Meeting the neighbours Umbria style

William Riviere enjoys a novel steeped in Italian lore; After Hannibal by Barry Unsworth Hamish Hamilton, pounds 16

The tradition of English writing about Italy is a wonderfully rich one, (good Italian writing about England being disappointingly rare,) and Barry Unsworth's new novel, After Hannibal, is a most welcome addition to it. The scene is set in Umbria, a province which the author clearly knows with an insider's knowledge, along one of the rough roads winding through the hills, muddy in winter, dusty in summer. These roads meander from farmhouse to farmhouse, from hamlet to field, from church to wood and on again, generally petering out just when you thought you were getting somewhere. But getting somewhere, in this Italy and in this novel, is not often desirable and still less frequently possible. And the point about this particular road is that it links the lives of the diverse cast of characters who have their houses dotted along it.

The story is seamlessly told, and it starts with a wall tumbling into this road, and a squabble which in consequence breaks out between a family of local farmers and an English couple who have recently bought one of the linked houses. There are a number of foreigners living along this road as well as Italians not native to the region. And on a superficial level, After Hannibal is about the tragi-comedy of the newcomers' imcomprehensions and set-backs. It is about their ruinous dealings with crooked surveyors, project managers and builders; and about their being saved, some of them, by the splendidly diabolical lawyer Mancini.

Unsworth knows his Italian land law, its delays, loopholes, injustices, absurdities, and uses. He paints a portrait of its speculators and innocents vividly, but there is a lot more to the novel than this.

The two most interesting characters are Professor Monti, a historian of mediaeval and renaissance Umbria, and Anders Ritter, a disillusioned interpreter who after a nervous breakdown has come to live in an old farmhouse and till the land. Unsworth writes well in this novel about a range of matters from Italian painting to Hannibal's victory over the Romans on the shores of Lake Trasimene, from money and mean-heartedness to the Umbrian vegetation and the magic of its sunlight. But he writes best of all when Monti is brooding on the apparently endless recurrences of vainglory and savagery in the history of Perugia; or when Ritter is trying to come to terms with his father's having been an Intelligence Liaison Officer during the war, and involved in the massacre of 335 Italian civilians in the Ardeatine Caves.

Unsworth writes dispassionately about the clans which dominated Perugia when it was a free state, about the cycles of murder and counter-murder - the preferred method generally having been the stabbing by several men of one unarmed man. He writes with the same sombre, direct plangency about the later misrule of the place by Papal Legates.

Here is Monti, musing: "The destruction of the Baglioni houses had signalled the end of the oppressive rule of that lawless and arrogant brood; but the government of priests that followed had been a tyranny crueller, more systematic, far worse. Forced labour, crippling taxes, torture as a customary practice, people shut away for the slightest offence, for no more than a wrong word, in the horrific cells below him, cavities hardly big enough to admit a crawling figure. The iron railings surrounding the Great Fountain in Cathedral Square had been garnished continuously with decomposing heads."

Or the same man, after a seminar: "Of course, there were pitfalls in this game of patterns; one tended to lose the sense of their provisional nature, to believe they expressed a settled truth. Patterns were imposed on the flux of events, they were arbitrary and creative, they reordered the world. It was good if this reordering cast light, but vital that it should soon be discarded or modified or merged into something else. All the great pattern-makers had held on too long - Hegel, Marx, Darwin, Freud. A rigid insistence on patterns was the mark of an arrested mind."

But my favourite is Ritter on his smallholding, with his awareness of "words somehow slithering and twisting away," of how "any madness could win the day in a war of words," hacking his way through the undergrowth down a ravine toward a truth that has lain hidden there since the war.

The strands of this novel are woven together with consummate skill, so naturally tangled thickets and gullies with their secrets are as important in it as they are essential to the charm of the Umbrian countryside.

"Blame and pity blended and became diffused among the stems of the canes, the beauty of their colours. These formed a subtle register of age, going from green through paling yellow to dark ivory and bone white. To several were still attached the dead vine tendrils of some old cultivation, pale brown in colour with a faint purplish tinge, hue of their death. They had curled round and clung and died in this clinging, the ultimate expression of their being. Now they were hard and brittle, like thin bone, impossible to separate from the stem."

After Hannibal is beautifully written, with a strong sense of artistic proportion, and with humour. You don't end up minding enormously about the characters. You end up having been brought to think again about savageries which have been committed, but not being moved by them. On the last page, one is smiling at the genius of an amoral, often helpful lawyer. But Unsworth's dispassionate writing has its strengths, which are objectivity and control, and its virtues, which are irony and sympathy.

Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?