One of the mysteries of our economic slump is the lack of any seriously threatening radical response. Despite punitive rents, stinging student fees, and endemic unemployment, politicians have little fear of direct reprisals from youth. It was not so a generation ago, neither here nor in mainland Europe.
Giorgio Vasta's debut novel is set in the Sicily of the late 1970s. Its main characters are very young indeed – a trio of 11-year-old boys. The lassitude of Palermo is stifling, but their imaginations have been caught by wider events. The kidnapping of the former Prime Minister Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades has stunned the populace and it remains transfixed by the revolutionary communiques at the centre of an ongoing media storm.
Despite their tender years the boys are ideologically inclined. They pore over the communiques and their language of apocalyptic transformation. They decide to shave their heads and to adopt new names: Comrades Nimbus, Radius, and Flight. They invent stylised, coded body language for themselves, and elect to take up physical training in order to ready themselves for action. Nimbus is our narrator, but it is Flight who emerges as a pitiless autodidact to dominate the others. Soon they begin to plan incidents of terror, indifferent to bourgeois moral concerns. In due course an abduction of their own is on the agenda.
Vasta's novel is ambiguous in its deployment of its youthful cadre. They are convincingly imbued with the subversive outlook of boys and yet the intellectual depth of their political stance means they are not entirely credible as children. Rather, they are an elastic metaphor for febrile adult anxieties.
Vasta is confident enough to opt for a slow, steady build-up to the novel's main action. He sets out an engagement between Nimbus and the world around him that manages to be both intense and alienated. This includes an unsettling portrayal of Palermo's poverty, with crippled cats, heat, and swarming slums.
Time On My Hands can be seen as a politicised Lord of the Flies. It bears comparison with Lindsay Anderson's classic film if..., in the ways it recasts the radical struggles of the 1960s and 1970s with juvenile participants. This is sophisticated, fascinating fiction.