A Very Normal Man, the first book by Vincenzo Cerami, who is better known to me as the screenwriter for Roberto Benigni’s film Life Is Beautiful, follows the dark turn that civil servant Giovanni Vivaldi’s life takes when he seeks revenge on an enemy. The English title is a dull approximation of the Italian Un Borghese Piccolo Piccolo – a very small, very middle class man.
I have Sue at Whispering Gums to thank for this novella crossing my path. Sue included Isobel Grave’s translation in her October Six Degrees of Separation and we had a chat about it in the comments. I went on a mission to find a copy. This English translation was published by an Australian indie press. I could have bought a copy from them but tax and shipping was more than I could afford. Luckily, a UK bookseller on Abe had a copy.
It arrived on the final day of translated novellas week in Novellas in November and I was still in the thick of Philip Roth’s masterwork, so I’m a week out of kilter with the reading challenge. Not that Cathy is going to reprimand me, of course!
Set 30 years after the end of the Second World War, the novel shows an Italy struggling economically and in a period of civil unrest. Giovanni Vivaldi is working towards his retirement and engineering his son Mario’s employment as an accountant in his government department. The novel opens with a fishing trip in the countryside, where Giovanni hopes to retire, and introduces us to the Vivaldi family dynamic.
Giovanni is an ordinary man, a country boy who rejected farm life and moved to Rome, working his way after the war to become a clerk in the Ministry of Pensions. His life’s project has been to set his son up for a better life than his own, but competition for jobs in the government is fierce, and Giovanni is forced to make a seemingly innocuous choice to improve Mario’s chances.
In a scaled back version of Pierre Bezhukov’s embracing of Freemasonry in War and Peace, at his boss’s suggestion Giovanni joins the Masons. This, his boss assures him, will open up the necessary doors for Mario at the Ministry. After the ceremony, during the welcome speech, Cerami hints at the surrounding events that the novella is set within. The speaker refers to the different understanding of equality that Freemasons hold in comparison with the Communists. Why, in 1975, do the Communists matter to a bunch of civil servant Freemasons in Rome? Because these are the Years of Lead in Italy, a terrorist war between far left and far right groups including the Red Brigades and the New Order. The fascist factions were supported by the Masonic lodge Propaganda Due (P2), where Silvio Berlusconi cut his teeth.
I found this context useful for what happens next in the story. Without being in any way key to the story, the background of violence and anarchy sets up the tragedy that follows. Instead of Giovanni’s plans for his son running smoothly, they are derailed by the two men being in the right place at the wrong time.
Almost precisely halfway through the story, something happens that splits life in two. Although I expected something, I wasn’t expecting what did happen. Giovanni reacts to it by layering on an attitude of getting on with things and not losing control. Beneath the surface, though, it’s a different story.
… inside him a foreign body foamed and festered, growing strong and unstoppable, needing to be heard. But fools like him don’t listen to what’s instinctive, even when it comes more from the head than the heart, as this did.
This foreign body, combined with the change in character that tragedy has wrought in him, answers the silent question, ‘What if I don’t do the expected thing, allow official justice to do its work, what if I take matters into my own hands?’ When the moment for Giovanni to hand the task over to the justice system comes, it’s a combination of paralysis and a need for revenge that sends Giovanni in a different direction.
The revenge he takes is horrifying in its bland cruelty. Giovanni takes to the task in much the same way as he does his work at the Ministry, surrounding it with an outwardly regular existence. It’s hard to understand how such an ordinary man can act the way he does, but I suppose injustice and trauma can unveil the inner torturer.
Cerami builds an exquisite, queasy tension around the question of whether Giovanni will get away with the personal revenge he has taken. There’s no sense of sympathising with him, but I felt an almost panicked urge for things to be resolved one way or the other. Any of the possible outcomes would have been a relief. The outcome Cerami gives us borders on the farcical but manages to remain believable.
For such a short work, this is a tremendous piece of writing. There are parallels with the last book I read, but condensed within a quarter of the pages, and tracking a very different response to trauma.
Rating 4 stars
Unexpected read for Novellas in November.