An unexpected joy plucked from the pile of proof copies at work, an unknown quantity, that once lit soars and explodes into a moment of pure fiery, glittery elation. The Europa editions are European translations, mostly Italian, that presenting many interesting and obscure books to an English speaking audience. This was another random choice that provided quite a revelation.
Any book that begins with an admission of its own inadequacy and the necessity of its eventual failure: a) appeals to me and gets my intelligence muscles flexing and b) makes it hard to critique. Nevertheless, in the spirit of the novel itself and with my own inevitable failure at hand here is my review.
Vincenzo Malinconico (Malinconico is Italian for melancholy) is a lacklustre and failing lawyer with an ex-wife that uses him for sex, an increasingly ambiguous connection to the low level mafia and a secret junk food habit he shares once a week with his adopted daughter Alagia.
Written with excessive, neurotic and laborious detail, this is a dazzling read, witty and cutting in a rare situation where idiocy and intelligence meet down a dark alley embrace each other and elegantly waltz out of the scene.
This is definitely character driven fiction, Vincenzo is a man at the end of his tether, bored with life and perpetually unpredictable, his anger and invective at his surrounding ironically means he could end up with all he has ever desired. The ‘I hadn’t Understood’ of the title shifts and slides throughout the book as the reader constantly attempts to grab that eel and understand what it is that isn’t understood, it creates an interesting situation where the reader is suspicious of everything they read and can’t settle into the laborious predictability of most books. Vincenzo as a person is quite hard to like: he’s whiny, self-pitying and somewhat of a snob, constantly referencing brand names and fashion designers; but also strangely easy to relate to, his boredom and loneliness subtly redeems Vincenzo, his behaviour is merely a symptom of his tragic centre. It are these very ironies and contradictions that litter the text that made this read something special for me.
The plot has many different strains to it, in addition to those mentioned above, that intersect nicely Vincenzo is constantly being followed and protected by a mafia heavy, his son is perpetually being beaten up, he has an unexpected relationship with a glamorous colleague, an annoying dog next to his office, a neighbour with relationship problems and an 'innocent' client with a hand disinterred from his garden. There’s a lot going on and this doesn’t include the chapters interspersed throughout the book of the narrator’s rants and diatribes on subjects unrelated to the story, as well as a cast of characters that are ridiculous enough to be real, but everything comes together at the end in some deft story telling.
However, the narrative voice can be a tad overwhelming, the reader is so close to Vincenzo’s thoughts it can become suffocating at points and I’m sure the chapters that digress form the story will not be welcomed by some as I’m not sure they add anything; but this is the best thing I have read in a long time.
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