Meeting the neighbours Umbria style

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

William Riviere
Friday 20 September 1996 23:02

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.

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