Japin (In Lucia’s Eyes, 2005, etc.) follows up two excellent novels rooted in historical fact with a disappointing effort based on his personal history.
An Afterword acknowledges that the author and a beloved female friend are the models for Maxim and Gala, Dutch actors who cross the path of legendary Italian film director Snaporaz (read: Federico Fellini) in Rome during the 1980s. The opening chapters introduce us to Gala in 1966, painting a compelling portrait of a seven-year-old who provokes her father with reckless behavior. Maxim enters in 1976, when he and Gala are cast in a play at Amsterdam’s student theater. This quiet, cautious young man is drawn to Gala, who galvanizes him with her boldness, and their charged relationship is sealed when he nurses her through an epileptic fit. Thereafter, Maxim is constantly reminding Gala to take her medication and fussing over her more like a father than a lover. Indeed, we learn after they arrive in Rome that they don’t have sex, for cloudily explained reasons. Engaging monologues by Snaporaz are interpolated throughout, but the couple doesn’t meet him until nearly halfway through the novel, after some La Dolce Vita–esque interactions with a down-at-the-heels aristocrat who pimps Gala out to a Sicilian doctor and an over-the-hill opera director (read: Franco Zeffirelli) who fancies Maxim. Japin vividly evokes the mingled desperation and exhilaration of impoverished actors on the loose in the magnificently corrupt Eternal City. But it all falls apart once Gala becomes Snaporaz’s mistress. Despite some thematic mumbo-jumbo about “the more limitations you impose, the more possibilities you create,” her self-imposed isolation and inaction—she won’t even leave her apartment for fear of missing his phone calls—never makes sense, and Maxim’s passive-aggressive response is equally baffling. You know a novel is in trouble when you find yourself thinking that the characters’ problems could have been solved by call waiting or a cell phone.
Heartfelt, but murky and unpersuasive.