An unnamed sailor, stopping off in the northern Italian port of Oggebbio on Lake Maggiore in 1946, is drawn into the shadowy world of a villa owner who befriends him.
The 30-ish sailor, who is returning to this area of grand old houses and lush gardens after having been a war refugee in Switzerland, is free and unattached. His new companion, Orimbelli, who invites him to stay in his villa, lives with his "schoolmarmish and snooty" older wife and widowed sister-in-law. While taking Orimbelli on recreational cruises to various ports and islands, the sailor becomes involved in a series of erotic adventures with women who join them along the way. Among them is a married woman the sailor regularly visits but whom Orimbelli can't resist seducing in the sailor's absence. "Maybe he wasn't a demon…but a poor man shaken up by the wars," the sailor rationalizes. "I knew it wasn't easy for him—or me, for that matter—to be any other way, or to be better." We learn that Orimbelli has an improper interest in his sister-in-law; he knows as she does not that her husband, who went missing during the war, is alive and wealthy in Ethiopia. First published in 1976 and made into a 1977 film starring Ugo Tognazzi, the late Italian novelist Chiara's brief masterwork turns insinuation into high art. Beneath the dead calm on the lake and the sensual tranquility of the surrounding villages, darkness lurks, as if the horrors of war went underground. "One can't escape here," says the sailor before attempting to do exactly that.
A first-rate book that is both a moody suspense novel and a haunting allegory.