The Twenty Days of Turin by Giorgio De Maria

The plot of The Twenty Days of Turin can be compared to the Bermuda Triangle – lots of weird stuff supposedly happens in it, but no one knows why.

Giorgio De Maria’s 1975 Italian cult classic The Twenty Days of Turin, translated into English for the first time by Ramon Glazov, is easily one of the strangest books I’ve come across in recent memory. De Maria, who’s been compared  to H.P. Lovecraft, Borges and Poe, has written one of those modern-day allegories that is open to an infinite number of interpretations: a commentary on the rise of fascism in Italy, for example, or a foreshadowing of the phenomenon of social media. It’s all a bit of a conceptual mess, but no less enjoyable for it.

Our adventure begins when an unnamed journalist traveling to Turin to investigate an incident which took place 20 years before, when a collective insomnia took hold of most of the town’s population, causing them to shamble through the streets and squares at night in vulnerable, fugue-like states. The following morning the mangled remains of the victims are discovered  – their bodies broken at odd angles as if they’d been swung about by the feet. The murderers are never identified and the events remain shrouded in mystery. This dark time comes to be known (conveniently) as the Twenty Days of Turin.

At the same time as bodies are being found, a group of young men travel door to door inviting residents to join a shadowy institution known as the Library. The Library is a place in which average people are encouraged to deposit and read each others private journals. A kind of social experiment created to foster community and relationships, encouraging strangers to connect through the sharing of each other’s deepest and darkest secrets.

Everything could be deposited into the Library: works that were slender or unnaturally bulky, sometimes with a disarming naiveté in a world of slyness. Masterpieces could appear by accident, but they were about as easy to track down as a particle of gold in a heap of gravel. There were manuscripts whose first hundred pages didn’t reveal any oddity, which then crumbled little by little into the depths of bottomless madness; or works that seemed normal at the beginning and end, but were pitted with fearful abysses further inward. Others, meanwhile, were conceived in a spirit of pure malice: pages and pages just to indicate, to a poor elderly woman without children or a husband, that her skin was the color of a lemon and her spine was warping – things she already knew well enough. The range was infinite: it had the variety and a the same time the wretchedness of things that can’t find harmony with Creation, but still exist, and need someone to observe them, if only to recognize that it was another like himself who’d created them.

As the journalist attempts to unravel the layers of mysteries surrounding, and connections linking, the Twenty Days and the Library, unidentified forces are rising against him. Time is running out. And the events of the Twenty Days appear to be happening again.

I read H.P. Lovecraft when I was too young to understand what a horrible and damaged human being he was. I read his work superficially, enjoying the horror stories without comprehending the racist subtext they contained. I think this is how it was for many people, and as a result it can be hard to reconcile the stories we enjoy with the madness (and hatred) of the man who wrote them. The Shadow Over Innsmouth was my favorite.  The premise of a fishing village haunted by alien gods known as the Deep Ones fascinated me. And the formula of the first person narrator, descending into madness, investigating a mysterious evil that he suddenly (and tragically) finds himself the focus of is hard to mess up.  Giorgio De Maria obviously read Lovecraft, too, because he follows that same formula. He inserts interviews, recordings and correspondences – building layer upon layer of false reality until the reader finds herself half convinced that what she is reading is true.

book coverBut Lovecraft is just one in a patchwork of influences. There are a lot of rabbit holes on these pages for readers interested in falling down. Time is measured in intervals of twenty in a surprising number of folktales (For example: Rip Van Winkle and his predecessor Peter Klaus’ naps both lasted that long). And while the victims of the Twenty Days suffered from lack of sleep versus too much – I was still reminded of these older tales in which ordinary people join the games or celebrations of powerful, supernatural beings and suffer as a result.  Like folktales which come to us through an oral traditions of storytelling, The Twenty Days of Turin has an abridged quality to it. It has its own supernatural beings and their minions, who are central to the plot, but whose motivations are never adequately explored. Elements like the Library are introduced seemingly because the writer finds them interesting (rightfully so) or because they embellish the text. Not because they contribute to the overall narrative.  De Maria creates and relies on all these mythological touchstones without bothering to explain them. We are, in a way, being asked to revert to a naive reader. One who embraces superstition as an explanation for the unknown.

