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Giuseppe Berto: Il Male Oscuro (Incubus)

Berto’s best known work, this semi-autobiographical novel is an outpouring of many of Berto’s personal demons including, in particular, his troubled relationship with his father. While this theme and the other main theme – the link between psychological and physical illness – are not new, the style is definitely more modern, as it is written in a stream-of-consciousness, confessional style, often likened to a theatrical monologue.

The story is his own. He is an unsuccessful film scriptwriter. We follow his travails in trying to get his scripts turned into films, trying to get his foot in the door, trying to get paid. (It should be remembered that at least part of the reason for the real Berto’s lack of success in this field was that he was considered a fascist.) At the start of the book, his father dies, following an unsuccessful operation. Berto – the character and the author – had always had a bad relationship with his father whom he considered unloving and authoritarian. However, his death plunges him into a depression and leads him to various physical sufferings. Indeed, it is only after the father’s death that Berto starts to feel any compassion for him and feels for his father’s suffering (he had a cancerous tumour) so much that he himself suffers similar pains.

Berto realizes that the solution is through psychoanalysis which leads him into what can best be called an investigation into the human condition and, in particular, the perennial question of what are we doing here and why are we suffering so much. A good part of his suffering, of course, is because of guilt, particularly guilt at his lack of compassion for his father. Irony and even a tongue in cheek approach to situations – which, to a certain degree, recalls Italo Svevo – make this novel even more enjoyable. But what, in the Italian title, is called the dark evil is always lingering.

Publishing history

First published 1961 by Rizzoli, Milan
First published in English 1996 by Knopf
Translated by William Weaver