Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

"L'esercito delle cose inutili" by Paola Mastrocola (Einaudi, 2015)

spoiler alert

Raimond, the first-person main character, was brought up on an island. At the end of his working life he's taken away in a van to the mainland, wanders, meets someone who leads him to a place where lovers of each activity have a place to go (tightrope walkers in field 83; watchers of tightrope walkers in field 84; moon-gazers; melon-cutters who ensure they always have melons quartered in the fridge in case they have visitors, etc). He receives letters that he doesn't read. He's looked after. I thought at first that he might be an illegal immigrant, or that the place, Variponti, was a heaven of sorts. Actually it's a place for useless things - poets; primrose transplanters who try to more evenly distribute primroses. etc. About a quarter of the way through the book we discover than he's an old donkey. He's been distantly adopted by an 11 year-old boy, Guglielmo, who's a bit of a loner - he has posters of crabs on his wall. Raimond has friends - Garibaldi, a sad donkey, and Res, who we discover is a book. Res teaches Raimond to read, though he doesn't let Raimond read him. Raimond's so absorbed by books that he sometimes thinks he's the book's character. Guglielmo's letters are presented to us (Raimond reads them in reverse order). We find out about his family and lifestyle. He's bullied at school, especially when news gets out (via girls) that he has a donkey friend who he sends letters to.

Raimond is restless. Surely there's more to life than idle pastimes? When he reads that Guglielmo's had his head pushed into a toilet he decides to take revenge, somehow (perhaps because his wife drowned). He's no leader and has no plan, but a hoard of them take to the road and walk through the night to find the school. Each finds a way to contribute. Those who steam the stamps off envelopes use their saucepans as helmets. The battle ends up being more like a festival. They charge in, and with the help of an app on Res[o]'s iPad, they identify the bully's gang. Garibaldi administers a humiliating bite to the leadder. Guglielmo wants Raimond to stay with him, but Raimond leaves with Reso who lets Raimond read him. Raimond sees that on the cover is "L'esercito delle cose inutili", that his actions have been predestined. He doesn't want to read the final page.

There are correspondences between Raimond's story and Guglielmo's - I wondered at one point whether Raimond would end up being a product of Guglielmo's imagination. The context gives the author opportunities for snippets of humour and home-spun philosophy.

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