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Antonio Moresco: Gli Esordi [The Beginnings]

The first part of this book is set in a monastery. It is somewhere in Italy, on a hilltop above an unnamed town. Our hero is an unnamed novice. The characters generally do not have names in this book, either identified by a description or their function or, in some cases, by a nickname. The monastery has a vow of partial silence but there are many times when they can and do talk. However, our hero has taken a vow of total silence. As a result, the entire action is seen entirely through his eyes.

We watch him as he stands at key viewpoints observing all and sundry and commenting on his observations in his mind and therefore to us. For example, he seems fascinated by light. He observes the lights of the town below but also of a nearby house. He likes the reflections of the snow and is fascinated by the flickering of the candles in the chapel. He even observes the reflections of the various bits of plastic on the road nearby. We will see the influence of light and light reflections throughout the book.

But of course he also observes people. Relatives are occasionally allowed to visit to see the monks and he observes them but, above all, he observes a man with glasses who is behind the gates but seemingly arguing with the Senior Prefect, a man he knows and we know as Gatto (= Cat), and with the prior. He is finally let in. We later learn that he had been a novice at the monastery but had dropped out just before his ordination. He now wants to return. Gatto and the Prior are not surprisingly reluctant to let him in but, finally, they do. Our hero will continue to observe him as he seems to resume the life of a novice.

Our hero has written something in a notebook, which Gatto sees. He asks to read it and our hero resists but finally consents. Our hero pursues Gatto about it, not least because Gatto is frequently seen carrying the folder containing it and frequently leaves it lying around for our hero to find.

Gatto is fairly key to this part of the book, not least because we also see him more than once in a fist fight with another prefect. We do not know the reason and nor does our hero but it does get violent.

Another thing that our narrator frequently observes is groups of people and how they act and interact. We see this first in the episode mentioned above when outsiders come to visit the monks. Our narrator is standing high up observing the clusters of people moving round. Later he observes the monks having playing football. There are three separate games going on but the pitches are adjacent to one another so much that one game can easily spill over to the adjacent game and sometimes does.

He is suddenly and unexpectedly taken away on a motorbike by a man called Nervo (= nerve). It is a long journey to the mansion in a large park where he is going and where, it seems, his relatives live. One man is called the (but not my uncle but is presumably his uncle. There seem to be two reasons for his visit. The first is that he is to be circumcised. The second is the wedding of a woman called La Turchina (= turquoise woman).

It is here that we get the movement of crowds even more. We have a strange scene where several record players are placed outside in the park and numerous couples dance to the music, drifting away through the park. The wedding itself also has clusters of people moving around, observed by our narrator. Perhaps the strangest one is when Dirce (presumably from the Greek goddess of that name) gets her three children outside, two boys and a girl, completely naked, and then sprays them with a hose. It is strange firstly because the girl, Pesca (=peach) is a sexually mature young woman and this act is observed by all and sundry, our narrator included. Secondly, the reason for it is not clear. To wash them? Can’t they wash themselves?

It is not just humans that we see in these groups. We have doves flying soon after he arrives but then, at the wedding, when the owner wants them to fly, they refuse. We also see groups of captured frogs. We later see bees flying around.

Eventually, he is returned to the monastery. One of the (to me) odd things about the monastery is that though they pray in the early hours of the morning and pray frequently, they do not seem to do much manual labour. The food is prepared and often served by nuns, who also seem to make their beds and do their laundry. When he returns, they seem to have various games such as a snooker table. However, inevitably, there is something peculiar. They have a table tennis table where the game is not played with bats but, without a net, by teams blowing the ball.

The peculiarities continue. He has confession, somewhat hindered by the fact that he will not speak. His confessor had not realised this. They are taken to a distant convent where they hear a performance of the Passion and a very strange performance it is. Another ceremony is the ordination of Gatto, who then moves on. In both cases, we have movements of crowds and strange light effects.

We now move to the second part. The first part was called The Scene of Silence. This one is called The Scene of History. We seem to be with some left-wing group in a remote part of Italy near the border. We do not know what border, only that it is a poor area and there is a lake. It is again narrated by an unnamed person and, again the people are generally not named except by description (e.g. the bald man) or function. As the narrator is a former priest, we must assume it is the same person as in the first part.

Our narrator is instructed is to get to know the whole area (where they might even speak a strange dialect) and drive around holding rallies and generally educating the locals in their doctrine (which we do not learn about). They are driving a somewhat dilapidated plastic car to which they will later add a loudspeaker. Apart from the poor conditions of the roads, their main problem seems to be that the area is almost entirely deserted. They will later exchange this car for a yellow car.

While they do drive around and hold rallies, the various villages seem to be deserted so they are essentially preaching to no-one. La piazza del paese era completamente deserta [The village square was completely deserted] is a not uncommon comment. The bald man has moved on but our narrator acquires other companions. There is a somewhat neurotic but very efficient blind man. He will later acquire a guide dog who turns out to be pregnant.

This group arrives in the fictitious town of Slandia where they witness a pitched battle between a group known only as the warriors, led by a woman who calls herself the Black Nun. They face off against the piumanti. This is not the only time Moresco uses a non-standard Italian word. This article indicates what it might mean and how other people have had problems with it.  Another example of his creative Italian is to use the word graspe to mean grapes (the normal Italian word is uva).  It may be a dialect word or it may be a Moresco word.

Getting back to the battle…  The warriors are brutally violent and slaughter a few of the piumanti.  This is watched by our narrator and another man, who keeps yawning all the time and whose name appears to be Somnolenza (=Somnolence) and who joins our group.  A worker with a blank face also joins them.  I would also mention the man with the hammer and sickle tattoo who pops up and disappears, abandoning his wife and daughter.  We seem to be into Three Men in a Boat meets Waiting for Godot territory.

