And now for something very different from my recent fare here, a modern Italian classic. Originally published in 1976, A very normal man was, the back cover blurb says, Vincenzo Cerami’s first novel – and it brought him instant acclaim. I can see why. At least, this is the sort of writing that gets me in, but more on that anon.
Now, you may have heard of Cerami (1940-2013). I know I should have, because he was the co-screenwriter on that wonderful 1998 film La Vita è Bella (Life is Beautiful). He was also a poet, commentator and a writer on writing. In other, words a very interesting man! (Couldn’t resist that.)
But now, the book. It is, as you might have realised, a translation, which is always a challenge from my point of view, because I know I’m reading a mediated work. And, as I started this book, I felt it must have represented a very particular challenge because this is a satirical, darkly humorous and deeply ironic work. That must be hard to translate across languages and cultures – and it apparently was, starting with the title. Wakefield Press says on its website that “the complex word play of the Italian title is untranslatable in English; it means literally a very little, very middle-class man”. Does this remind you of Camus’ L’Etranger, and its publication in English as both The stranger and The outsider?
So, who is this very little, very middle-class – or very normal – man? He is Giovanni Vivaldi, living in Rome during the Years of Lead. He’s married, happily enough it seems, with a 20-year-old account-trained son, Mario, of whom he is very proud. He’s been a public servant in the Ministry, the Office for Retirement Pensions, for 40 years, and at the start of the novel he is about to retire. First, however, he wants to get Mario a job in the Ministry. It’s the least he deserves, he believes. Italian novelist Italo Calvino, who apparently negotiated the novel’s publication, also wrote the preface to the original Italian edition. My Wakefield edition’s preface quotes from it:
You would expect a story about office workers to be drab, short on events — the inevitable caricature. Not this one. Extraordinary events abound: a ludicrous initiation ceremony into Freemasonry; an incursion into the savage world of the daily crime columns; revenge that is the stuff of nightmares […] What we see is reminiscent of the precision effects of a magnifying glass angled over the unredeemed ugliness at the heart of civilised society — and over the tenacious lust for living which clings on in a world emptied of meaning.
Hmmm, what more can I say? These excerpts convey a little of the story and the main theme, without giving away too much of the plot. I wouldn’t want to give away any more, but I can talk a little about the character, the style and tone.
“the common sense of an ordinary decent man”
About a quarter of the way through the novel, during his application to become a Freemason, Giovanni is described as having “the common sense of an ordinary decent man”. Sounds lovely doesn’t it? Except that we have already seen quite a bit of not-so-decent behaviour from him, including the very reason he is applying to become a Freemason, which is to obtain favour to help his son beat the civil service exam for the Ministry job. On the first page of the novel, he tells his son that “the sign of a really smart young man is a total focus on career and nothing else. Let the rest of the world go and hang themselves”. On page 2, Giovanni, out fishing with his son, kills a fish in a cruel, violent way. At the beginning of chapter 2, his normal drive to work is described: he’d “deal out vicious abuse to anyone he thought was trying to get in his way, rant and rave against everything and everyone”. Pretty quickly then, we are clued in to the fact that he is not a very humane man – and yet, he is also presented as a “normal”, responsible family man. He’s (arguably) a good father, a decent husband and a diligent employee.
What happens in the novel is, in fact, shocking, and the way Giovanni responds is even more so, but it is all told in matter-of-fact prose, and this is what I like. I love writing that is integral to the meaning of a work, that is, that isn’t just there to carry the story and ideas. In this case, the calm tone of writing that conveys a grotesque story reinforces the themes of hypocrisy and corruption, of mismatch between the surface and the subterranean (if that makes sense).
The tone might be matter of fact, unemotional, but the imagery leaves us in no doubt as to Cerami’s view of life in 1970s Rome:
The city had all the signs of a Sunday: greasy roller blinds down on the shops; apartments with their entrances yawning open mockingly; parked cars lining the footpaths like the embalmed corpses of family pets; the slow, tentative caterpiller-weaving of empty trams. Against an unbroken infinity of apartment blocks that crossed the city from end to end, branching off in every direction, rows of bristles on a hairbrush for a scabby head.
Cerami mixes up descriptions of mundane detail (“he got his raincoat, grabbed his car keys … found himself a clean handkerchief from his sock drawer”) with descriptions that stop you in your tracks:
In person: young maybe Mario’s age, except that this one reminded you of rusted-out tools and coffee dregs.
At times there is a sense of the mock-heroic: Giovanni “sprang into the saddle of his charger”, that is, his Fiat 850. And there is plenty of humour (dark and otherwise), such as when Giovanni, in a police station, tries various Freemason secret signals, to no avail. Giovanni thinks he’s “mastered the art of living” but his view of living is not an appealing one.
For all this, there are moments when he seems human – he is a loving father and responsible husband – and can tug, albeit briefly, at our sympathy. Overall though, the novel is a devastating indictment of middle-class life that is superficial, self-centred and morally corrupt in a society which seems to be not much better. A fascinating read.
A very normal man
Translated by Isobel Grave
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2015
(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)