Derek Raymond, the English noir writer whom Interpol knew better as Robin Cook, could spell in at least two languages, as his dystopian novel A State of Denmark proves. Leave aside comparisons to Orwell, with the novel’s imagined totalitarian England run by a media-backed dictator called Jobling, and instead concentrate on the words frazione, presa, and macchia, all present, correctly spelled and placed in context within the first two pages of the novel.
It is Raymond’s attention to detail, and his description of a small post-war Tuscan village which occupies the first part of the book, that is the best thing about this novel, rather than the nightmarish vision he later presents of an England where all immigrants have been expelled, and where Scotland and Wales have turned their back on the United Kingdom.
Visions of English democracy dragged down to dictatorship are plentiful – from Orwell through to the more recent creative efforts by Rupert Thomas, or Alan Moore and David Lloyd, all of which are more convincing than Raymond’s imagined future (set back in the ’70s). But when his view goes backwards, as in his portrayal, of the small town of Roccamarittima, with its characters, customs, and struggle to deal with its recent past under fascism all rings true and is told brilliantly.
For all his spelling accuracy, and keen insight, though, Roccamarittima remains a romantic vision. It may not be the cheery and comic vision – as in Frances Mayes best-selling Under a Tuscan Sun – of a plethora of Anglo-Saxon writers approaching Italy in print, but romantic nonetheless. For Raymond the small town presents a perfect contrast to his intellectually charged but lazy England. Raymond’s Italy is a place of hard work, community, and crucially an absence of state. His protagonist Richard Watt flees totalitarian England to go there, to forget about political engagement and instead to concentrate upon tilling the land, and reaping its scarce rewards.
It is a community on the periphery, where politics is an argument in the bar, and the state, like the weather, is an ominous, unpredictable force that may do good or bad at will but for the most part is simply an inconvenience.
In the same Tuscan setting, though shifted down from the touristy hillsides into the marshy seaside tract that attracts no-one, stretching up towards the more picturesque Ligurian coastline, Niccolo Ammaniti’s novel Steal You Away is set in a small town of Ischiano Scalo.
This is an Italy closer, perhaps, to Raymond’s romantic view than to the various re-locating writers setting up shop in the Tuscan foothills, but it’s still a world away. While Raymond’s protagonist seeks solace in the hard-working community, Ammaniti’s characters can expect only trouble from interaction with their community, one that is in thrall to the media-fed dreams of the Berlusconi era – instant fame, sex, celebrity.
His central character, Pietro Moroni, is a twelve year old boy (all Ammaniti’s protagonists, thus far, have been children) who is heading into a summer that will change everything for him. The other central character, Graziano Biglia is an aging Casanova – an Italian flamenco guitarist, who decides to leave the bright lights of the Adriatic Riviera to return home to re-insert himself into his community. In a novel filled with a multitude of well-fleshed out characters, when Moroni and Biglia’s paths cross a tragedy unfolds.
If Raymond’s novel accurately portrays an Italy struggling with its past, battered and bruised from fascism, Ammaniti’s Italy is one where only the future counts. In the era of mass produced televisual culture everyone in Ammaniti’s book looks to a bright future elsewhere. Raymond’s nightmarish vision of the future is one where the individual is overpowered by the system, by villains in the uniforms of politicians and policemen. It’s a distopian vision where the idea of community is forged through re-education camps and violence. In Amminiti’s novel though there are no real villains – and any violence that occurs is casual and accidental, several cases of ‘in the wrong place at the wrong time’ which build to a crescendo. There’s no need to impose a new society on these characters by force, as they’ve already been seduced by the notion that every moment there’s a better future somewhere down the autostrada – it’s a carpe diem morality taken to its logical, and savage conclusion.
Tags: european novels