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Alessandro Baricco: City (City)

After Setà (Silk), readers were expecting more of the same with this novel. They were disappointed. It is original and inventive, of that there is no doubt, but it lacks the charm and sparse simplicity of its predecessor. In many ways, it is like a cartoon – think of Jay Cantor‘s Krazy Kat – though it still has something of the fable about it, as well. Indeed, it starts with Ballon Mac, a blind dentist superhero, who appears in a publisher’s comic series. His mother is called Mami Jane and the publishers have come to the view that Mami Jane has to die. Before killing her off, they decide to allow readers to give their views and hire a series of people to answer the telephone and find out whether the readers do, indeed, want her to die. One of the people they hire is Shatzi Shell. She, like all the others, has been told to ask one question – Do you want Mami Jane to die? – and nothing else. However, she engages in long discussions with the callers. As a result, she is fired, but not before having established a relationship with the caller, a boy named Gould, who will be thirteen the next day.

Very soon, she is working as a governess for Gould. Gould is a boy genius, destined to win the Nobel Prize (he is brilliant at maths, though there is no Nobel Prize for maths). His mother has left and his father, an army general, is working away from home, so Gould is on his own. He has two friends, the giant Diesel and the mute Poomerang, who we soon guess are imaginary friends. It is Poomerang who has communicated (by phone) with the general, pretending to be the governess. As both are mutes, there is, of course, no conversation, though, in the Italian, Baricco uses the form nondisse (i.e. notsaid) for his conversations. Shatzi is soon hired, not least because she can speak (though her conversations with the general are often bizarre), despite the fact that the employment form she has to fill out has strange questions to which she gives strange answers.

There are three main plots in the novel (though many subordinate ones). The first concerns Gould and his education He is educated nearby and has twenty-seven teachers, though his favourite is the maths teacher, Mondrian Kilroy, who looks Irish but is not. Kilroy is a specialist in curves and we are given a very long explanation of his views on Monet’s Water Lilies and Monet’s attempt to create nothingness in this painting. Indeed, one of the reasons why this book may be less successful than Setà (Silk) is because of these many long-winded and convoluted asides. Gould has varying interests, including football and boxing and the (imaginary) boxing career of Larry Gorman, later known as Lawyer, which we hear about through the bathroom door, again in considerable and often too drawn-out detail, is another of the main plot strands.

Shatzi herself provides the third main plot strand. She is thirty years old and an admirer of Eva Braun (whom, to her disgust, she finds out is the lover of Hitler and not, as she thought, Hitler’s daughter.) She is very keen on the Western and is currently writing one. (In her discussion with the general, she does not distinguish between cinema and book.) The plot of the western is the third plot. But things start to fall apart. The general may not be a general. Gould is offered a place at a university and sets off for it but does not arrive. Shatzi’s Western drags her in. Yet, the whole novel, while a certainly interesting attempt, does not really hang together and must, ultimately, be considered if not a failure, certainly not one of Baricco’s great successes.

Publishing history

First published 1999 by Rizzoli
First English translation in 2002 by Knopf