Book of the month: Elena Varvello

Just over three years ago, an Italian novel tempted me out of book-reviewing retirement and formed the subject of the first of my Book of the month posts on this blog. You might have heard of the author – a reclusive chronicler of Naples life who was rising rapidly to fame in the anglophone world when I encountered her work and has since achieved massive international success.

I’m talking, of course, about Elena Ferrante; it was the first in her Neapolitan series, titled My Brilliant Friend in English and translated by Ann Goldstein, that persuaded me to start posting about books again on this blog. I was sent a copy by Daniela Petracco, tireless champion of great literature originating in languages other than English and UK director of Europa Editions. I loved the book and knew I had to tell people about it (I’ve since read The Days of Abandonment and for my money it’s even better than the Neapolitan novels).

So when I received an advance translation of a new Italian novel and, skimming through the publicity material, saw that one of its supporters was Daniela Petracco, I decided I would have to try it. My resolve strengthened when I turned to the Acknowledgements and saw that, far from simply supporting the novel, Petracco was Varvello’s first reader. The chances were that this book would be good.

At first glance, Elena Varvello’s Can You Hear Me? has all the hallmarks of a commercial thriller. The premise is typically high stakes – a young woman’s disappearance in a remote community, a boy’s murder, and a man losing his mind as his son comes of age. Then there’s the opening sentence: ‘In the August of 1978, the summer I met Anna Trabuio, my father took a girl into the woods.’ So far, so nail-biting.

Yet those who venture further into the pages expecting the novel to be nothing more than a page-turner are in for a surprise. For this book offers so much more.

Varvello has published two collections of poetry and it shows. Not only is her writing (translated here by Alex Valente) taut, but it is also exquisitely precise. Rather than scatter-gunning the reader with details, she selects one telling enough to convey an entire character or mood. From the way a person watches their reflection in a mirror, or the briefest of exchanges, the author conjures entire scenes, imbuing her pages by turns with menace, nostalgia and wistfulness.

This talent for concision enables her to convey profound observations without falling into the trap of expressing points too directly or knowingly. Time and again, characters are able to articulate what they are experiencing with stunning clarity, while remaining locked in the fatal subjectivity that is the essence of human experience and – in this and so many other great stories – prevents them from taking the actions that might avert disaster.

Chief among the cast of blinkered individuals is the narrator, Elia’s, father, whose redundancy and subsequent breakdown are the catalysts for much of the action. Menacingly erratic and yet pitiable, he towers from the page.

Varvello’s play with perspective and timeshift adds another layer of fascination. Exploiting many of the possibilities that telling the story through Elia’s eyes at 30 years’ remove presents, she interlaces different threads, employing several voices to blur the lines between memory and fantasy, empathy and repugnance, innocence and guilt.

While keeping the thread of the plot tightly wound and making heavy use of foreshadowing to sustain readers’ interest, she manages not to strike the nakedly manipulative tone that often topples the backdrop in less sophisticated works. Although some will find the sombre foreboding that suffuses the narrative a little monochrome, there is no doubt that the atmosphere is skilfully created. At points the writing is breathtakingly deft.

The result is an engrossing and troubling book that hangs big questions on the taut wire of a gripping plot. Like her namesake Ferrante, Elena Varvello knows how to keep readers hooked. We shall see more of her work.

Can You Hear Me? (La vita felice) by Elena Varvello, translated from the Italian by Alex Valente (Two Roads, 2017)

Vatican City: gospel truth?

Vatican City was always going to be a challenge. With an area of 0.2 sq miles and fewer than 900 citizens, it is the world’s smallest independent state. It’s also one of the most unusual – Vatican City nationals are made, not born (hardly surprising, given that the majority of its residents, barring a few Swiss Guards, are Roman Catholic priests) and the state is thought to be the only country in the world where you can take out money from a cash machine by following instructions in Latin.

All this made getting a novel, short story collection or memoir out of the place look doubtful. I was beginning to think I was going to have to resort to a papal bull just for the sake of having something to read.

Then I google-stumbled (gumbled – I think this should be a word) across an intriguing-sounding book called Gone with the Wind in the Vatican or Shroud of Secrecy, as my edition has it. Claiming to be the first treatise of written protest from within the Church since Martin Luther’s theses in 1517, the book is a sort of collective memoir-cum-exposé published by an anonymous group of Vatican prelates, calling themselves the Millenari, in Italy in 1999.

One of the group, Monsignor Luigi Marinelli (whose anagrammatic last name makes you wonder quite how many other people were in the Millenari), has since acknowledged his involvement in the book’s production. He has been investigated by the Roman Rota, the Vatican’s court, which also sought to recall the book from Italy and restrict its publication in translation – a controversial move, given that Italy is a separate sovereign state. Clearly, I had to see what all the fuss was about.

Right from the start (in the subtitle, in fact), the book sets out its mission to tell ‘the story of corruption within the Vatican’ and propose measures to help the secretive and hierarchical institution ‘cleanse what has become a festering wound’. It then proceeds to allege that almost every kind of malpractice and intrigue – blackmail, fraud, sexual favours, masonic links, spying, drug abuse, and even Satanic rituals – is rife among the elite clergy at the top of the Holy See, leaving those who want to advance their careers no option but to play the same game.

Crucially, unlike many works that criticise the Church, the book is written from a standpoint of belief both in Christian theology and in the potential of the institution. In fact, the authors go out of their way to demonstrate their faith, larding the text with quotations from scripture and even likening themselves to biblical prophets. At times, this repeated self-justification takes on a panicky air – although this is perhaps not surprising when you consider the power of the institution they are up against.

