The progress of an emotional and physical “crack-up” is traced in meticulous and spine-tingling detail in this accomplished 1997 Italian novel.
It sticks closely to the daily routines, thoughts, and increasing fears of Luisa, a 60-year-old unmarried accountant who works for a toy-making firm. The story begins with a “vertiginous” waking dream of being trapped in a building without walls or floors, and then quickly segues into a series of unspecified disturbances: a sudden panic attack while lunching in a comfortable restaurant; repeated “nuisance” phone calls in which no voices are heard; the sight of a beautiful black cat struck by a car, its spine broken, slowly dying; a doll that seems to adopt differing, menacing facial expressions and postures. Piersanti varies the novel’s claustrophobic intensity with Luisa’s fragmented memories of her ebullient, loving father and especially her former lover Bruno, out of her life for the past ten years. When Bruno unexpectedly visits, to reclaim an old photograph, they’re cordial, but Luisa cannot bring herself to what seem to be his advances. Thereafter, her vague apprehensions of something threatening her multiply alarmingly. “Perhaps in her body, without her being aware of it, a terrible battle was taking place against disease and the brain had other things to do than follow its ordinary controls.” Or perhaps she’s the quarry of an entity described by the woman co-worker who has seen it in a current film: “The Nothing that Advances.” A tendency toward repetitiveness in the final fifty or so pages has the unfortunate effect of relaxing the tension just when we feel it should be ratcheting up unbearably. Still, Piersanti’s firm concentration on Luisa’s vulnerability and her surrender to hallucinatory fantasies keeps the reader’s attention riveted.
The first of Piersanti’s several novels to reach English translation. May his others follow soon.