Margherita Dolce Vita, by Stefano Benni, trans by Anthony Shugaar

Italo Calvino meets 'The Simpsons' in a witty, pitch-black Italian satire

Shaun Whiteside
Wednesday 17 January 2007 01:00 GMT
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Margherita is 15 and overweight (her classmates call her "Mega-Rita"), with curly blond hair "like an explosion in a fusilli factory". A bit of a poet, and with a romantic hankering for Hannibal Lecter, Margherita lives on the edge of an unnamed city with her family, a cosily shambolic bunch, cranked up a couple of magic-realist notches: dad Fausto, a meteoropath ("his moods change with the weather"), who never throws anything away; Mamma, addicted to a telenovela called Eternal Love; loutish big brother, Giacinto, and brainy little brother, Heraclitus; and storytelling Grandpa Socrates, whose life is brightened by nightly tangos with Dona Lupinda, a 200-year-old ghost. This is not to mention our heroine's super-mongrel, Sleepy, or her imaginary friend, the elusive "Dust Girl", Polverina.

Their humdrum existence is overturned by the construction next door of a sinister building made of bulletproof glass, known as the Black Cube. Beloved trees are felled, fences erected, and the night echoes with the snarls of an enormous guard dog. In due course, we meet the neighbours, the Del Bene family, who embody everything repellent to the nonconformist teenage sensibility and others besides: the frosty, snob mum, overbearing dad, empty-headed vamp daughter. They even have a butler, for God's sake.

Margherita watches in horror as her family fall under the sway of these ghastly conformists. Dad starts throwing things away, Giacinto turns from belching thug to "cashmere racist" in a bid to win the blonde daughter, Labella, and even Heraclitus is roped in as an enthusiastic tester of computer games. Margherita alone remains unmoved, until she meets the family's hidden son, the mysterious Angelo.

At this point, the book takes a darker turn. As Grandpa has suspected, and Margherita vaguely sensed, all is not quite as it seems in the Del Bene household. The tone darkens as an easy critique of materialism makes way for something much more sinister.

This plunge into blackness is too abrupt, but the journey has been fun. Margherita is a hugely engaging character, and the novel trips along in a lively jumble of jokes, puns and neologisms that must have presented a huge challenge to the translator, and to which Anthony Shugaar has risen with aplomb. Imagine an episode of The Simpsons scripted by Italo Calvino. If that sounds even vaguely appealing, then you're going to love Margherita Dolce Vita.

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