A comparative book review
At the beginning of this past September, and knowing that my in-laws would be visiting later that month from Italy, I ordered a few books for them to pack onto their transatlantic flight with them. Two of them were Giulio Cavalli’s Carnaio and Nadia Terranova’s Addio fantasmi. Both 2018 publications, both nominated for prestigious awards (Carnaio for the Premio Campiello and Addio fantasmi for the Premio Strega), these books had little else in common. I was eager to explore their vast (abyssal) differences. The former is an allegorical social commentary on immigration, diversity, and anonymity; the latter, an introspective on depression. But though both tackle very contemporary issues, only one rises to the mammoth challenge of both faithfully representing modern-day society and destabilizing anything we might know about it.
A little background information/ plot summary of each before we delve deeper. Warning: minor spoilers ahead!
A corpse washes onto the shore of the fictional town of D.F. on the very first page of Carnaio, where it is discovered by a local fishermen. Not too long afterwards, a number of other bodies dot the shoreline of D.F. inspiring a general stir in the political and media landscapes first of D.F., then of all of the country that houses it. As the number of discovered bodies increases exponentially daily and D.F. residents initially seem conflicted about what to do with them, a number of measures are put into place, first to reduce residents’ discomfort at the ongoing invasion, and eventually to put it to the town’s — or to its politicians’ and big investors— profit. A plexiglass wall is built up and down the D.F. shoreline and all around the town to keep new bodies from occupying unwanted space within it. And those that crash agains the wall end up transported, via conveyor belt, to a freezer-cum-incinerator, where they are skinned, burned or butchered to become D.F. residents’ new lampshade, scented bar of soap, or next meal.
Ida Laquidara, a 36 year-old Sicilian radio writer trapped in a sexless marriage and living in Rome, returns to Palermo to deal with the dilapidated house in which her mother still lives. Her father left the family without warning or provision when she was only a girl, barely thirteen years old: a haunting that has never left her. As Ida reacquaints herself with the ghosts of her past as they inhabit her childhood home, her story unfolds: her father’s still unresolved disappearance was the product of severe depression despite his good reputation and professional success — a depression in all likelihood inherited by his only daughter and that has effectively ruined every relationship in her life. Ida struggles to reconcile her need to hang onto her father’s memory with a deeper need to be free of it and of the ghost of his motionless body, perennially still in his bed, that has overtaken her life.
Wow. What a gamut.
Let’s start with the positives. Both Cavalli and Terranova fearlessly take on issues that have long been considered taboo in Italy — immigration and depression —, and both choose to do it through the defenceless form of fiction. Defenceless, yes. Because personal musings thinly masqueraded as “fictitious events” can seldom be upheld by statistics or facts in the way an essay or study can. In a literary landscape that prefers international gialli (crime novels) or letteratura rosa (romance and romantic comedy) in translation, both authors gamble on their ability to appeal to readers with domestic stories set against recognizably domestic backgrounds that speak inherently of intimately domestic issues. Cazzimma level required: fuori da questo mondo.
Choice of literary genre in such an agenda can be a tremendous help or hindrance to the task. When my mother-in-law began reading Carnaio (before I had gotten a chance to sit down with it), she told me, “it’s …. peculiar and not for everyone. I think of it as science-fiction.” That was before she got into the really Apocalyptical stuff. Though I disagree with her qualification — in my view, it’s a clear allegory of Italian and international politics and history (a plexiglass wall? We all see you, Donald Trump. Incinerated bodies? Hello, Holocaust! Dead bodies washing up on shore? Did someone say “immigration crisis”?) — what makes Carnaio successful is its ability to present hard truths as fiction, and to make accessible and acceptable, through the guise of “science-fiction” or “post-apocalyptic” or “dystopian” labels, that which the Average Italian might only begrudgingly accept as the truth about his or her own home country. As an allegory with a post-Apocalyptic ending, Cavalli’s story is just implausible enough to separate it from the national headlines that no doubt inspired it. It goes just far enough not to alienate entirely its readers. Nor, however, does it lull them into a false sense of security. The very cover of his book is a perhaps intentional nod to the installation art of Ai Weiwei, whose gommoni (rubber rafts used for migration) have been displayed in museums across Europe over the last five years. His despised foreign bodies, dead, are nothing more than lifeless manifestations of those that turn up scorned in Italian port towns today. Carnaio is a cautionary tale of things to come if attitudes toward and policies regarding migrants and ethnic differences in Italy do not soon change. D.F. could be any Italian port town. The ramifications of that idea are raccapriccianti!
