Hall of mirrors

Tommaso and the Blind Photographer

Gesualdo Bufalino <em>Harvill Press,183pp, £9.99</em>


Novels that are overly preoccupied with the intricacies of consciousness can too often feel like a test of the reader's perseverance. This posthumously published novel, by the great Sicilian Gesualdo Bufalino, is an exercise in existential dislocation and, as such, is as intriguing as it is hard work.

The narrator, Tommaso, self-consciously defines himself as an exile, a man hovering at the margins of society. He works alone as the janitor of a crumbling apartment block on the edges of a Sicilian town, and the monotony of the work helps relieve his acute insomnia and his dislike of swarming humanity.

His role, in one sense, is to serve as a kind of chorus, explaining the performance that surrounds him, questioning its purpose and meaning, moving between his roles as "a chronicler, a spectator-cum-actor, novelist of events I have so far observed or experienced in person".

The drama is set almost entirely within the boundaries of the apartment block. Its inhabitants are a bizarre mix of eccentricity and perversion: a tarot card reader who is afflicted with "an untrustworthy son and a flabby belly", a philosopher, a printer and a distressed noblewoman. There is also Bartolomeo, Tommaso's lone companion and the blind photographer of the title, who is paid to take pictures of the rich and famous in naked poses. One afternoon, soon after being hired to photograph a high-society orgy, Tommaso is killed by a speeding motorbike. The mystery of his death - and his earlier refusal to give up the film of the orgy scene - provides the intrigue of the novel, as Tommaso's search for the truth about his friend assumes the dimensions of an obsessive quest.

Tommaso and the Blind Photographer is a book about the entanglement of truth and invention. Its chief weakness is its mannered narrative style, particularly the irritating authorial asides. The audience, as in a play, is gripped by the action, yet remains conscious of a different reality behind the costumes. Tommaso's self-appointed role is to stand in the corner of the stage without ever quite moving out of range of the spotlight. By the end, as he confesses again and again to a penchant for "lyrical notes, psychological ramblings, roundabout orations", you wish for him simply to fall off the stage into the audience.

Bufalino's originality as a stylist, however, lies in the way he allows metaphysical dilemmas to flicker across the pages without ever entirely overwhelming either the reader or the story. He is little known outside his native Sicily, despite the respectful obituaries that followed his death in 1996 (he was 76 and all his work was published in the last 15 years of his life). It is to be hoped that Patrick Creagh's translation of this challenging, if frustrating, novel will help to introduce Bufalino to a wider readership.

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