Jean-Claude Izzo, especially the dark and brilliant final volume, Soléa, there were various village based crime novels (British crime fiction seems especially keen on that kind of setting, although I’d like to point out how many famous writers in the genre are actually Americans. Both Martha Grimes amd Elizabeth George, who excel when placing their detectives Richard Jury and Inspector Lynley, respectively, in bucolic British environments, are born and raised in the US of A) and, finally, and maybe oddly, throughout my reading, I couldn’t shake the memory of Clochemerle, Gabriel Chevallier’s 1934 mild mannered satire of provincial life. For a novel about murder, corruption, disappearances and sex, Chevallier’s gently humorous book may not appear to be entirely apropos, but I think if we focus on the Mafia angle, maybe influenced by what we know of Sciascia’s other work and political career, we miss the core of the book, Sciascia’s interrogation of ordinary Sicilian life and his statement on how its provincial morals and political apathy enable the larger and more lugubrious political scandals. Clochemerle‘s major conflict is the scandalous decision to erect a public toilet across the street from the local church and of course a prim, middle aged local woman leads a campaign against this immoral decision. Being set in a Beaujolais village in the 1960s, the outrage leads all the Catholics to rally behind her, leaving the local priest having to navigate the waters between morals and practicality. Much of this book is a (prude) satire on the sexual prudery of village life, featuring such archetypes as the aforementioned prim lady, the nubile young woman, the slightly overwhelmed priest, and politicians of various degrees of corruption. I mean, Chevallier has not invented this genre, it’s been around a long, long time, but it feels like a very typical (and funny) entry in the genre in that the author cut all kinds of superfluous fat from the book, offering us just the most salient bits and characters. Clochemerle feels less like a specific novel and more like a type.

DSC_1580It’s this type that we encounter in Sciascia’s novel, as well. In fact, I suppose it helps knowing the type to see the tradition much of the novel is placed in, because, as reduced as Clochemerle is, Sciascia’s approach is much more bare-bones. He offers us the central elements, and enough to contextualize them, but he doesn’t dwell on it. I admire writers who can draw up a complex background with just a few broad strokes and Sciascia truly excels at this. Like Chevallier’s book, To Each His Own is also set in a Catholic village, it also features some typical archetypes of the genre, including sexual prudery and outrage, it offers us corrupt politicians, nubile young women and disapproving prim old maids. Overlaid on this traditional narrative is a very modern story of politics and murder. In fact, it’s modern to me, but to Sciascia’s audience, it’s downright contemporary. I think the technical skill of the novel is more evident when we include the reading horizon of his audience in the way we look at the book. For the reader in the new millennium, both elements have a historical feeling to them, but that’s not how the novel works on a technical level. The frisson between traditional, homely setting and contemporary political references is very much part of the book. This is part of the reason I dwelled so much on Clochemerle – I think it’s important to see that the village in Sciascia’s novel is not just any village. Given that his audience wasn’t just contemporary, but that a broad swathe of his intended audience was Sicilian, too, it seems relevant that he didn’t merely offer them a village like the one they knew. He offered them a type that was heavily connotated with reactionary, old stories. An Italian version of Clochemerle, even though it doesn’t seem as immediately applicable, would be the novels of Giovannino Guareschi, for example. Point being. Italian readers would instantly recognize the type. I think the elliptical way the book introduces and uses a fairly large array of characters is an indication of that – it expects the readers to fill in the gaps from the tradition they know. And for political emphasis, the book matches, with what appears to be excellent accuracy, political points of view to those types.