Terranova, by contrast, chooses to write the personal novel: a first-person narrator account of the protagonist’s lived events and emotional processing. While no doubt a tribute to the stream-of-conscious style of writing of authors like Virginia Woolf (more on that later on), her choice of literary genre is ultimately a disservice to her subject matter. Readers are not afforded any insight regarding her father’s depression or the things that may have exacerbated it. They are given next to no information about the effects of his illness on his wife, or about the reaction to it of his peers. Where Cavalli builds a portrait of Italian society by giving voice to many representatives of it — the layperson, the cleric, the politician, the news caster, the businessman, the low earner — Terranova focuses on the experience of a single individual, as she is affected by one singular event: the disappearance of her father. The only discernible model of depression readers are given, if it is fair to even interpret it so, is the narrator’s. I am by no means an expert on depression. But I am no stranger to it, either and feel comfortable saying that it can and often does take on various manifestations. Part of the taboo surrounding it is owed to the fact that only one face of it has been repeatedly revealed in art and pop culture — the one that looks behind the dark cloak of loss. Terranova does nothing to debunk this stale representation of mental illness, reinvent it, or in any way alter or counterpose it. What emerges is what seems like a juvenile and infinite lament of the protagonist’s inner discomfort protected until very late in the book by a blindness that precludes empathy or sympathy toward others with similar, sometimes worse, struggles. Terranova’s protagonist is unlikeable, which makes it difficult to accept the author’s perhaps intentionality in making her so. All we are left with is a one-dimensional figure and the same issue tackled the same way — from a personal lens — as it always has been. The final effect is of great detriment both to the book itself and to the themes it treats, which merit greater attention and understanding. Grief is a pitiless beast. If Terranova’s is the only voice speaking up against it, the “survivors” to whom her book is dedicated have all been sorely short-changed.
It would be easy — and more pleasant — to overlook these shortcomings if Terranova’s story moved her readers in other ways. But the absence of a compelling plot traps readers in a suffocating world without reprieve until the book’s final chapter, where the protagonist’s catharsis, by then twenty three years overdue, is dealt with summarily and gratuitously. Sadly, Terranova’s style and tone do her readers no favours, either. The absence of action is compensated for with needlessly lengthy descriptions saddled down by heavy-handed, if transparent, symbolism and tired narrative structures by now expected of the personal narrative: streams of consciousness, sometimes nonsensical, dream sequences, long diary-like entries, reminiscences of past awkwardnesses, endless rumination on How, Why, and What If. All fine if the sole purpose is to provide readers with the hopeless weightiness of depression, but not much help beyond that.
Cavalli’s prose sits on the other end of artefice and is spurred on by a plot as cluttered with new developments as Terranova’s is devoid of it. It is filled with the horrors, never openly described as such, of this all too possible alternative to Italian history in the making and at every turn reserves new and disturbing details for its readers, all delivered with delicious and devastating irony. His writing has been called “Saramago-esque” — one of my key reasons for wishing to read this book — a label which, I think, points more to the at times irksome affectation in his prose than to its actual merits. He writes without quotations or clear markers of dialogues, often in long, run-on sentences where voices overlap and contrasting opinions are presented in the same breath. It’s a technique just as heavy as Terranova’s insistent dreamy-symbolism and one that requires the same level of concentration from the reader. But unlike Terranova, the usefulness of whose chosen style remains unclear to me, Cavalli’s achieves its desired outcome: a clear portrayal of the confusion in D.F. and amid its various citizens. Their initial ambivalence, and its descent into complacence, sometimes requires readers to re-read entire sections of chapters to make sense not only of who is saying what, but also of the intricacies of their comments, some so dense that unpacking them requires deep knowledge of the social climate in Italy today. In fact, though a book I did recommend to my students, it’s not one I would recommend to anyone who hasn’t lived in Italy or studied its anthropology, politics, or sociology. It is no wonder to me that it was nominated for the People’s Choice award; it is a book whose achievement would be difficult to identify or defend outside its country of origin — a shortness from which Addio fantasmi, by contrast, does not suffer.
What both authors achieve with their books is the burrowing of an entryway into a real, Italian landscape, the creation of a point of contact between an observable reality and the reader who has likely already observed it. These are familiar stories because built on familiar spaces, classic tropes, popular dialogue, plain speech. They speak to Italian society as it is today and for that reason alone are worth the read. But anyone not a particular fan of the psychological novel or its twenty-first century progeny (a far cry, in this case, from Italo Svevo) would perhaps be better advised to skip Addio fantasmi and instead take my word for it.
Giulio Cavalli’s Carnaio (Fandango, 2018) and Nadia Terranova’s Addio fantasmi (Einaudi, 2018) are both available for purchase at www.ibs.it and on loan at our cultural centre in Montreal.