Book Review: Spifferi, by Letizia Muratori

19 Dec 2018

Book Review: Spifferi, by Letizia Muratori

Milano: La Nave di Teseo, aprile 2018.

Letizia Muratori’s Spifferi is a collection of six ghost stories haunted as much by spectral presences as it is by the the regular weight of life clothed in skin and bone. In it, Muratori gives a body to the issues that besiege contemporary Italy  —  aging parents, immigration, equal rights for gay couples — in a young but strong narrative voice that both observes and interacts with reality. Without falling into the trap of caricature, her characters are familiar to every Italian between the ages of twenty-five and forty: elderly relatives intent on hoarding every last bill, receipt, faded family photo, and knick-knack; the ex-ragazzo storico, an intellectual past his prime now turned environmentalist-hermit; the cold and seemingly absent business-owner hiding a soft and devastating sensitivity; the Ukrainian mistress hated by her lover’s ex-wife for her lithe figure and easy mastery of a language not her own. Muratori gives them all the eternal life of conflicted ghosts.

Each story moves in small circles that intersect and overlap, like ripples of water touched by pebbles falling inconsistently but continuously from above. Her prose moves this way, as a ghost inhabiting a space undetected without the cover of silence. She lends each story a system of checks and balances. For every loud and overbearing character, there is one whose calmer nature would fade in the background without her attention to it. For every naïve and unsuspecting figure, there is a shrewd and worldly counterpart. For every dismissed or unnoticed presence, there is a protector and shield. In this way, she reveals the at times cruel but always balanced nature of society.

This attention to equilibrium carries over into the settings of her stories, each of which is as central to the individual narrative as the people that populate it. Homes. Apartments. Hotels. Villas. Ecotourism Lodges. Family Holdings. All often pierced with the cold air of lingering death.  Of a piece with the tradition of haunted houses, these are the places in which Muratori’s tales take place and the walls through which her words move seamlessly, from one environment to another, like phantoms crossing a threshold. And they too, are given a delicate balance. Muratori moves from messy homes to neat ones, sometimes within the same story, so that each setting is the dark mirror-image of the one before it. This constant motion between orderly and disorderly spaces gently exposes a larger concern with cleanliness, ritual, social performance, and hospitality — all themes that have been central to Italian polite society and literature from the earliest treatises on buone maniere and courtly attitudes to today. Muratori’s great achievement is her ability to weave these themes into her storytelling like beads in a dream-catcher: indispensable but not overpowering.

Her strength lies, too, in her successful invitation to have readers reflect on, to call into question the very nature of ghosts. What is a ghost? Is it merely the spirit of a departed loved one unable to let go of the life behind them? Need it always be tormented, impoverished, or mistreated? Need it be a spirit at all? The ghosts in Spifferi are not always ephemeral remnants of the dead. In fact, they seldom are. They are objects, voices, memories; shadows, ideas, disputes. They are the phantom fetuses in bellies left thick and protruding with failed pregnancies. Sometimes, they are given faces, flesh, and blood. Other times, they exist as the space between settled and unsettled lifestyles. Sometimes, they are the thoughts that persistently badger us in our insomnia. Other times, they are the comforts of a moment stuck in time. Sometimes, they are the clock between now and later, suspended and unticking. Other times, they are the absence of words when a response is expected and not given, the absence of light when a fuse is blown, the absence of mass under a heavy coat. They are the images trapped in locked phones that have been lost or unceremoniously discarded.

Of the six stories, the first, “Rispondi a Dimitri” and last, “Ghost Crab” are the most compelling and complete. The first asks readers to reflect on grief, gratitude, loneliness, mental health, and prejudice in a story about the unlikely friendship that develops — over the phone and anonymously — between a retired medical practitioner’s family and the mother of a man whose life he saved years earlier. It is a full examination of the different kinds of ghosts than can inhabit a space, a mind, and a body told with a depth deceptive in its irony. The last is the story of a couple of gay men, one of whom takes a trip across the ocean and to the United States to meet the surrogate mother of the child he is to welcome into his family at his partner’s insistent request. It is governed by a woman who is everything and nothing at once, a modern-day Figaro-factotum tasked with the chore of carrying the ghosts of others and doing so with honesty, if not always grace. In both, Muratori’s layer of calm literary calculation is peeled away to shed a light on the beating heart beneath it — a masterful show of vulnerability. 

Spifferi is Muratori’s ninth major publication (Milano: La Nave di Teseo, April 2018) and follows the massive critical success of Animali Domestici  (2016).