Stately, baleful, agonized, and powerfully single-voiced: the quest of Manuel Munoz Munoz, 43, an Italian man who goes to Spain--on a brief, futile search for his dead mother's aura. Aracoeli was the mother, Spanish and naive and married to Eugenio, an officer in the Italian navy. Frequently absent, the father was thus a distant figure, letting Manuelino spend his childhood utterly dominated by Aracoeli--an independent yet superstitious and demanding mother. And Manuel grows up to be an asexual, ugly underground man, obsessed with the long-ago central trauma of his life: Aracoeli's sudden descent into a demonic sexual nightmare, one that led from promiscuity with strangers to prostitution in a brothel, and, finally, to painful death at an early age. During World War II, then, the motherless Manuelino stays in the mountains, safe from the bombings. After the war he returns to Rome--to find his father, now suffering from an all-too-familiar state of terminal disease. Thus, Aracoeli's sexual delirium would seem to be a brain manifestation of the fatal syphilis she contracted from husband Eugenio. And it's little wonder that Manuelino views his own fragile self as merely ""an object of pity, a sort of vulnerable and blameless little animal hurled helpless by incomprehensible Chance into extreme outrage."" Morante's monologous book is very chilling, a work of fateful pessimism from first page to last: it's as if Leopardi had rewritten Proust, memory as an ever-deliquescing function of darkness--in haunting prose, empyrean yet febrile. (""Only a premature death can keep adored bodies from the sordid graves of normality and save the absurd truth from the falsification of logic. At the cost of slandering you and cursing you and denying you, I choose NEVER to admit the announced impossible wretchedness of your last secret. And do I thank you for our puerile intrigue. Your terrible ambiguity--your darkness and deceit, your scandal, your splendor--will accompany me, playing, to the brink of the void. Blessings on you, Mamita, for your alibi."") A work of malediction and helpless love, demanding but rewarding reading--from an authoritative master (History) of international literature.