The Force of the Past by Sandro Veronesi, trans. Alastair McEwen

When cause and effect become a fairy tale

Paula Cocozza
Tuesday 26 August 2003 00:00 BST
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Sandro Veronesi has been at the forefront of the resurgence of Italian fiction. At 44, he counts as a bright young thing. The Force Of The Past won Italy's prestigious Campiello prize and, unlike the stories its central character reads to his son, is unlikely to induce sudden sleepiness.

When the driver of an unmarked car purporting to be a taxi offers Gianni Orzan, the novel's narrator, a suspiciously reasonable fare, he climbs in and submits his life to a transportation he never envisaged. The taxi driver, who has several names but becomes known as Bogliasco, tells him that Orzan's late father was not the right-wing bigot he seemed, but a KGB agent. As he is stalked by Bogliasco and his beliefs are changed, he no longer knows who he is, who his father was, or what their past together meant.

Orzan makes his living as an author of children's tales. It is fitting that he has to unscramble cleverly interwoven layers of fiction and memory - including the adventures of Pizzano Pizza, his award-winning creation - to come up with a re-reading of the past. But the process takes him close to breakdown. Writing itself - filling empty space with text - seems itself an attempt to control uncertainty. There is a preoccupation with type, signs, words and punctuation.

Gianni Orzan is not the only one in the novel to earn a living from writing: his father was a translator, as is his wife. Even Bogliasco is a published author who, at dinner, orders spaghetti in (inevitably) ink sauce, the black smears he wipes from his mouth leaving an indecipherable code on his napkin.

Veronesi hints, too, at the "imprint" (his narrator's word) of generation upon generation. Relations between father and son are a recurring theme in Veronesi's books. To confuse matters further, his narrator, the narrator's late father and the taxi driver all go by the name of Gianni.

The convergence of memory and imagination, and the imposition of order through recollection, are important themes in this, Veronesi's first novel to be translated into English. When Bogliasco first throws the Orzans' lives into chaos, the narrator tries to lull his son Francesco to sleep with stories of "a marvellous world of absolutely clear and reasonable causes and effects". This is "the same world in which we had lived until five hours ago but one that had now become a fairy tale".

But he has told only half his story when he realises that he has sent his son to sleep. This is not just a self-deprecating joke (this is, after all, a funny novel) about the narrator's authorial credentials. When Gianni "reboots" his memory in the closing pages, he does so having come to believe Boscaglio's version of his father's double life. But, as he reverses back through the past, their first taxi ride together has been transmuted into "a flash of fear and a flight": the stuff of fairy tales, a fiction from the moment its truths are accepted. As Gianni says many pages earlier, "Things almost never end when the ending comes."

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