Book Review: Tony Pagoda e i suoi amici

Milano: Feltrinelli, 2012.
10 Oct 2017

Book Review: Tony Pagoda e i suoi amici

These are Tony Pagoda’s “ten reasons why life is worth living:

  1. The priceless thrill of going to bed exclusively with other men’s women.
  2. Trying to live honestly, not succeeding, and saying, with satisfaction, “Well, I tried.”
  3. Coming home unhappy and defenceless, but without any sense of guilt.
  4. Smilingly observing that the peak of your uppers is greater than low of your downers.
  5. Using an antique sword to behead parents exclusively obsessed with their children’s education.
  6. Sticking your head under the covers after having engaged in the noble art of aerophagia [(belching and flatulence)] at regular intervals.
  7. Running into people you know on the street, looking them straight in the eye, and ignoring them.
  8. Doubting the intelligence of people unanimously considered intelligent.
  9. Discovering – unfortunately, this never happens –  that everyone is conspiring against you.
  10. The dry eyes of mothers.

There might be an eleventh: the dry eyes of the fathers we never had. (26-27, all translations mine).

In a sea of literature preaching and praising life’s simpler pleasures – “children saying, ‘Dad’, sunsets, loyalty, the blue seas of Tavolara and Salina, husbands and wives married for thirty years, the heat in lovers’ locked eyes, waking up to the smell of your partner beside you, cheese pizza, the indelible memories of youth, friendship in its purest form” (26) – in Tony Pagoda e i suoi amici, Sorrentino chooses to give us the brutal, honest-to-God truth about life and the world that surrounds us as he sees them.

Pagoda (2012), the follow-up to the 2010 novel, Hanno tutti ragione, is a collection of vignettes, each focusing on one or a small group of characters in an aspect of their every-day lives, that could have gone terribly wrong. Like much of the literature its contemporary – that wants and tries to be observational humour – it could have floated comfortably one meter below the surface of the neutral waters of “caricature.” It could have featured superficial reflections on Italian society too conspicuously dressed as parody to connect emotionally with the reader; its lessons could have landed more as sardonic mirrors of Italian life than as intellectual comments on the larger society that inspires them. Instead, it rises to the top, and even in writing, Sorrentino, with some reservation, lives up to the grandeur of the imagery and the depth of artistic vision characteristic of his films.

It was a real concern of mine – what Sorrentino, much better known as a director than as a writer – would be able to do with words on the page, so I approached the book with extreme caution. Perhaps rightly so, as anyone expecting it to be a masterpiece of Italian literature worthy of the canon might be disappointed. But though not an instant classic, the book gracefully and meaningfully delivers on themes that were apparently at heart to Sorrentino in the early 2010s, as seen throughout his oeuvre in general:  laughter, the passage of time, old age, and the many vices of Italy’s upper elite. What is more, it does so with invention, freshness, and candour.

Tony Pagoda – like Jep Gambardella in the Academy Award winning film, La Grande Bellezza, is in or fastly approaching the winter of his life. The book follows his cohort, writers, stars, and singers (like himself), as they all trudge the parallel streets to the solitude that comes with their condition. They do it in ways that recall an earlier life without being nostalgic or trite about it:

“I was old,” Tony narrates in “Le ballerine di lap dance,” “but age has never been my problem. I was simply lacerated by absence. I must say so. The absence of love. Like a sixteen year-old. But without the self-satisfied power of the typical victimized sixteen year-old with a love deficit. That resource, memorable, voracious, potent, doesn’t belong to adult men. In later years, the absence of love loses its dream-like and romantic connotations and becomes concrete, realistic, objective. And therefore insufferable” (60).

But the book is not without hope, even when it is served with a healthy helping of cynicism. In “Fabietto,” one character, a politician on a business trip in Korea, sells Italy’s strengths to a Korean woman captivating his attention:

“You must come back to Italy with me,” he says. “[It] is a country of great optimism, where the people are happy. In the summer, they all go swimming in the clean waters of Sardinia. In the afternoon, they sit on the jetty and take pictures of celebrities on their yachts. Italy is stupendous. It has no problems. Immigrants are no bother [and] the television only broadcasts things that are beautiful and useless. When there is a problem, rarely, I must say, I arrive and take care of it in a couple of days. Sure, some people don’t work, but I think it’s really because they just don’t want to work. There are a few baddies, but we are trying to render them harmless. Italy is marvellous. A country full of simple people” (57).

One of Pagoda’s greatest strengths, in fact, is Sorrentino’s ability to distance himself from his characters just enough to reveal the irony of their statements which, off the page, are all too sincere. He investigates Italian pop culture from the point of view of its participants, sparing no one, and revealing an Italy crippled by a hypocrisy that, at best, walks around as patriotism.

In “L’uomo col dolcevita,”  – the book’s longest chapter and the only one mentioned specifically in the acknowledgements section – he focuses on the annual San Remo music festival, bringing to life characters that kiss each other on stage and before the press, but cut each others’ throats in private. This idea is picked up again in “Maurizio Costanzo,” which tells the story of a washed-up, once illustrious and very celebrated Italian television presenter. It is easy to draw analogies with any of the best of them. But while they are interesting insights on celebrity culture, both read like party scenes in his movies that go on just a little too long. Sorrentino’s more successful stories immediately precede and follow “L’uomo col dolcevita.” In “Stromboli,” he shines a light on the reality of taking a solo vacation in Italy and, in a rare moment of pure joy untarnished by skepticism, what it is like to find love in that context – real love that lasts beyond the fleeting days of stranger-enthusiasm. At the opposite pole, in “Maurizio Ricci,” he takes readers on a journey of grief at the loss of life and, with it, the reminder of laughter forever to be cherished, but now irrevocably marked with the sadness of a friendship lived only in memory. “Life conceived as a funnel,” he writes. “In the upper part, there is room for everything. Truly everything. But when this everything descends and empties into the container under the funnel, it must become one thing alone: laughter. We must laugh, without forcing it, in the great tomb of relaxation” (132).

Like many writers before him, however,  Sorrentino saves his best piece for last. “Mia madre,” is perhaps an ode to a real mother that has existed and continues to exist in his life. Or it might simply be a glorification of the mostly harmless malice that lies dormant in all mothers who have learned to rely on humour in the face of the many challenges they come up against as their children’s number one caregivers. In either case, it is a triumphant summary of all of the book’s central themes in ten concise and pithy pages in which Sorrentino’s symbolism extends as far as his characters’ very names.

So now to put all my cards on the table. Did I like it? Would I read it again. Perhaps I would, when approaching the winter of my own life, to see if Sorrentino’s remarks still resonate. For now, I endorse Tony Pagoda to lovers of Sorrentino, lovers of observations that are at once truthful, humorous, accessible, and profound, lovers of literature, and lovers of life.