Coppi's Angel, By Ugo Riccarelli, translated by Michael McDermott

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The Independent Culture

Enzo Ferrari is mesmerised by the young racing driver Guy Moll; the great cyclist Fausto Coppi is bewitched by the lad on a heavy old bike who overtakes him on a punishing climb; a priest is party to a magical-realist twist in the 1949 air crash that wiped out the Torino football team.

Clearly, the most fruitful way of approaching historical fiction is to forget the history and stick to the fiction, for the deeper truths you trust it to uncover. But it's all too easy to succumb to a drip-drip anxiety about its literal truth or otherwise. Each sentence, the same question: how much of this happened and what's made up?

In this Chiara Prize-winning collection, Ugo Riccarelli takes a Gordian-knot solution to the problem with an appendix of potted histories. If you aren't already familiar with the characters or events, though, there's a dilemma: do you read the primers first and come to the stories prepared, ready to subject them to an historical checklist, or savour the narrative and leave the history lesson for later?

The correct answer, I imagine, is the latter, though this reviewer cheated. Does it matter, though, whether a nurse called Jesus Joao Da Costa actually turned up for work one day and found himself tending the body of Garrincha, Brazil's god of the right wing? Pier Paolo Pasolini, film director and football fan, starts a boys' team in his native Bologna. But is it relevant whether the asthmatic teenager Spino and his team-mates, Brutto, Zoppo and Pugnetta -Ugly, Lame and Punchy - really existed? Not at all, such is Riccarelli's sensitivity and sureness.

He writes about figures who transcend sport, all predating the loathsome modern period, when sport is either capitalism's arm candy or just another spin-off of celebrity. Sport is also a fertile breeding ground for metaphors for life, but Riccarelli is more interested in the sporting greatness/ human weakness play-off.

Some tales are reasonably straightforward: the tragic story of the Kiev footballers (which inspired the film Escape to Victory) is the kind of account you'd give to friends. Others are filtered more through Riccarelli's rich imagination. But whatever the particular blend of fact and invention, there is no story here that doesn't resonate. Or: How I Learnt to Relax and Stop Worrying About the Importance of Literal Truth in Historical Fiction.

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