If you’re a long-time follower, you probably know that over the years, Stefano Benni has become one of my favourite contemporary Italian writers. His work is always current, relevant, and, despite his frequent revisitation of favourite themes, fresh. I ordered Achille piè veloce on the recommendation of a former student, who had read very positive reviews of it (thanks, Christina!). It met my expectations.
Achille was born with a rare defect that recalls pop-culture images of Stephen Hawking: a drooping, dribbling heap, voiceless and helpless, confined to a wheelchair. His only means of expression is via a special computer, which allows him to record and communicate his thoughts. But his interlocutors are few; Achille is kept hidden away — for his own protection, his mother and older brother insist — in the distant room of an apartment adjoining a bank determined to acquire it. He makes contact with Ulisse, editor of a small book publishing house charged with evaluating manuscripts, would-be famous author, and protagonist of his own personal and imagined odyssey. They soon kick off a rare friendship to their mutual benefit and an adventure neither of them will soon forget.
Binding them forever is Pilar, Ulisse’s Latin-American extracomunitario girlfriend, student, lavoratrice precaria, sindacalista and hesitant cubista (cage/platform/gogo dancer for hire in local nightclubs). Her very contemporary story sits at the centre of this novel clearly designed to mimic (or at least pay homage to) the Great Books. Divided into twenty-four chapters, one for each book of Homer’s Odyssey, it plunges its heroes into the same levels of despair and moral ambiguity as their namesakes. Each chapter is an exercise in recreating their terrain with, in equal measure, mythology and magical realism (the drago-bruco, bus-come-wheeled dragon, is my favourite example), while rewriting major episodes of its primary source inspiration. For every Circe, there is a modern, zebra-patterned mini-skirted enchantress seducing men in storage rooms and warehouses, for every Cyclops, a stubborn, short-sighted giant to be placated, then outsmarted. Benni deftly intertwines his modern narrative with a well-celebrated and recognizable classic, underlining the universality of his themes.
They are many and layered. Underlying each is the question of personal narrative and the role it plays in achieving individual success, happiness, and fulfilment. Achille and Ulisse each yearn fully to realize their common dream, but are equally held back by their perception of themselves. As in any friendship worthy of the name, theirs is built on a mutual willingness to challenge the other beyond his self-crippling attitude. Their relationship is predicated on honesty bordering on insult, but close-to unconditional acceptance of each other’s flaws. Though short-lived, their bond ultimately makes a case for the merit in storytelling: an endangered species in the world of memoirs, gialli, and reality-TV-like written testimonials that crowd Ulisse’s desk. In Achille piè veloce, much more than in his other books, Benni reflects openly not only on the nature of writing, but also on the nature of the reader.
Reading is, in fact, fundamental to this tale. It provides the only means for Achille and Ulisse to communicate with each other. More than that, in addition to being Ulisse’s main source of income, it is the only quality that distinguishes him from the novel’s baser characters. Ulisse, like Achille, reads, therefore he is in a position to make decisions others can’t, or to act with calculation when others might rush to impulse. Forgetting this ability is what often endangers him and his main mission. Reading is also the only key to unlocking the novel’s final mystery — the one that delivers both protagonists’ fated endings.
But reading is only rewarding to the committed reader. This lesson Benni makes clear throughout his novel. Those who have read The Odyssey and The Iliad before it will make the most of the plot and character symmetries here, in Achille piè veloce. They will also do best at unpacking the book’s at times challenging structure and dreamlike passages. The prepared reader, like Ulisse, — not always the prolific reader — is in the best position to reap the story’s rewards. It is a parallel that Benni makes explicit.
Achille piè veloce is available for loan from our cultural centre in Ahuntsic-Cartierville. Become a member, comment below or send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.