The Twenty Days of Turin can be classified as a novella. It takes up only 144 of the 186 pages of the physical book, which also includes two short stories by the same author: The Death of Missolonghi and Phenomenology of the Screamer, tacked on as appendices. There’s also a twelve page Translator’s Introduction. The two short stories aren’t very interesting and I found the Introduction a needless distraction, which is unusual for me. (I am a conscientious reader of forwards, introductions, afterwords and translators notes). But the author’s voice is what pulls you into this story and nothing should be allowed to detract from it. The symbolism and atmosphere are what make up for the overall lack of depth. And, it’s probably no coincidence that the actual, titular story is short enough that, even if your left dissatisfied with the ending and what passes for a resolution of the mysteries, you won’t feel you’ve wasted two hours of your life you can never get back. In this way The Twenty Days of Turin is the rare exception to the rule: the sum of its parts are by far greater than its whole.

Title: The Twenty Days of Turin

Author: Giorgio De Maria

Translator: Ramon Glazon

Publisher: Liveright, New York (2017)

Accabadora by Michela Murgia (translated from the Italian by Silvester Mazzarella)

Accabadora is about adoption.  It’s also a coming of age story and a mother-daughter drama.  It’s about choices, consequences and secrets… about being allowed to die with dignity… about the collision between the old and the new.   Accabadora is about a lot of things, most of which don’t have much in common with each other.  And while, overall, Michela Murgia has put out a well-written novel (winning multiple awards) for me the plot became increasingly uneven the more I read.  It’s a bit of a hodgepodge, leaving me with mixed feelings.  On one hand – life is uneven, messy and essentially just a string of random events.  On the other – novels are edited objects, we expect an author to perform a certain amount of curating in order in creating a narrative.

Bonaria Urrai is a seamstress in a small village on the island of Sardinia.  She was once betrothed, but her fiance died in World War II.  She never married.  When the book opens she adopts Maria, the youngest daughter of a crass, indifferent woman.  Maria becomes a “soul-child”.  In the local form of open-adoption, her mother gives Maria to Bonaria Urrai to raise as her own child.  What she, Maria’s biological mother, gets in return is unclear – money, status, a daughter of means to support her in her own age or simply one less mouth to feed.  Regardless, there is no shame attached to anyone involved in the transaction.  In every way that matters Maria becomes Bonaria’s daughter.  And yet she retains her connection to her birth mother and sisters.

Bonaria Urrai also has a second life, one which she keeps a secret from Maria.   Accabadora derives from a Spanish word that means “to finish or complete” (from the book’s glossary).  Bonaria is an angel of death, helping her neighbors to die after receiving their and their family’s consent.  Like Maria’s adoption it is common knowledge.  Everyone in the village knows the role this woman plays, and revere her for it… except, inexplicably in my opinion, Maria.  How she finds out and reacts is the climactic moment of the story.

Maria leaves Sardinia and travels to Genoa to become the nanny to a rich family.  This amounts to not much more than a strange interlude with little connection to the overall narrative.  It ends when she loses her job and is (a bit too conveniently) summoned home to care for the dying Bonaria.

Most of the events I’ve described above are found on the back cover.  So I haven’t given much away.  Michela Murgia has written a plot- and character- driven novel, very different from what I’ve been reading lately.  She has no post-modern, experimental agenda.  Her “literary realism” approach make her characters’ motivations and choices important.  To sell the plot they must be defined and believable.  They were neither, and as a result I had a hard time buying in.

The prose is an entirely different matter.  Each paragraph is carefully composed.  For example, when Maria first begins to understand her adoptive mother’s secret Murgia allows the girl’s thought processes to unfold slowly while she prepares supper.

As she cut the onion into thin slices, Maria mulled obsessively over this difference, arranging the ingredients for supper with the same hypnotic slowness with which she was trying to order her thoughts.  Andría’s words had been as crazy as the light in his eyes as he was saying them, and they had made no sense to Maria, though when set against certain memories they began to take on some sort of meaning.  As she cut the tomato into pieces, she could see again the figure of the old dressmaker huddled by the fire that same morning, fully dressed and with her hair done as if she had just come home, or already knew that she would soon need to go out.  Maria had long ago stopped pondering the mysterious nocturnal expeditions of  her elderly adoptive mother, but now these suppressed memories came back to hit her like the elastic of a catapult, prompting the thought that Bonaria Urrai might have something serious to hide.  It was the first time such a thought had ever struck Maria, and she did not know how to cope with this suspicion which fitted so badly with the confidence she felt in the woman who had taken her to be her daughter.  Bonaria could not possibly have lied to her, because there are things you should do and things you should not do, she reminded herself as she dropped the rest of the finally chopped vegetables into the sizzling oil.  The wooden spoon evoked fragrances and memories among the browning onions and, as she slowly stirred them, Maria opened herself to both, and remembered an afternoon from many years before, only a few months after she had first become soul-daughter to Tzia Bonaria.

