I have long lamented the lack of literature translated from Italy, the country of my grandparents. The span between Dante and Umberto Eco is wide, populated with fine writers, though it seems few of them get translated, much less read. Thus, it was with great interest that I approached Francesco Pacifico’s novel, The Story of My Purity.
The blurbs call it a comic novel in the tradition of Italo Svevo, and indeed echoes of Svevo are evident, as are echoes of Pirandello and Aldo Busi. Like these writers, Pacifico fixates on the Italian soul, tortured by Catholicism and lascivious desires. The hero of the book, Piero Rosini, is a pious husband in a sexless marriage, an editor for an ultra-conservative Catholic publishing house, and a former bohemian bent on maintaining his chastity even as he fantasizes about his sister-in-law’s breasts. His staid life is uprooted by the image of his sister-in-law dancing to Elvis, a seemingly innocent gesture that opens up buried desires. These desires lead him to abandon his life in favor of a libertine existence that his lingering faith will never allow him to enjoy.
Pacifico balances the frustrations of his protagonist with a collection of characters that range from anti-Semitic coworkers obsessed with a book revealing the Jewish origins of Pope John Paul II, a father who dismisses his son’s piety, and a gaggle of liberated females who challenge Piero’s resolve. The turns along Piero’s road take him deeper into the life of the sophisticated European libertine, yet each step forward is matched by a step back. As he journeys slightly closer to the precipice of sin, Piero creates an alter ego with which to live out his fantasies, though, as always, the foundation of religious faith proves unshakable.
As funny as all this is, and as much as the reader roots for the protagonist, Piero is not exactly a sympathetic character. Lacking true depth, he waltzes through people’s lives making promises he cannot keep. Early in the novel, Piero befriends an ambitious writer by promising publication that he is well aware will never come. Why lie to this poor sap? Well, because he represents something: the release of Piero’s obligations, a rebellion against the confines of his job, marriage, and religion. But Piero’s exodus out of his devout lifestyle is more like a tourist wandering through preapproved landmarks. In the end, the casual man about town is as trapped as ever, unaware of the events his meanderings have created.
Pacifico does a good job creating a character that is devious, charming, and frustrating. The reader wants to scream at him through laughter. There are moments of joyful hilarity, interesting metaphors, and some damn fine writing over all. But behind it boils a tension that is impossible to ignore and the sense that the whole book will fall apart. That it doesn’t is worth noting; Pacifico is a skilled writer who reigns in the story just as Piero, intentionally or not, reigns in his desires, just when they seem about to explode. The final result will surely frustrate some readers (it’s a bit anti-climatic, though, considering Piero’s behavior, this is fitting), but the portrait of the devout Catholic, torn between lust and a religious dogma impossible to exercise from the soul, is fascinating.
It’s a rare and wonderful book that begins and ends with violence and humor. At the start of Etgar Keret’s The Seven Good Years, Keret is in a hospital waiting for the birth of his first child while nurses, in. . .
Last year, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was an unexpected critical hit. Now, it’s just been published in the U.S. and has already received a great deal of positive critical attention. The Vegetarian was a bold book to attempt as an. . .
It’s been almost a year since the publication of Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, but despite being included on the 2015 PEN Translation award longlist, and some pretty vocal support from key indie presses, the book has. . .
Jorge Eduardo Benavides’ novel La paz de los vencidos (The Peace of the Defeated) takes the form of a diary written by a nameless Peruvian thirty-something intellectual slumming it in Santa Cruz de Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands. Recently relocated. . .
Anyone with any interest at all in contemporary Moroccan writing must start with Souffles. A cultural and political journal, Souffles (the French word for “breaths”) was founded in 1966 by Abdellatif Laâbi and Mostafa Nissabouri. Run by a group of. . .
Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished. . .
Like any good potboiler worth its salt, Fuminori Nakamura’s The Gun wastes no time setting up its premise: “Last night, I found a gun. Or you could say I stole it, I’m not really sure. I’ve never seen something so. . .