Vincenzo Cerami, A very normal man (Review)

Vincenzo Cerami, A very normal manAnd 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.

Vincenzo Cerami
A very normal man
Translated by Isobel Grave
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2015
ISBN: 9781743053713

(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)

Delicious descriptions: Diego Marani on translation

In Diego Marani’s The last of the Vostyachs, which I have just reviewed, the two linguists argue about language. The Russian, Olga, sees language as key to communication across cultures and to conveying plural meanings. She says to the Finnish Jarmo:

Your language has never known the dizzying heights of universality. No one studies it and all you can do is repeat it among yourselves, because it tells of a tiny country no one knows … our language is translated into a hundred others. A hundred other peoples want to understand us, and invent words in their own language which express our truths.

And hopefully, I presume, to then discuss respective truths heading towards mutual understanding!

For Jarmo though:

Translation causes a language to become solider; like blood in a transfusion, which is gradually tainted by impurities … By being translated, a language picks up meanings which are not its own, which infect it and poison it, and against which it has no defences.

Jarmo clearly has no interest in a global world! He’s not interested in change. In fact, at another point in the novel he says “change implies mistakes”. I’ve had many thoughts about change over my life-time but I must say this idea has not been uppermost.

In the next few weeks, I plan to review the current Quarterly Essay, Linda Jaivin’s Found in translation: In praise of a plural world. Having just read Marani, I think I am going to find this even more interesting than I had expected!

Diego Marani, The last of the Vostyachs (Review)

Italian writer Diego Marani‘s The last of the Vostyachs was originally published in 2002, but the English translation was not published until 10 years later in 2012. How lucky we are that it was, because this book is unlikely to have been written by an English-language writer. Its focus on the relationship between language, culture and place and on darker issues like ethnic nationalism comes from a different – and particularly European – sensibility. We speakers of the world’s dominant language can, I think, be a bit oblivious to the linguistic issues faced by speakers of other languages, particularly in Europe where multiple languages live cheek by jowl. The challenge of communication is an important issue for Marani who works in Brussels for the European Union. His roles have included interpreter, translator, and policy adviser on multilingualism. Marani knows as well as anyone that language is both a cultural and political issue – and this is what he explores in this, his second novel.

However, The last of the Vostyachs is no dry tome explicating the role and value of language. Instead it is a surprising and often funny novel that weaves myth and saga, melodrama and irony through the warp of a crime thriller. It incorporates a number of literary traditions and archetypes: the wild (innocent) man set loose in the city, the spurned wife, the spirit guide, the corrupt obsessive, and the remote cottage in the woods where dastardly things happen. On the night the crimes (murders, in fact) take place, nature runs amok. Zoo animals roam the city and the temperature drops to its coldest in fifty years.

The plot centres on Ivan, who is the last of the Vostyachs, an ancient Siberian shamanic tribe. He is the only one who can speak the language, though at the novel’s opening he had not spoken it (or anything else) for twenty years, not since, as a young boy in the gulag, he’d seen his father killed. When the gulag is suddenly freed, he returns to the Byrranga Mountains but all he finds are wolves. He believes them to be his people who, to flee the soldiers, had hidden deep in caves and turned into wolves. He cannot bring them back to human form but they shadow and protect him.

Every single language is necessary to keep the universe alive

Into this mix appears the plain, ethical, Russian linguist Olga who is excited to find a speaker of a language thought to have been extinct and who sees in this language an exciting connection between Europeans and the native Americans. Her old colleague, the womanising, unethical, Finnish linguist Jarmo Aurtova is not so pleased with this threat to his theory of Finnish as the “Latin of the Baltic”, as, in effect, the master language of Europe. Jarmo sounds scarily like Hitler in his desire to prove the supremacy of a pure Finnish language:

In ancient times we were the civilised ones and they were the barbarians. We were the masters, they were the slaves. Not for nothing is the word aryan so similar to the Finnic orja, which means slave.


But now ‘someone’ was trying to throw Finland into the dustbin of history, together with the other conquered peoples who have no future. Aurtova was not having that …

Jarmo cares not if a language or two disappears and dies in the service of his theory. He believes that the fewer the languages the more “we’re moving towards the truth, towards the pure language”, while for Olga “with each one that dies, a little truth dies with it”. Marani, the creator of the flexible inclusive language Europanto, is on Olga’s side, on the side of plurality. She says

The true meaning of things is hidden from us; it lies beyond the bounds of any one language, and everyone tries to arrive at it with their own imperfect words. But no language can do this on its own. Every single language is necessary to keep the universe alive.

Cherish ignorance

The last of the Vostyachs is a ripping yarn that takes us from the tundra to Helsinki, through city streets, down country roads, across ice and onto the sea, as the various characters pursue their passions. But it’s the irony that conveys its main messages – and much of this irony revolves around our arch-villain and misogynst, Jarmo. His guilt as a murderer is revealed through a clue that is gorgeously ironic. In his final speech to the linguistic congress he, an academic for heaven’s sake, exhorts people to “cherish ignorance”, to not learn other people’s languages but “force” them to learn yours. And, most ironic of all, not only is the Vostyach language not destroyed, but by the end of the book, without giving too much away, “it could truly be said to be alive and flourishing” – albeit in a rather odd place.

Partway through the novel, Olga says to Jarmo of Finns that “to communicate with the rest of the world you have to learn another one, you have to venture out among words which are not your own, which you have borrowed from others”. In The last of the Vostyachs, Marani has ventured out and written something wild and rather risky. In doing so, he has produced a novel that’s not only fun to read but also gives the mind much to think about.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers read and enjoyed this book earlier this year.

Diego Marani
The last of the Vostyachs
(Trans. by Judith Landry)
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2012
ISBN: 978192196885 (Kindle ed.)