Accabadora is filled with wonderful and delicate moments like this; writing that creates a setting and context that make sense; scenes you can step into.  But these moments are hostage to a needlessly convoluted and (if I’m being completely honest) overly theatrical plot.   I type my criticisms with trepidation.  Accabadora won seven awards, including Italy’s Premio Campiello.   No small achievement for Michela Murgia’s freshman novel, one that makes it impossible to dismiss her as an author.  The fact remains there is a lot of promise in these first pages.  She bears watching.

Publisher:  Counterpoint Press, Berkeley (2012)
ISBN:  978 1 61902 050 4

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The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri (translated from the original Italian by Stephen Sartarelli)

Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano series consists of nineteen novels and four short story collections – fourteen of which have been translated into English.  There was an Italian TV series that ran for 1999 to 2008.  All in all, it looks to have been hugely successful. But as experience and the Twilight series have taught us – success does not always equal quality.

Fortunately for Camilleri, and for us, here the two go hand-in-hand.  The Shape of Water is a skillfully written, fast-paced police procedural.  The author keeps the action moving and the reader’s interest by cutting from scene to scene with the use of dark slashes (similar to the ones on the cover). One moment Montalbano is scouring the newspaper for information, the next he’s on the phone.  Two pages later we are with him re-examining the crime scene.  The slashes act a lot like the famous gong on Law & Order.  In fact I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Camilleri was a fan of the show.

The Shape of Water, the first book of the series, introduces Inspector Salvo Montalbano.  He is handsome, a “real man”, in love with & faithful to his girlfriend Livia (which he has ample opportunities to prove – women proposition him at a rate that would make Mikail Blomkvist look celibate).  Montalbano lives and works on the island of Sicily. He is well-known, good at his job, seemingly liked and respected by everyone – an all-around great guy.  It would be difficult not to find him a compelling.  He is the perfect Italian hero, down to the mole on his cheek.

If I were a good reviewer I would, at this point, go into the plot.  But why bother?  Just trust me when I tell you that it’s a good mystery.  There are twists, turns, political scandals, great dialogue, charismatic informers, beautiful women and evil men… none of those things are why you should read this book or why I’ll continue onto the next book in the series.  Then what’s the draw, you ask?  Well I can’t speak for the Italians.  For those of us in the United States the reasons are obvious:  the Mediterranean landscape, the sun, the sea… mostly, though, the FOOD.

…When he woke, as the mid-September sea was flat as a mirror, he went for a long swim.  Back inside, he made himself a dish of spaghetti with a sauce of sea urchin pulp and turned on the television…’Listen, Montalbano – I forgot to mention it this morning – my wife had invented a fantastic new recipe for baby octopus.  Can you make it Friday evening?’… A dish of pasta with garlic and oil could be served without any problem.  He opened the refrigerator: Adelina had prepared a hefty dish of boiled shrimp…they were drinking an exquisite white wine his father had found in Randazzo.  He had come by, with six bottles the previous week, but it was merely an excuse for them to spend a little time together…

Andrea Camilleri’s novel leaves the reader feeling as if they’ve won a free vacation to the island of Sicily.  The best kind of vacation – the kind where you aren’t a tourist.  The kind that drops you into an Italian movie where, at any moment, a young Sophia Loren pulls up in front of a fountain in a little red Fiat.  That’s probably not the reality – and Camilleri intelligently crafts a plot that gives you a hefty dose of gritty reality (or at least what passes for gritty reality, which amounts to the same thing).  He’s also smart enough to throw in some fantasy, too, allowing the setting to play a starring role.  This first Inspector Montalbano mystery is Modern Meditteranean Crime Noir.  I don’t know if that’s an actual genre…but if it isn’t, it should be.

Note:  The edition I read was published by Viking, c. 2002.  Current editions are (I believe) published under the Penguin Paperback imprint (information & link below).

