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BOOK REVIEW / Free spirit burnt at the stake: The Chimera - Sebastiano Vassalli, Tr. Patrick Creagh: Harvill, pounds 14.99

THERE WAS a time in his rash youth when Sebastiano Vassalli was involved with an avant garde group that included such luminaries as Umberto Eco. Later he turned his back on this approach, wondering whether there was any value in the heavy, inaccessible novels he had himself dutifully produced in that period.

Storytelling, the art of narrative, the cult of traditional forms and a veiled social concern are among the features of his recent novels. The Chimera is a historical novel set in 17th-century Lombardy, dealing with witches and inquisitions, and specifically with the systematic cruelty of the institutions of the time towards a young girl convicted of a crime which could not exist.

Suspense not being one of the features Vassalli cultivates, by the end of page three the reader is aware of the main outlines of the story. Antonio is a foundling abandoned in a convent in Spanish-occupied Novara, where the writer himself now lives. She is eventually adopted by a peasant couple from the now vanished village of Zardino, is later denounced as a witch by the parish priest, hauled before the Inquisition, tortured and burnt at the stake.

In his style and approach, Vassalli is self-consciously treading paths which will be more familiar to Italian than to British readers. By common consent, the great novel in the Italian tradition is Alessandro Manzoni's 19th-century classic, I Promessi Sposi, and the parallels between Vassalli and Manzoni are deliberate and omnipresent. Manzoni's novel is set in the same historical period, features some of the same characters, highlights the same religious mood when the easygoing Church of the Renaissance gave way to the fanatical, inquisitorial zeal of the Counter-Reformation.

This element may provide an extra frisson, but there is no need to be familiar with Manzoni. The approach of the two is in strident contrast. Manzoni was a believing Catholic with an unshakeable belief in a benign Providence which lurked behind the most malign of events, while Vassalli is a modern atheist with weak convictions that certainly do not include a transcendental scheme of things. Few modern writers have, however, such power to describe evil in action.

Vassalli is keen to present the unfortunate Antonia as an unremarkable girl of her time caught up in matters beyond her control and treated according to agendas she could not understand. However, the answers Antonia gave to the Inquisition suggest a figure of unusual spirit, wayward religious views and independent mind. A different novel could be written around her, but Vassalli's interest is more in the forces that crushed her than in individuals.

The most memorable figure is neither Antonia nor Manini, the Inquisitor, but the Bishop Bascape. Vassalli seems to change his assessment of him along the way, treating him initially as a figure of fun, satirised for his obesity and career disappointments as he is expelled from Rome to the backwater of Novara. Then Bascape becomes a figure of greater poignancy as he realises that his youthful hopes for reform and improvment of the Church will be disappointed, that the revolutionary impact of his hero Carlo Borromeo has been subtly undermined by his canonisation, and that his own life has been made futile by the scheming in which he had indulged with such vigour in his youth.

Vassalli guides the reader through history in the leisurely style of Walter Scott, maintaining the tone of the chronicle, but keeping himself firmly in view. He steps forward to indicate the spot where, in the midst of the today's motorway hubbub, the village must have stood, to recount his own researches into the artist who used Antonia as model for a Madonna, to discuss the working conditions of the men who toiled in the rice fields and to wonder over the savagery of the men who behaved as did the Inquisitors.

As is the way with historical novelists, Vassalli sketches yesterday with today in mind. Today, the author writes, 'there is no story worth telling' since the babble of voices each yelling 'me, me, me]' creates a chaos which can be understood only from the perspective of the past. The past may have been dominated by the church and the present by politics, but the inhumanities, the cruelties, the compromises, the bureaucracies, the squabbles between provinces and capitals remain unchanged. This novel has a remarkable feeling for the fictional time it describes, as well as a sharp eye for matters which are not limited to any time.