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Luigi Malerba: Il pianeta azzurro [The Blue Planet]

This book is a distinct change for Malerba. It starts off as a straightforward political novel and not his usual distorted reality, before becoming a Malerba novel, one often considered his best work. The narrator – we learn only at the end of the book that he is called Luigi – owns a flat in Porto Santo Stefano, a resort on the Tuscan coast. He has rented it out before but does not like doing so as he finds it uncomfortable finding even the minor traces of other occupiers, such as fingerprints, scuff marks and so on. He and his family – wife and two sons – stay there during the summer. Normally, they live in Rome. There he had friend, Franco U, a musician. At Franco’s house he met Demetrio, a hydraulics engineer. He did not really take to Demetrio but they all enjoyed playing poker together so they would meet quite frequently. One day they had a row. The discussion was about whether a zebra is white with black stripes or black with white stripes. Demetrio makes a sarcastic remark, at which the narrator takes offence so he decides not to see Demetrio any more. He learns soon after that Franco’s marriage had broken up, because Demetrio was having an affair with his wife. This cements his decision and he does not see Demetrio again.

A few years later, he is considering renting out the flat, as he is facing financial problems but is, nevertheless reluctant to do so. His wife and sons are travelling to Turin and they stop at an expensive restaurant where Demetrio is dining alone. He joins them and, on learning of the flat, offers to rent it, agreeing to pay over the odds. The narrator’s wife accepts and, though the narrator is not too happy about it, is glad of the money. He makes sure they delay their arrival at the flat to avoid meeting Demetrio. The agent tells them that Demetrio has left without returning the key but also without picking up his deposit. However, the narrator soon finds traces of Demetrio, specifically some notebooks in which Demetrio has written something. He reads the notebooks and, to his surprise, they tell of the arrival of a man known only as The Professor. It seems that the Professor comes to stay at Porto Santo Stefano but he is never seen arriving or leaving. Demetrio tells of the Professor, a very sinister figure. It seems that he is very rich, that he has various offshore bank accounts, that he is very much involved in controlling political affairs in the country and that he is a freemason. Interspersed with excerpts from Demetrio’s notebooks are comments by the narrator. He recalls both Franco and Demetrio defending freemasonry and showing considerable knowledge about it, to his surprise. He also finds some newspaper clippings left by Demetrio, which are all about a sinister man, obviously the Professor, who, the narrator tells us, is well known in Italian politics. The blurb on the back of the book also says that this man is easily recognisable. It seems clear that the Professor is based on Licio Gelli.

The novel continues with what Demetrio has written in the notebooks, interspersed with commentary by the narrator. Demetrio rambles on in a way that could only be written by Malerba. He is obsessed with the Professor, recounting not only his evil deeds but how and why he plans to kill him. (He has a Browning revolver for the purpose.) But he also worries about how he is going to do it, as the Professor is guarded by what he calls gorillas. He worries about the consequences. He also speculates on previous political assassinations and murder and death in general. He muses on freemasonry, philosophy, politics, Boccaccio and any other number of subjects. He thinks about his life, his failed marriage, for example (his wife is away in Florence). Besides observing the gorillas and the Professor’s house, he also wanders around the town, and speculates about he nature of the town. He has a brief fling with a woman (he calls her a girl). Meanwhile, the narrator is concerned about the notebooks and what they imply. He takes them to the police but they do not seem too concerned, seeing them more as the ramblings of a somewhat deranged man. However, soon after reading about Demetrio’s fling, he hears that a body of woman has been found on the shore. She has clearly been murdered but there is no suspect. The narrator is convinced that this is the girl Demetrio had a fling with and that he has subsequently killed her. Again, he takes his concerns to the police and again they brush them off. The victim is a forty year old called Esther, who lived in Italy only part time. There seems no evidence that she is the same woman that Demetrio had his fling with. He also wonders what has happened to Demetrio, who seems to have disappeared.

Demetrio is clearly a fantasist, imagining that the gorillas are after him, that he kills the Professor and even that he catches the Professor having sex with a girl he has met in a bar (not Esther), with her on top in the American style. But he, as well as killing the Professor (in his mind), he also imagines killing his wife and her alleged lover, an architect from Florence (there seems to be no evidence of this relationship). But he also works out complex hydraulics problems, is well aware of the grim political situation in Italy and is clearly well read in philosophy. This really is a fascinating novel and made more fascinating by having two unreliable narrators, Demetrio and Luigi, neither of whom may be telling the truth. Demetrio’s fantasies and ramblings, not to mention Luigi’s (he actually goes into the Professor’s garden, before being confronted by the gorillas) as well as the events subsequent to Demetrio’s notebooks all go to make up a superb novel which is up there with Malerba’s best. Sadly, this work has not been translated into any other language so, unless you read Italian, you will be unable to enjoy it.

Publishing history

First published 1986 by Garzanti
No English translation