Publisher:  Penguin Books, New York (2005).
ISBN:  978 0 142004 71 5

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In the Sea There Are Crocodiles by Fabio Geda (translated from Italian by Howard Curtis)

The extended title of Fabio Geda’s novel In the Sea There Are Crocodiles is Based on the True Story of Enaiatollah Akbari.  Geda explains in his introduction – the events are true, but because “Enaiatollah didn’t remember it all perfectly… this book must be considered fiction, since it is a recreation of Enaiatollah’s experience – a recreation that has allowed him to take possession of his own story”.  This struck me as an intelligent choice to make in today’s climate of debunked memoirs.  A choice which in no way detracts from the power of the story and a route I’m surprised more authors don’t choose.

In the Sea There Are Crocodiles begins with Enaiatollah Akbari recounting the last time he saw his mother.  He was 10-years-old.  She smuggled him out of their small Afghanistan village of Nava and across the border into Quetta, Pakistan.  Their Hazara (Shia) family was targeted by a gang of Pashtun (Sunni), who threatened to sell Enaiatolla and his brother into slavery as a means of recouping money they claim the boys’ father owes them.  Their father is dead.

His mother took him to Pakistan as a last resort.  He’d grown too big for her to hide.  But she does not explain any of this to him.  She does not prepare him. The boy falls asleep to the sound of his mother’s voice and when he wakes she is gone.  So begins Enaiat’s new life.  One which will take him on a five year journey from Pakistan to Iran, Iran to Turkey, Turkey to Greeze, and eventually all the way to Rome, Italy.

Enaiat tells his own story in a charming and engaging voice, creating the impression that we are reading a transcript.  Small asides between Geda & Enaiat, highlighted from the main text in italics, further the feeling of intimacy. In the Sea There Are Crocodiles is a small, slim book.  The writing is unexpectedly sophisticated – it’s difficult to describe.  Events are relayed simply, starkly, without embellishment…as a child might. Several times the author asks for more details. He tells Enaiatollah that readers will want more specifics. The boy is adamant – all that matters is what happened. The characters are transient – interchangeable – they could be anyone. The facts are the universals.  In this way, how his mother left him sets the tone for his entire story.  Reasons go unexplained.  Emotions are not examined.  He is not happy or sad, things are not good or bad.  Everything is about survival.

And Enaiatollah Akbari survives. Through most of the book the reader is given the impression that he has moved through his adventures in a giant, soap bubble – breezing through episodes of horror and unpleasantness unscathed.  People are kind to Enaiat.  As you read it, his does not strike you as a sad story.  Despite characters dying, no one is mourned. When a young companion of Enaiat’s drowns during the treacherous water crossing from Turkey to Greece, it is dealt with in just a few sentences. Afterwards the boy’s name, Liaqat, is never mentioned again.

These high waves were different from normal waves.  They got mixed up with the others, and the dinghy made a strange movement, like a horse stung by a bee.  And Liaqat couldn’t hold on.  I felt his fingers slide over my shoulder.  He didn’t scream, he didn’t have time.  The dinghy had suddenly tossed him out.

Let me get this right.  Liaqat fell into the water?


And what did the rest of you do?

We looked for him as best we could, hoping to see him among the waves, and we shouted.  But he disappeared.

What initially appears as an attempt to down-play the brutality of the situation could have something to do with the target audience.  Separate adult and YA English translations, with different covers, were released simultaneously.  (Personally, I’m not sure why the distinction was made – since the whimsical cover of the adult edition could easily work for YA).  And while the subject matter is on the mature side, the basic level on which it is written should not be difficult for an 11-12 year old (the age of Enaiat was at the time) to read on their own.  Events are dealt with and overcome, not psychologically explored.  Which somehow makes them seem less disturbing.  That’s where the sophistication I had trouble explaining earlier comes into play.  Sometimes the most complicated, carefully designed objects are deceptively simple in appearance.  But that kind of simplicity takes skill to achieve.  And Fabio Geda has achieved it.

It isn’t until Enaiat reaches Rome, in the final chapters of this wonderful novel, that the full impact of what this young boy has survived hits you.  Not because of a moment of sudden introspection.  It is the contrast between his life of the last 5 years and how he is now expected to live that sharpens everything, bringing it all suddenly into focus.  What has become normal for Enaiat, and for the readers, is not normal at all.  Fabio Geda deals with the shift deftly, avoiding the kind of sentimentality that would cheapen this extraordinary story.*

Publisher:  New York, Doubleday (2011).
ISBN:  978 0 385 53473 4

*Only , in the end, it doesn’t seem so extraordinary, does it?  According to a report prepared for the members of the U.S. Congress in 2007, 56.2% of the Afgani refugee population is under 18.  That’s a lot of children who are potentially in the same situation as Enaiat. 

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