Talking of books

Written by  Gianni Venturi
A selection of books from Ferrara bears witness to the city's rich and lively literary culture
Among the city's myths that nevertheless contain a grain of truth, one of the most widespread and gratifying is the concept of ferraresità as a favourite element in our authors' writings.

As usual, both those who support this idea and the equally convinced nay-sayers point to aspects which have little to do with writing fiction: the fact of being born and living in the town or the province, and the cultural atmosphere absorbed in a town, which has been so crucial to national identity.

Giuseppe Pederiali, in Camilla ed i vizi apparenti, Garzanti, 2004, describes the investigations of his police woman heroine Camilla Cagliostri in a Ferrara which, like the Modena of the preceding book, Camilla nella nebbia, becomes the symbol of private vices and public virtues.

Of course the author, who is familiar with the atmosphere of Ferrara and its 'aura' of gossip, resentments and grudges, has written a barely-disguised thriller with the city itself as the chorus, a city in whose characters we recognise its inhabitants with their major and lesser identities. The heart of the novel is the corrupt environment underlying this Ferrara society which is described as decaying and addicted to dangerous games.

The setting, the long familiarity with and loyalty to themes related to the city, her interest in history and stories all make Gianna Vancini's Testimone d'amore, Este Edition, 2004, a pleasant surprise. The family events which take place over a period of a hundred years, from 1854 to the years following the Second World War, are linked by a 'witness of love' which is none other than a reproduction of Raphael's Madonna della seggiola.

Alongside and together with the events of daily life, the author presents the unfolding of History with parallels in an 'Emilian' story which moves from the love affair between Charles III Bourbon and Argia, and the echo in Ferrara of the horrors which led to the Second World War.

Il Signore degli occhi, Frassinelli, 2004, must be acknowledged among Roberto Pazzi's finest achievements. It tackles an extremely complex subject, not just formally but also thematically, returning, at a time which prefers to present history as a story of facts and events, to the romantic dilemma of seeking to discover the unfathomable human spirit through metaphysical meditation.

Enrico Magnoni, powerful president and head of the Italian government, confronts his own destiny during an existential crisis brought on by the sight of the preserved mummies of the ancient Pharaohs in a Cairo museum.

He decides to renounce the world and retire to the monastery of Sant'Ulrich, chosen for him by the Pope, following the strict Cistercian rule to confront and resolve the problem and awareness of death.

But, and this is the most fascinating narrative device in the novel, he records his new existence in a diary while he waits his meeting with God. This is another of the challenges taken up by Pazzi: having the protagonist, a man of power, tell the story of his conversion, or failed conversion, the outcome of which is only revealed at the end of the book and which we will obviously not divulge here.

From the model, clearly inspired by a well-known politician, who has made his mandate a life choice, relying on the immense media power derived from his television stations, the eye of the world, the writer describes a conversion which comes not through what the eyes can see but reflected in a world, the world of the monastery, the mountains, the fantasy life which unfolds in that isolated place which is the absolute opposite of the television's gaze.

The unusual plot of the new novel by Diego Marani, L'interprete, Bompiani, 2004, see his raw intuition dive into a literary and cinematographic mix of outstanding denseness and quality.

The anguished and distressing story of Félix Bellamy takes place in suspended time and in an apparently 'real' space, dealing with the adventures of its protagonist from Geneva to Tallinn, where reality dissolves into a nightmarish dream (or is it reality?).

The civil servant who chances to meet an interpreter who poisons his mind through the search for a primitive language, the language of dolphins or, better, an ur-language from the earliest days of man, and perhaps even earlier than the Tower of Babel itself, is presented to us via a majestic reference to Kafka's Metamorphosis.

The passage of the interpreter from human to animal, because the sound of a language uttered from a Dantesque maw demands a metamorphosis, has moments of extreme, dark beauty, just as the protagonist's attempt to find a cure at Doctor Barnung's clinic in Munich, recalls the Thomas Mann of The Magic Mountain, the most disturbing and sublime book ever written about the concept of 'illness'. Marani is a cultured writer, well-read and with a ready eye for drawing inspiration from other sources, not merely linguistic.

Gian Pietro Testa is a leading thinker in the cultural milieu of Ferrara. In Lettera semiseria di un comunista al Signor Dio, T editore, 2004, he tackles one of the most crucial issues in contemporary debate, at a time when atrocities continue to be committed and war to be fought in the name of a cruel and vindictive god: a paternal god who demands obedience from his children even if it means martyrdom and slaughter.

In 1959 Garzanti published a book still remembered today, I moralisti moderni, edited by Alberto Moravia and Elemire Zolla. Moravia's introduction provides a starting point for discussing the present book. Moravia wrote (and this 45 years ago) that morality had disappeared because "there can be no morality without a conception of man, or without some kind of humanism".

Reading Testa's bleak pages on the end of the idea of man and the values of humanism, we can understand that this interrogatory letter to the god of armies and war is, once again, not so much a profession of atheism as a search for the absolute, for a lost religiosity and for the absent man-god, Christ.

The style is woven from that lost rhetoric of speaking and writing which reaches beyond humour and satire, to the helpless outpourings of one who still believes in the formative value of Utopia, as a way of thinking which, despite everything, dreams of a better world in which to place "all those who in their lives have suffered, have served others, or have sacrificed themselves in the hope of achieving a better and more just society".