DSC_1577I think it’s that last fact that is among the most devastating ones. The novel has two levels of criticism and story. One involves the actual story. A pharmacist receives a letter threatening him with his death for some unspecified wrong he has done. He assumes it’s a joke. The next day, he and his hunting companion are dead. A local teacher, young Professor Laurana, notices an odd detail in the letter and decides to follow up on his hunch in private. Bit by bit, he uncovers the motive of the crime, as well as the murderer and his accomplice. His meandering private sleuthing leads him down a path he will not return from alive. This isn’t a spoiler, it’s the underlying principle of most books and movies in the genre. They are built a bit like tragedies, and the ἁμαρτία in this case is curiosity. Well, that, and perseverance, a moral backbone and a certain naivety. It’s interesting that the murder itself is motivated by more or less personal issues, with corruption more of a backdrop or tool to be used. The treatment of corruption is also a case of differing reading horizons. For modern readers, the fact that everyone in the village more or less knows who is the most corrupt person there, and that everyone knows that the first assumption with a letter like that is that the recipient has somehow crossed the mafia, and that even the person who executed the original murder is a well known Mafia killer, has to be striking. It’s quite stunning to what extent these things are shrugged off or used as basic assumptions for larger points. This is, however, strictly something that would strike us as strange today. I assume the Sicilian reader of Sciascia’s novel in the late 1960s would know all this. The fact that it’s backgrounded means that the criticism has to be found elsewhere. Cadaveri Eccellenti, for example, makes pretty direct and explicit attacks on the political system, foregrounding corruption. The failure of that movie’s (and novel’s?) main detective (an actual policeman, there) is directly due to the murky mire of Sicilian politics. In its final minutes, the detective finds himself posthumously saddled with much of the blame for the issue at hand. These kinds of narratives ask the reader to be skeptical, to interrogate authorities, and official narratives.

DSC_1575The same is true for Jean-Claude Izzo’s magisterial Marseille trilogy, which even offers hip hop as an alternative narrative to the established/accepted one (the first two novels are named after songs by Marseille groups IAM and Massilia Sound System), where failures should be parsed as calls to arms. Neither Izzo nor, as far as I know, Sciascia produce the kind of investigative Mediterranean noir that we know from contemporary writers like Massimo Carlotto. Izzo and Sciascia merely foreground things that are known to those willing to read the right sources and keep their eyes open, but they imbue them with clarity and urgency. Yet, despite all that, we don’t really get that in To Each His Own. The protagonist’s curiosity is informed by a sense of sexual repression (which in turn will lead him to his death), and the main culprit of the book is not “untouchable,” in fact, he panics when confronted with the possibility of being caught. The central conflict is eminently solvable, were the detective following the leads not a naive professor of literature. This means that the focus is elsewhere and I think it’s political apathy. In the very first pages we learn about what appears to be a typical political thinking process in this village (and by extension, among ordinary Sicilians of Sciascia’s time). The pharmacist who is about to be murdered doesn’t much care about politics, we find. He votes one way in federal elections, another way in local elections. His point of view is well summed up in this passage: “To get involved in politics was a waste of time, in any case; if you didn’t know that much, either you found politicking profitable or you’d been born blind.” See? Everybody knows politics is a waste of time! And yet, as we find, the group described as “find[ing politicking profitable” is doing its best to use their fellow citizens to their advantage. Even those who are not in the Mafia are at least, for profitable reasons, connected to it, and they wring the utmost from their fellow man. It’s never discussed explicitly, but the murder victim has voted, for much of the last years, for the person who ended up shooting him. He put his own murderer in the position to murder him – and since the book is set up as a type, it implies that “we” all do that, where “we” mentions the apathetic Sicilian populace of Sciascia’s time. The victim identifies neither as left nor as right, and despite different parties being discussed, including the Communist party, Sciascia stays away from left/right discussions. That is typically a sign of corrupt, apathetic political systems. An example among today’s democracies would be Romania, where, unless we refer to the radical right or the radical left, the usual left/right distinction is utterly meaningless.

All of this makes for excellent reading – and the fact that the book additionally critically examines the trope of sexual scandals, Catholic sexual repression and the role of women in modern contemporary life (there’s a whole paragraph about the objectification of women) is just icing on the cake. The writing is not always smooth, but the language mirrors well the way the professor meanders down the byways of village gossip and clues. The occasional translation artifacts somehow add to the effect instead of weakening it. The translation feels a bit sloppy here and there but it never detracts from the book. Read it. And if you know Sciascia and the genre, tell me what else to read?