However, our narrator is soon appointed to another fictitious town, Bindra, to head up activities there.  Inevitably, things are chaotic there.  The building  he is sent to is large, deserted and completely dilapidated.  There is no-one there.  He phones HQ several times but there is no reply.  There is water and electricity but also a lot of mice and spiders. Eventually a man turns up delivering newspapers. He does not know what is going on but he does bring money and does know HQ is no longer where it was.

Our narrator finds many membership applications which do not seem to have been processed so he decides to chase them up.  Most of them either do not answer the door or the people concerned have long since moved on.

One day he finds that a boy has been living in the building for some time, though our narrator had not seem or heard him. This boy turns out to be the deputy of our narrator’s predecessor.  He reveals that they have a car which has no wheels, amongst other problems, but they manage to repair it.  They use it for chasing up members.

Other people turn up.  There is La Signora, a widow who owns the building and who has not been paid rent.  She cries all the time.  Her daughter tries to seduce our narrator.

More particularly, there is Gagà (it means Dandy) who is a member but is more interested in dancing and the opposite sex, though he is very old.  He tells two incredible stories shortly before dying .  The first involves his participation in the Spanish Civil War where he has a one-night stand with the daughter of Rosa Luxemburg.  As far as we know Rosa Luxemburg did not have any children.

The second one goes further back.  He is the assistant to a professor who is an embalmer and, during the Russian Civil War, they are travelling round Russian embalming bodies and, indeed, body parts.  One day they are suddenly summoned to Moscow, though they are a long way from it and then to Gorky. They are taken to a house where they meet Lenin.  They will also meet Stalin Krupskaya and Dzerzhinsky.  Lenin is dying and they need to be there to embalm him immediately he dies.  Things get more complicated when it seems the man in charge is a man called Benno and the chambermaid is Anastasia, the daughter of Tsar Nicholas, who was murdered by the Bolsheviks along with her family.  However, there were for a long time rumours that she had escaped and was living in Virginia.  It turns out that she is here and has a thing for Lenin.  Matters, not surprisingly, get out of hand.

The third section is set in a real city, Milan, and we soon get evidence that our narrator is the same person as in the previous two sections.   We know the date, as Halley’s Comet is seen, which makes it 1986.  He is a would-be novelist, like our author, but his books have been rejected by publishers as too baffling. However, he eventually gets a visit from the emissary of a publisher, saying that the publisher loved his book and wanted to publish it and he was to phone the publisher at once.  He has no phone and has to go and find a working public one.

Not surprisingly, there is no reply to his phone call.  Eventually, he does get through to the publisher’s secretary but she tells him that the publisher has left for a month and he should try again then.  He does, again and again.  The publisher is busy.  He is at a meeting.  He has to dash away to visit a writer. He even gets through to the publisher who tells him to phone back in five minutes. He does and the publisher  has gone.  All the while, he is assured that the publisher is very keen on the book.  It soon becomes apparent that the book is the first two parts of the one we are reading.

Meanwhile, we are observing his local area.  There are models being photographed, a blind couple having oral sex and a pregnant woman who seems to do a lot of washing, despite the fact that she never seems to wear any clothes.  He also starts seeing literary characters, both authors and fictional characters, such as Queequeg from Moby Dick.

Eventually, the secretary suggests he come to the office to meet the publisher but, when he does, there is a party in full swing.  He finds the sectary and eventually finds the publisher, who, to his surprise, turns out to be Gatto, from the first part of the novel.  He now has a limp.

Gatto seems very enthusiastic about the novel, telling him that it already is being typeset (it isn’t) and he is arranging translation rights.  He even sends a biographer round to his flat to get more information. Gatto very much takes him in hand.

Finally, he goes to a party organised by Gatto in which we meet a host of literary characters (real, but dead, such as Cervantes, Pushkin and Emily Dickinson and fictitious such as Bartleby, the Scrivener and Käthchen von Heilbronn).  Pesca from the first part and the nude pregnant woman also put in an appearance.

The first two parts of the book had both ended with the word Yes, the first one as he confirms his priestly vocation and the second one that he wants to become a warrior.  Gatto is now urging him, as a grand gesture, to destroy the manuscript and taking him up the cathedral to throw himself off.  Gatto asks him if he will do it.  The book ends before we get his response.

In the afterword, Tiziano Scarpa, one of the many writers whom I intend to read and review, not least because I have three of his books, compares this work to Beckett and Kafka.  I would throw in The Master and Margarita and Daniil Kharms and indeed any works in the absurdist tradition.  The only Italian writer to whom he seems somewhat comparable is Luigi Malerba and then not too much.  Neither writer has fared as well as he should in Italy.

Scarpa also comments that this is a masterpiece and I am inclined to agree with him.  Clearly, given that Moresco himself was a novice priest, a member of a far left group and struggled to get his work published, we must assume that it is, at least in part, autobiographical.

However, as hinted above, the book does not readily fit into any current Italian literary tradition which may explain its lack of success in its homeland, and perhaps, the fact that it has only been translated into German and not into any other language. However, Moresco has clearly created a brilliant absurdist classic, unpredictable, wandering, vague, witty, clever, going off on strange tangents, with odd characters and strange natural phenomena and a narrator whom we see as often lost in this world, saying yes at the wrong time, unsure of whom he is and where he is going and why, often steered by others but all the time observing the world around him and finding it, as it often is, peculiar and absurd.

Publishing history

First published by Feltrinelli in 1998
No English translation
First published in German as Aufbrüche in 2005 by Ammann
Translated by Ragni Maria Gschwend