The Last Man Standing, By Davide Longo, trans. Sylvester Mazzarella

This Italian dystopia brings a new accent to catastrophe

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The End of the World is nigh. Actually, it has been nigh (in literary terms) since HG Wells laid waste to London in 1898 with The War of the Worlds, and the British continued to be Armageddon pacesetters in the cosy catastrophes of such writers as John Wyndham.

Apocalypse these days has become a staple of the cinema. These films, diverting though they are, make few demands on the intellect, and it's up to novels such as Davide Longo's The Last Man Standing to channel a complex doomsday. Unlike Cormac McCarthy's The Road (which left the source of destruction unspecified), Longo stirs into his bitter stew such things as dereliction of responsibility by the political class, the economy in shreds, and even the refusal to address problems of immigration. Longo never identifies the country, but it is clearly the author's Italy.

In 2025, national borders are shut down, banking systems are imploding and gangs of teenage thugs roam the countryside. Longo's subtly drawn protagonist is Leonardo, a celebrated writer and academic whose career and marriage have been terminated by a sexual scandal. Like John Wyndham's post-disaster heroes, Leonardo seeks refuge in an Arcadian retreat: he is owner of a secluded vineyard. But there is no peace here. His problems are compounded by the fact that his wife has left in his care his daughter Lucia and the child of a later marriage. Leonardo and his charges begin a nightmare odyssey across a ruined landscape. In the course of the journey, he will encounter horrors quite as unspeakable as those McCarthy conjured.

Arriving in a pungent translation from Sylvester Mazzarella, this is a novel in which precision of language is as crucial an element as the steadily accelerating tension. It turns an unforgiving spotlight turned on an increasingly unstable world. We can only hope that Longo's visionary diagram of our possible future remains on the printed page.