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Milena Agus: Mentre dorme il pescecane (While the Shark Is Asleep)

If you like novels about quirky families, then this may well be the book for you. The family concerned is the Sevilla Mendoza family, which has been Sardinian”since the Upper Paleolithic”. The double name, far more common in the Spanish-speaking world than in Italy, was decided on by the narrator’s father, who is fascinated by Latin America. Indeed, he is an inveterate traveller but travels on his own, not taking his long-suffering wife with him. She is afraid of any risky enterprise. As well as broadening his mind, he has two interests. The first is helping save the world and the second is women. His wife is a beautiful but timid woman. She is aware of her husband’s infidelities but turns a blind eye to them. When she is not working, she paints. Her husband sells her paintings (without asking her), often to his girlfriends, and gives the money to developing country charities. They have two children. The narrator is a lively young woman but not too happy in herself. She has a long-term affair with a married man. He has only kissed her once and then on the forehead. He generally abuses her, spanking her, forcing her to perform oral sex and even making her wear a rope chastity belt which is uncomfortable but moderately enjoyable as it rubs up against her vagina. Her brother is a morose, would-be pianist who is always unhappy, bullied at school and eager to get away. As well as the mother’s two parents, there is also the aunt, the mother’s sister, who has a succession of boyfriends who never seem to work out.

The family has an ambiguous view of God. The father does believes in God but the others are not too sure and vacillate in their beliefs. Religion, however, is there but does not play a big role, certainly not as big a role and love and sex. We meet some of the aunt’s boyfriends. Mauro de Cortes was one of her earliest. However, they split up, he married someone else and had children and then divorced. He starts up again with the aunt but, again, they split up, he marries and has children. Again he gets divorced and again he is back in the aunt’s life. This time it looks as though it might be the right time. Maybe. Before he came back, however, there was Dr Kalevsky. The aunt was not too keen on the doctor but the doctor was very keen on the narrator’s mother and wooed her, bought her flowers, danced with her and, after her death, romantic notes he had written to her were found by the narrator. Then there is the scooter-riding judge. He seems positive till there is another woman on his scooter. The aunt who, apparently, has never spent more than three hours in the company of a man, continues throughout the book with her less than satisfactory affairs, including with Mauro de Cortes who comes and goes. Why don’t you want my aunt? the narrator asks some of her ex-boyfriends. She’s great, they say, but not for me. The narrator is also not too successful in her love life, her one escape from the brutal boyfriend (Mauro de Cortes nicknames him the Sardomasochist) being something of a failure.

The story is told with considerable humour, as you would expect from a good novel about a quirky, dysfunctional family. But it is also somewhat sad, even if it ends on a more or less happy note. All the characters are looking for something – love, in some cases, but also to save the world, in the case of the father, to play the piano for the brother and, all too often, to find something that they don’t know where it is or even what it is, perhaps what we would call peace of mind. But, like most of us, they want love, particularly the aunt and the narrator and they don’t know how or where to find it and that is the ultimate bathos of this novel.

Publishing history

First published 2005 by Nottetempo
First English translation by Telegram in 2014