Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention of writing a novel himself. Written in three parts, the novel narrates Ilja’s days as a Dutch foreigner in Genoa, describing the beautiful city which both frustrates and enthralls him. Unlike his own country, which runs systematically and smoothly, Ilja praises Italy for its “improvisation,” causing Italians to be “the most resourceful, resilient, and creative people I know.”
Often holed up in a bar enjoying an aperitif and claiming to write poetry, Ilja assumes the role of careful observer, creating caricatures and recording the stories of those around him. As a foreigner himself, Ilja presents us with a character who is simultaneously within and without— though he has seemingly mastered the Italian language, and purchased nice Italian suits beyond his means to traipse around the city in, Ilja is never fully integrated into the Genoese world he adores. He even identifies with tourists, describing their behaviors in connection to himself: “Incomprehension and insecurity are written all over their faces as they hesitantly wander around the labyrinth. I like them. They’re my brothers. I feel connected to them.”
And yet, he is not the only character to remain foreign in the beloved city. Ilja befriends illegal immigrants from Morocco and Senegal, for whom this new life in Genoa is simply an impoverished perpetuation of the fantasies of their homeland. Like most poor men who have arrived from African countries, their families raised, borrowed, and loaned funds to send them to Europe in hopes of finding immediate riches. Rashid, a Moroccan, tells Ilja about the expectation that he will return to his home country with a new car and Rolex for each member of his family, but in reality is selling roses on the street for a euro a piece, all while borrowing money to send home so that his family can continue believing otherwise. Rashid tells Ilja that he “live[s] in a fantasy,” and “not even one I made up myself.”
While the novel could be a meditation on these seemingly irreconcilable forces of fantasy and reality, and struggle and success within a foreigner’s quest to assimilate, Ilja comes across too many characters of wildly different backgrounds to draw on such concrete themes. Don, a local celebrity who lives out of a hotel room and whose occupation appears to be drinking all of the mostly-gin and tonics in the city is, while handsy, an extremely well-liked acquaintance. Ilja also tells the stories of Walter, a young director who attempts to buy a theater with him, and, of course, “the most beautiful girl in Genoa,” who is the object of Ilja’s attention for the majority of the novel.
With the narrator acting as an author himself, parts of the novel become self-referential: Ilja constantly addresses the reader as “my friend,” calling the text a series of “notes” that will be turned “into a novel someday.” This seems to explain the rather loose narrative, as Ilja’s stories do not seem to come to any conclusive end, but simply act as a mirror for the city and its inhabitants as he observes them. Riddled with storylines of prostitution, affairs with amputated legs, and investments gone wrong, Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer has written a book that gives us an honest perspective into the inner workings of a small but beautiful city. La Superba offers an exotic form of chaos and tragedy, and an extremely truthful image of old Italian life in a postmodern city.
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