BOOK REVIEW / At home with the Fortes: 'The Missing Pages' - Cristina Comencini; trs Gregory Dowling: Chatto, 9.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
IT MIGHT be considered dangerous or dated to express the tension between feeling and intellect by contrasting male and female attitudes, but this elegant novel makes its point while avoiding such reductionism. Though Guido Forte, a workaholic Roman bureaucrat, appears quintessentially male, his flight from involvement involves a cat-like fastidiousness and coyness. He withholds emotion from his family and information from his employees: baffled, they become obsessed by him. What Forte is really lacking is awareness, and that is forced on him when Federica, the youngest of his three daughters, stops speaking.

Federica's withdrawal from speech reflects Guido's own detachment from feeling: understanding 'what can't be understood by thought alone' is a new concept for him. Yet they both have fantasies of relatedness; Federica dreams of an idealised life among indigenous peoples, governed by instinct; Guido has a vision of a silent boy which he misinterprets as a longing for a son. Both need a child to show them a new way of seeing things: Federica finds her own baby son, Guido takes hallucinatory journeys with his dream-child. But there is no easy resolution, all the same. Guido must fall ill and die, Federica will never be able to confront the memory that sparked her illness: the sordid death of her drug-dealing boyfriend. At the heart of the family's dilemma is the tragic psychological aftermath of Fascism: 'If one doesn't want dictatorships,' Guido says to himself, 'one must never be seduced by their outward shows. Never be moved by military marches. Judging means not being seduced and remaining detached.'

In the Forte family, possessions are powerful witnesses, or escape-routes from truth. The paucity of objects and colours in Federica's room expresses her fear of messy human contact. Guido, on retiring from work, gives only one piece of advice to his successor: 'to exchange the velvet curtains for some more transparent material', a change that will represent a reversal of his own obscurantist management philosophy.

The Fortes all mark books as they read them (though their insights are empty): Federica, coming to them last, feels that there is literally no space for her to say anything. Her father's last act is to burn the notebook in which she has written the truth about her boyfriend's death. The underdeveloped heart, it seems, is as much a disease of the Italian middle classes as of the British.