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Paolo Giordano: The Solitude of Prime Numbers

Giordano, Paolo (2009), The Solitude of Prime Numbers, Doubleday
[Translated by Shaun Whiteside]
ISBN 978-0-3856-16249

DSC_0650I’d really rather write a review of a book that I loved than of a book that I hated or felt indifferent to. I really don’t like to write negative reviews so I’ll try to keep this one here as short as possible. Paolo Giordano is the great young star of Italian letters. He won the Premio Strega for his debut novel The Solitude of Prime Numbers, the youngest winner of Italy’s most prestigious prize ever. He’s garnered praise from all kinds of writers and publications. So, I’m probably wrong, as with my resistance to Other Electricities. The book has been translated by Shaun Whiteside, but, my Italian being crappy, I can hardly judge the merits of his translation; I have no idea how certain stylistic quirks and peculiarities looked and sounded in the original Italian, so anything I may say about style may not reflect badly upon Giordano at all, but on Whiteside. The writing is, if we try to look at the positive side of it, clean and efficient, as is the whole book. The whole book, and this is certainly part of the intended effect, smells whitewashed, stinks of disinfectant and cleanliness. I’d almost expect an echo to return to me were I to shout at the book, it’s like a huge tiled room, words arranged nicely and in an orderly fashion, a few characters, picked for their symbolic and emotional possibilities, stacked neatly in a corner, and ideas for a few episodes in another. On the floor a few tidy schematics to make sense of it all.

Small wonder, then, that Paolo Giordano’s a physicist in his day job. Clean and precise work is what he spends his days with, writing is just a hobby, and according to Italian wiki he did not really publish before he put out his novel, so it basically represents the first full statement of his artistic vision and apparently he doesn’t have much of one. Giordano’s not a storyteller, the whole book is one long lifeless construction. Much of this may appear to be interesting, but rest assured, it’s not, his is a very dully old-fashioned idea of how a book should work. The Solitude of Prime Numbers is structured into seven chapters that chart the development of two somewhat disturbed individuals through their adolescence and the early years of their adulthood. Each chapter is basically dedicated to one or two events; the first is set in 1983, the last in 2007. The chapters are of uneven length, shortest in the beginning, where Giordano tries to win us over with a few vignettes that clearly strive for effect. As he gets into his characters, the chapters get longer (with a one or two very short chapters remaining) until the final chapter which is the longest, by far.

DSC_0651The structure is clearly meant to create an impression of loneliness, of discontinuity, and it reinforces a main theme of the book which is hinted at in the title. This is about

pairs of prime numbers that are close to one another, almost neighbors, but between them there is always an even number that prevents them from really touching. […] If you have the patience to go on counting you’ll discover that these pairs gradually become rarer. You encounter increasingly isolated primes, lost in that silent, measured space made only of numbers, and you become aware of the distressing sense that the pairs encountered up until that point were an accidental fact, that their true fate is to remain alone […]. Mattia thought that he and Alice were like that, two twin primes, alone and lost, close but not close enough really to touch one another.

So, you see, the chapters exemplify this central mathematical idea that helps power the book. I’m actually pretty sure that you can draw up a scheme that makes sense of how the chapters and episodes are arranged by aligning this with one mathematical idea or another. Most elements of the book strike me as readable in such a way and usually, I’m game for this kind of silliness but this time I just didn’t care. The book doesn’t make you care, really. The Solitude of Prime Numbers is one of those books that talk down to you, that bellow at you: feel this! It’s clever in such an obvious way that it takes all the fun out of checking up on its clever tricks. Everything is calculated for effect, there is not an ounce of superfluous fat on its bones, and reading should provide food, nourishment, it should carry weight of a sort, but there’s really nothing here. A clever boy’s clever games which, and this is probably among the worst things about this book, would not need to be a novel. This could equally well be a movie or something of that sort. Giordano uses words almost reluctantly, trying to get it all over with as soon as possible. The writing is impossibly flat in most places; unless Shaun Whiteside has bungled the translation, Giordano doesn’t much think about choice of words, if he finds a sentence that works on the level of direct denotation, he sticks with it, regardless of how it sounds etc. So the writing makes it hard to care, but the characters carry most of the load when it comes to the singular dullness of The Solitude of Prime Numbers.

