An attractive debut that begins as a lightly comic biography of the young Beppe Arpino, then gradually accumulates a sober gravity before ending in Arpino’s attempt to assassinate the prime minister of Italy, Benito Mussolini.
Il Duce’s name is never mentioned, and the political climate of 1930s Italy is only a vaguely menacing shadow behind the life and trials of Arpino. Fatherless and from a poor family, young Beppe is taken under the care of the benign Father Vincenzo—and the comically exaggerated atmosphere of the priest’s home marks this as a European coming-of-age story that will notably leave grainy realism behind. Though a man of the cloth, Vincenzo introduces Beppe into his twin lifelong fascinations: cello-playing and dentistry. A book, aptly called Teeth, serves as Vincenzo’s personal bible, and when Vincenzo abruptly dies, Beppe seeks out its author, one Dr. Puzo. Puzo, a health and hygiene fanatic, recognizes young Beppe’s love of all things dental and enrolls the boy in the Naples Institute for Dental Arts even as the prodigy’s talent for the cello begins to blossom. After unexpectedly rescuing the son of a Neapolitan notable, Beppe is brought to the home of Alfredo Perelli, who is anxiously seeking a suitor for his beautiful daughter Angelina. Here, also, Beppe meets Linati, an unscrupulous publisher to whom Beppe presents Puzo’s masterwork, a report on the health of the Italian people, written expressly for the prime minister. Linati, now a favorite in Mussolini’s government, destroys the document for its condemnation of Italian hygiene, just as Angelina begins to have second thoughts about marrying Arpino. These assorted excruciations drive Arpino to make an unsuccessful attempt on Il Duce’s life—with disastrous results.
Though clumsily farcical in its first half, Rossi’s tale succeeds in touching the reader with its melancholy blend of nicely observed domesticity, youthful idealism, art, and love, all amid the indifferent momentum of history.