Sunday, November 4, 2007

Il Disprezzo + Sostiene Pereira

A couple of book reviews ...

1. "Il Disprezzo" ("Contempt") by Alberto Moravia

This is the story from the point of view of a man, Riccardo Molteni.  He
is shocked when his wife (Emilia), after two years of marriage, declares
that she doesn't love him anymore.  In fact, she says she despises him.
And she won't tell him why.  Riccardo is obsessed with trying to work
out why Emilia despises him.

The book is set in the 1950s, a time when Italy was experiencing an
economic boom.  Riccardo wanted to write plays, but he sacrificed this
to work as a script-writer for a big movie producer, Battista.  He wants
to buy a nice, fully-furnished house for himself and his wife.  It's
clear how much of a creative sacrifice this is for Riccardo, when he
describes how the role of the script-writer is always subordinate to the
role of the director.

Riccardo is offered the opportunity to write the screenplay for a film
version of Homer's "Odyssey".  The producer is convinced that Italians
have had enough of neorealism, and wants the film to be in the style of
Hollywood Biblical epics.  Rheingold, the old German director, wants to
take a completely different approach.  He believes that Ulysses (the
main character in the Odyssey) was in no hurry to get back to his wife,
Penelope, after the Trojan War.  In fact, all the obstacles that Ulysses
encountered in his ten year journey had their origins in his sub-
conscious desire to avoid returning to his wife.  Riccardo feels trapped
(like Ulysses caught between Scylla, a sea monster, and Charybdis,
a whirlpool?).  He wants the film to be more faithful to the classical
interpretation of Homer's poem.  But he does see some interesting
parallels between Rheingold's view of the marriage between Ulysses and
Penelope, and his own marriage.

Riccardo, Emilia and Rheingold are invited to the producer's house on
Capri to work on the script.  Riccardo hopes that the stay on Capri will
help him and his wife resolve their problems.

When I started reading the book, I initially felt some sympathy for
Riccardo.  But he is the narrator after all, and may not be the most
reliable witness to events.  His egotism seems to prevent him from
seeing the consequences of his actions.  At times I almost felt to
urge to say "wake up" to Riccardo.

While the subject matter may appear a bit depressing on the surface, the
book is a very interesting read.  The author, Alberto Moravia, has a
knack for writing in great detail about the inner workings of the human
mind.  Recently I reviewed "The Conformist" by the same author, which
was another forensic psychological investigation of a member of the
middle (or, dare I say, the aspirational?) class.

2. "Sostiene Pereira: una testimonianza" ("Pereira Declares: a
    testimony") by Antonio Tabucchi

This novel is set in Portugal in 1938.  Like some of its more notorious
European neighbours, the country has been ruled by a right-wing dictator-
ship for a while.

Pereira lives in Lisbon and is editor of the culture page for a weekly
paper called the "Lisboa".  He's middle-aged, is overweight and suffers
from a heart condition.  His wife has died recently, and he is still

The paper's director is away on holidays, and Pereira decides to hire an
assistant, Monteiro Rossi, to help prepare obituaries for the paper.  But
Pereira deems that Monteiro Rossi's pieces are not publishable in the
current political climate, and so he files them away in a folder, though
he knows he should bin them.  He persists with Monteiro Rossi, paying him
out of his own pocket in the hope that eventually he will write something
useful.  Perhaps he admires the young man's idealism, or sees him as the
son he never had.

It becomes clear that Monteiro Rossi is living dangerously.  He and his
girlfriend seem to be actively recruiting volunteers to fight against
Franco's regime in Spain.

Meanwhile Pereira is concerned that his fondness for fried food and
sugary lemon drinks is affecting his health.  He spends some time at a
clinic by the sea.  The clinic's doctor suggests there is a link between
the state of a person's mind and body.  He also has a radical view of a
person's soul: according to some French philosophers, within a person
there is not one soul but in fact a confederation of souls, each vying
for supremacy.  At any time their may be a ruling ego which dominates.
Pereira seems to have accepted a less controversial variation of this
idea (the existence of multiple personalities within a single soul) even
though it is at odds with his traditional Catholic upbringing.

When Pereira returns to Lisbon, events proceed to their inevitable
conclusion.  Monteiro Rossi is caught by the Secret Police, and is
beaten up and murdered.  But this is not Monteiro Rossi's story, so
it is Pereira's response that matters.

It was interesting to find out a bit about Portugal's political history.
I wasn't aware that Portugal had been ruled by a right-wing regime for
almost fifty years from the 1920s.  It's also interesting to compare
Pereira's actions in this novel with those of the main protagonist in
Moravia's "The Conformist".  Both novels are set around the same time,
and both of the central characters are living under right-wing dictator-

Like some reviewers on Amazon, I found the often-repeated phrase
"Pereira declares" a bit tiresome.  But it's a short book, and well
worth the read.