A novel that owed its original publication to Italo Calvino became an instant bestseller on its first appearance in 1977 and was then abruptly withdrawn without explanation by its author. It was not reissued in his native Italy until after his death as a virtual recluse in 2012. Nicola Pugliese’s Malacqua: Four Days of Rain in the City of Naples, Waiting for the Occurrence of an Extraordinary Event is a fascinating enigma even before its contents are approached.
It is not hard to see why this short, intensely allusive work of floods and foreboding (the title’s literal translation: “Bad Water”) appealed to a fabulist writer such as Calvino. Pugliese takes a semi-apocalyptic event – sudden, fatal floods and several days of prolonged rain in Naples (an actual occurrence in the autumn of 1970), a city that lives in reality and the imagination as both maritime and volcanic – and uses it, by means of hyper-realist imagery and a polyphonic chorus of assorted Neapolitans, to describe the state of Italy in the late 1970s.
This was the midway point of the so-called Years of Lead – a period of social and political unrest and domestic terrorism spanning the late 1960s to the early 1980s, which culminated in the kidnap and murder of the former prime minister Aldo Moro by the Marxist-Leninist Red Brigade in the spring of 1978 and the bombing of Bologna railway station by a neo-fascist group in the summer of 1980, the biggest mass killing of the period.
Pugliese’s book – rescued from obscurity first by Casa Editrice Pironti in 2013 and now in its first English-language edition by And Other Stories – could, on surface reading and without attention to this backstory, be viewed as a surrealist oddity. Yet Pugliese’s narrative is epic in intent. It is late October in Naples, and the swiftly rising, ever-present seawaters, the backdrop to a newspaper’s loud lunchtime editorial meeting, immediately take on a diabolical character of their own, from a “stinking motionless pond” to “a dark mysterious susurration like that of people plotting, scheming in darkness”. Italy’s instability, its frailty, is mirrored in the chaos that follows.
At its centre is the introspective, melancholic anti-hero Carlo Andreoli, a bearded journalist in his mid-thirties (Pugliese was at this time a bearded journalist in his mid-thirties). Carlo is the most consistent figure in a book as crowded as Naples, a hapless bystander in history’s undoing, yet also a relayer of facts. Pugliese combines reportage (the unsparing details of corpses found drowned in their own homes, for example) with nightmarish indications of the insidiousness of the new waterscape (“a harsh and predetermined rancour, an irreversible obstinacy”), absurdism (the banal hierarchies of a bewildered bureaucracy confronted with a disaster it is powerless to control) and phantasmagoria (identical wailing dolls that appear near the bodies of the dead, five lire coins that whisper only to young girls approaching adolescence).
For some, such as Luisa Sorrentino, a secretary in the police department, the catastrophe is a catalyst for a much-postponed change in her personal life: “that evening so sweetly autumnal, with all the falling rain defining veils of omertà”. For the teenage schoolgirl Giovannella Speranza, the occasion of the funeral of a fellow pupil, killed when the deluge collapses a road, is an excuse to play truant, meet and make love for the first time with her older boyfriend, while “the methodical neurasthenic rain” falls outside. For the elderly porter Salvatore Irace, looking back on his now-grown children and still further back to his own brutal childhood, the rain represents remembrance and regret: “Because to tell the truth life has fled, now, and sometimes if he and his wife are left on their own there’s always that dark presence.”
Malacqua is a brooding novel, with flashes of brilliance, yet there is a stodginess to it, a vexing impregnability in its lengthy paragraphs, its repetitive musings. Praise must go to its translator, Shaun Whiteside, who has, with care and patience, worked wonders on a book of differing styles and clamouring voices and rendered it considerably more than an excavated curio. Pugliese, writing of and in his time, captures the tropes of the 1970s. The casual sexism, paralysing trade union activity and factory lockouts, the endless smoking of American cigarettes, the putter of the espresso machine, the obsessive clatter of the typewriter: his entwined stories and desperate soliloquies are swept along as so much wreckage in the force of the floods.
Nicola Pugliese. Translated by Shaun Whiteside
And Other Stories, 208pp, £10
This article appears in the 10 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Toddler in chief