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Letter from Strega: An exuberant feast for voyeurs

ATTENDING the Strega Prize ceremony in Rome is like nothing so much as playing a bit part in a Fellini film. Far more spectacle than literary event, the main purpose of the evening is lo struscio - to rub shoulders with 1,500 or so of Rome's bel mondo. The evening is spent in perpetual motion between tables, struggling through the paparazzi to embrace tearfully this or that finalist and wish them luck: 'In bocca al lupo' - into the mouth of the wolf.

Dripping with exaggerated glamour and indelible suntans, the Strega crowd is an awesome sight. In classic Felliniesque contradiction, this strident finery spreads its colours against the cool cinquecento elegance of the Villa Giulia, with its frescoed colonnades and heavily scented gardens.

Significantly absent this year is homo politicus - not a single Christian Democrat or Socialist grandee graciously displaying his cultural connections is to be seen. In post-scandal Italy, politicians of most hues have become socially unacceptable, particularly Giulio Andreotti, a former Strega fan now awaiting trial as an accessory to murder and for alleged links with the mafia. He clearly judges it wiser not to join in the feast of Spumante and roast porchetta.

Meanwhile, little or no attention is paid to events on stage, where a bizarre mixture of game show and local election is taking place. Some 400 more or less literary figures have the right to vote for the Strega winner - these votes are collected during the evening, to the accompaniment of a deafening countdown.

A strangely humiliating and monotonous process then commences as the five finalists are brought on stage and the votes are read out one by one, marked up on a large blackboard by the ubiquitous lovely assistant. Losing the Strega thus becomes an exquisitely slow and precise torture: as the votes mount inexorably beneath the name of your rival, so the television cameras gradually cease to include you in their close-up shots and your editor's smile freezes over.

Guideo Alberti, sole remaining founder- patriarch of the Premio Strega, defends this apparent dislocation between the genuine literary status of the award and its jackpot format. 'We started the Strega with the aim of bringing decent narrative fiction to the attention of a wider public - and we are succeeding, helped greatly by the television. If this means creating a spectacle, so be it. The result is that a winner can expect a good 100,000 extra sales.' He or she can also expect to be on the front page of all the newspapers and on national television news throughout the following day.

The abashed victor of this 47th Premio Strega, awarded on 1 July, is the 73-year-old Neapolitan writer Domenico Rea, otherwise known as don Mimi or the Magician of Napoli. It is a well-merited recognition of a career carved out against a background of a family who could neither read nor write and an education which finished with primary school. His current book Ninfa Plebea (The Plebeian Nymph) easily outstripped that of his nearest rival, Dacia Maraini, former lover of Alberto Moravia, whose novel Bagheria charts a voyage through her family's past in Sicily.

The financial reward for the Strega is small - a mere million lire, about pounds 500. However, Rea's book, published by Leonardo, a part of Mondadori, adds him on to an august list of winners including Alberto Moravia's Short Story (1952), Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's The Leopard (1959), and Primo Levi's The Wrench (1979). Notable absences include Pavolini, who angrily tried to withdraw in 1968, declaring - with some justification - that the votes were rigged against him, and Italo Calvino, who only made it as far as the shortlist.

Ninfa plebea is a rich fable of southern Italy, where heady Catholic ritual and ripe sensualities are unashamed bedfellows. It opens with the Festival of the Madonna Mater Domini, where the spiritual impulse is soon engulfed by a shoving, Jonsonian crowd of seamstresses, whores and tinkers, gorging on dishes spiced with garlic and pepperoncino which heat the blood to carnal acts. Rea's characters may be poor and spat-upon, but they remain creatures of pure instinct and vitality.

His heroine, a scarcely adolescent girl, undergoes sexual manipulation from just about everybody who crosses her path, a fact of life she accepts with candour. Rea angrily dismisses feminist attacks: 'I am not a person who writes about issues. I came from this life and portray it as it is. To say there is 'a lot of sex' in my book is an inaccurate and irrelevant remark.'

Refreshingly unaware of political correctness, with his Boccaccian imagination and visceral vocabulary, Domenico Rea has set forth an exuberant feast for gourmands and voyeurs.