Italian book review

Zerocalcare, Macerie Prime (Milano: Bao Publishing, 2017).
19 Apr 2019

Italian Book Review: Macerie Prime, by Zerocalcare

Luogo comune: a pejorative term, the name attributed to clichés or platitudes, often also referred to in Italian as “frasi fatte” (canned remarks). Its etymology, however, points to a larger philosophical thought: a “luogo comune” is a commonplace, a truth so universal it is undeniable. Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in Italy over the last ten years has most likely heard a number of “luoghi comuni” on Italian society and young people’s place within it (although “young” refers to a different age-range in Italy). In Macerie Prime, graphic novelist Zerocalcare gives space, transparency, and clarity to these issues that, despite their ubiquity, remain seldom discussed in mainstream media or explored in artistic production. He treats them with the frankness characteristic of the Italian voices of his (and my) generation — an openness that might come across as redundant to Italian readers. For non-Italian readers interested in pulling back the velvet curtain separating them from an unedited version of Italy, however, it functions as a comprehensive and accessible explanation of contemporary Italian sociopolitical issues.

Zerocalcare’s creation of a microecosystem of Italy in Macerie prime starts with its very title. Macerie prime, a play on “materie prime” (or raw materials), signals the current state of emergency in which Italian youth find themselves: “macerie” are debris; macerie prime, the debris that have weighed on Italian society for as long as the book’s protagonist, and, by extension, its author, have lived. Readers journey through the various rooms of the narrator’s conscience — a fortress against attack populated by creatures of his imagination — and navigate, with him, the rocky terrain of self-actualization in a society ever-eager to capitalize on it, and within a generation ill-equipped for personal success. They witness moments of self-sabotage, self-doubt, and the defence mechanisms put in place to guard against personal disappointment. They live, with the book’s cast of characters, the ramifications of putting one’s career ahead of one’s friendships, one’s romantic relationship ahead of one’s personal aspirations, one’s professional expectations ahead of one’s own limitations.

They also battle distinctly Italian psycho-social attitudes: the guilt inherent to a fiercely Catholic upbringing and the societal expectations (marriage and the founding of a family) that come with it. What Zerocalcare makes clear is the currency of these attitudes, the extent to which they are rooted within the spirits of his characters, and not merely the vestiges of the more conservative generation preceding them. Macerie prime is a faithful portrait of the many foibles of contemporary Italian society at every level of its organization. Its characters speaks to a caste system that predates them by decades, in which social classes remain distinct amongst themselves even in places in which they are expected to interact — schools, sports teams, churches — and in which individual social “contamination”  entails tragic consequences. They participate in a Darwinesque survival of the fittest upheld by the compromises, justifications, and mental buttresses required merely to make it out alive. Their battleground is a minefield of the weapons used to kill the scant opportunities afforded them: the scarcity of permanent and well-paying jobs, the clear absence of a system of meritocracy in a country in which nepotism still reigns supreme, the difficulty with which public funding is described, let alone applied for or obtained. They are the generation of the luoghi comuni by now too common in Italy: those who still live with their parents into their thirties, those who can’t afford to buy a house even after twenty years of full-time work, those unwilling to found a family because uncertain of what the future might hold for them. Beyond this daily reality, Macerie Prime is also a comment on moments of crisis in recent Italian history that have defined a generation, on the raid on the Armando Diaz school in Genoa during the 2001 G8 meeting, the police brutality that ensued there and in the decade to follow, on the changing architecture of the Italian political landscape. 

It might be useful to know that the book makes use of a heavily Romanized language, adopting expressions and inflections specific to the Italian capital, which can make it difficult for those unfamiliar with such constructions to grasp the full extent of the author’s satire. Yet, where words might fail, the razor-sharp focus of Zerocalcare’s illustrations rings clear and makes of his work an excellent “gateway” for a non-Italian (or non-graphic novel) audience. He distinguishes himself from other fumettisti in his use of both realistic portraits and anthropomorphized or allegorical caricatures: the best friend drawn as a wild boar, introspection depicted as an armadillo, self-preservation illustrated as a panda. They add levity to a book dense with social criticism and psychological discussion.

Macerie Prime (2017) is the first of a two-tome series and is followed (in 2018) by Macerie Prime: Sei mesi dopo. They are preceded by a number of Zerocalcare’s award-winning works, including Dimentica il mio nome (2014) and Kobane Calling (2015).