The most compelling passages of the book centre on the descriptions of the mechanisms within the ‘dictatorship’ of the Holy See and the way ‘the diplomacy of the Vatican immediately influences any states with which it has diplomatic ties’. At times cynical and sardonic, the narrative voice cites numerous instances of favouritism and petty rivalries advancing the careers of unsuitable (and often unqualified) candidates and blighting the prospects of deserving clergy. Perhaps most chilling of all are the allegations surrounding the way those high up in the hierarchy control and manipulate the Pope for their own ends:

‘To create a power vacuum at the top, they encourage the Pope to immerse himself in apostolic visits. […] Once back in Rome, bewildered and dazed by the rush of the crowd, ears still ringing with delirious hosannas, it is virtually impossible for the Pope to discover the intrigues of the court. […] When the Pope returns, steeped in glory, he is too tired and distracted to notice the insidious conspiracies hidden in the documents he signs. Everyone drafting the documents knows that the aging Pope won’t absorb the notes on the report.’

Perhaps because this is ‘a book of many voices’, the tone of much of the work is inconsistent, veering between the declamatory, the technical and the downright sensational. While some of the instances cited involve names and verifiable information, many of the anecdotes included are anonymous, and written more in the tone of salacious gossip than hard fact, so much so that I found myself wondering whether the writers’ assertions about favouritism said more about their frustrated hopes for their own careers than about the mechanisms themselves. There are also numerous references to miracles and revelations that non-Catholics will find hard to credit.

Nevertheless, as a window into a closed and mysterious world, this is a fascinating book. Accurate or not, it is also clearly a very brave work. No doubt it’s one of the more unusual texts I’ll encounter this year.

Shroud of Secrecy: The story of corruption within the Vatican (Via col vento in Vaticano) by The Millenari, translated from the Italian by Ian Martin (Key Porter Books, 2000)

Italy: beyond the #stopkony effect

The power of compelling storytelling has been demonstrated this week. Within hours of the release of Invisible Children’s KONY 2012 film urging the world to ‘stop’ Joseph Kony, leader of Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army, by lobbying for his arrest, the subject was trending on Twitter, clogging up Facebook feeds and scoring Youtube hits in the millions.

The premise of the film is simple. Director Jason Russell exposes the atrocities of the rebel group, which has recruited and brutalised 30,000 children since its inception in 1987, through the story of one former child soldier, Jacob, whom he met while visiting the country as a student nine years ago. The sucker punch comes in the form of a description of the actions of Joseph Kony to Gareth, Russell’s young son, who, on hearing about the deeds of the ‘bad guy’ for the first time, declares that we must ‘stop him’. The issues are so simple and clear-cut, it seems, that even a four-year-old child can grasp them.

However, I suspect Italian journalist Roberto Saviano, author of Gomorrah, which blew open the workings of the Neapolitan mafia in 2006, would advocate a different approach.

Like Russell, Saviano has a personal stake in the story he is telling. In fact, he grew up in the area and watched acquaintances, friends and even his own father suffer at the hands of the Camorra, which metes out a level of violence that Saviano claims has hurled the region into a covert civil war.

His passion for his topic is evident. He knows the power of the personal story every bit as well as Russell does and uses it again and again to bring home the horror of life in the region. We hear of teenagers caught in the crossfire, priests executed for speaking out, beheadings, burnings, flayings, and even the clan member killed by having his mouth and nose stuffed with sand. Indeed, Saviano goes much further than Russell in his attempt to paint a vivid picture, having witnessed the aftermath of brutal murders many times. ‘I believe the only way to truly understand, to get to the bottom of things, is to smell the hot breath of reality, to touch the nitty-gritty,’ he writes.

The individual accounts, though, are only one aspect. Packed with facts, figures, names and details — the result of years of painstaking research — the book traces the web of power in which the region is entangled, revealing how the Camorra controls 50 per cent of Naples’ shops, as well as Campania’s rubbish collections, milk distribution, music festivals, factories, construction, the merchandise it ships all over the world and even parts of the global fashion industry. Saviano’s aim, he says, is to ‘pull the threads of the economic knot one by one to arrive at the criminal head’.

He also contextualises his accounts, providing a rounded picture of Camorra life — from the complex codes that govern the clans’ relations with women and religion to the bizarre copy-cat effect that films like The Godfather have had on the gangsters. At times, he almost seems to feel compassion for the clan bosses, who enjoy a brief reign in the full knowledge that they will soon be overthrown and murdered, writing of the ‘suffering and solitude of a man who must always think he is about to be killed’.

Set against this are the ambulance-chasing reports of the world’s media, which arrived to cover a particularly bloody conflict between clans in 2005. Ignorant of the context and character of the world they are covering, the journalists tear through the streets in search of ‘the worst possible story in the shortest possible time’. In extreme cases, their camera lenses seem to accelerate the horror, goading the gangsters to even greater shows of machismo and ‘the war kills quickly, out of respect for the reporters’. The desire to condense what is a complex and far-reaching crisis into a simple narrative of goodies versus baddies appears to do more harm than good.

Not long after the publication of the book, the Camorra set a bounty on Saviano’s head and he was forced to go into hiding, where he remains to this day. No doubt, if someone asked him if he would like to ‘stop’ the Camorra, he would say yes. But his book shows that the only way we can hope to tackle such entrenched and widespread criminality is by tracing the roots of the problem, understanding its context and the complicity of everyone involved in it, including ourselves.

Arrest one clan boss and there’ll be another one tomorrow. And, who knows, he may be worse.

Gomorrah by Roberto Saviano (translated from the Italian by Virginia Jewiss). Publisher (this editon): Pan Books (2008)