DSC_0652The thing is, I generally choose my books well, the time I have to read books is limited, so most books I read are rather good. This explains why I have not read a book with such an amount of cliché ridden characters as The Solitude of Prime Numbers contains in many months. It’s really the book’s major weakness and downright appalling, in places. Where do we start with this? Why not with Alice, one of the two protagonists of the book. In the first chapter, Alice shits herself while skiing, tries to hide her shame, and, subsequently, has a skiing accident. Both protagonists represent a portion of the typical problems and prevalent illnesses of the typical teenager, with just the right bit of exaggeration to make the two characters exceptional and representative at the same time. Alice, for instance, is deeply ashamed of her body, since she’s scarred and disfigured by that accident; in response to her unease, she then becomes anorexic. Due to her eating disorder, she’s also incapable of bearing children which is a strain on her marriage later in her life. Her eating disorder is not about gaining control, as far as I see it. I think her character is built upon shame, a shame that manifests itself in her body, even the miscalculated shit in the first chapter is part of this theme. Her disorder is her way of combating that shame, re-making herself into someone acceptable. The book is really expertly built, all of Alice’s episodes are full of this topic, including tropes of rising and falling, of mobility. It’s not just general body image problems. She’s handicapped (this is the appropriate word, really, in the context of the novel), and this, as deviation, as loss, as aberration, is also reflected in much of the book, including the small chapter that describes how the accident came about. All of this, acquired in a freak accident, is projected into the character, made a key property of it. It’s weirdly reductionistic, but, unless we look, by way of contrast, at Mattia, the other protagonist, not distasteful yet.

Mattia’s main theme can be said to be guilt. His body is not often thematized. As a teenager, he takes to autoaggression, but, in a drastic feat of exaggeration, instead of cutting himself, savoring the pain, he rams sharp objects right through his hand. By this, he is not really handicapped, his is a life of the mind, he is a brilliant child who grows up to be a gifted, successful mathematician. The guilt arises first in his inability to save his sister, who is a bit slower than others, strange, possibly a bit autistic. A reviewer from the Independent called her “retarded” which, regardless of the questionable choice of word there, I don’t think she is, but the thing about the book is that it invites such readings, it’s really what the sister is for, she’s a foil to make Mattia’s decision plausible to leave her behind on a bench near a lake when he attends a party; a mistake as it turns out, because she apparently subsequently drowns in that lake. From then on Mattia sees plenty things to feel guilty and protective about, most important among those is probably Alice. But here’s the thing about the characters. They are such incredible clichés that you can reduce them to a higher level of abstraction and the story makes just as much sense. Mattia is a man, and Alice is a woman.

DSC_0649No, hear me out, I’m not saying this is a parable on anything (it probably is, but let’s not go there), but it certainly spreads actions and attributes according to well worn and deservedly old-fashioned attitudes. Gender appears to be the single most determining factor in the decision how to construct each character, and I’m not even talking about the anorectic girl. No, even as basic decisions as having the woman be the one whose problems are problems of the body and the man the one whose problems are problems of the mind, are clearly gender stereotyping. The woman’s career takes the back burner to her marriage, while the man is successful in his career, yet is dragged into the everyday reality by women. Women need counseling and help, men help. Men give sensible advice (eat more, so you’ll be able to bear children) women are too irrationally disturbed to listen to reason. See? And I had to scrape none of this off from some deeper meanings, this is basic surface stuff, in plain sight. This is how the book works. The author’s essentialist leanings, as far as gender is concerned, forms a peculiar alliance with the essentialist tendencies in his dealings with disorder, which he, in the ingenuous structure of the novel, has withdrawn from simple cause/effect scenarios. As a whole, it clearly uses minority characters for their minority value.

The Solitude of Prime Numbers is like a freak show, and Giordano’s its director and if Mattia’s character works better, is more believable than Alice, it’s because being a woman makes her more of a freak. Paolo Giordano hammers his points home, with little subtlety in the actual language used, but with great deftness as far as the construction of the book is concerned. Much of this book revolves around order, traditional order, narrative order, and for what it is, it is well wrought, but what it is is nothing that I consider commendable. Do not read this book. Do not buy it as a present.

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