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Luigi Malerba: Il protagonista [The Protagonist]

The novel starts off simply enough with the narrator describing his flat in Rome. It is on the Via della Dataria, just by the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain, in other words in the centre of Rome. It is on the third floor of a building that used to be owned by the henchman of King Victor Emmanuel II, who used it for assignations with his mistress, la Bella Rosina. He describes the flat and the view from the flat. Only then does he give a description of himself and we realise that the narrator is not a person but a penis. This not the first book to feature a penis as a character. Indeed, it is not the first twentieth century Italian novel to feature a penis as a character. Moravia did it with Io e Lui, literally translated as I and Him but published in English as Two: A Phallic Novel. However, this novel sees everything from the penis’ point of view.

The penis is attached to a man that he (the penis) calls The Boss. Though he may be the boss, the penis does not have much respect for him. The penis has several complaints. The first is that he would like to get out a bit. He is particularly keen on seeing Rome. Though he seems to know all about it (he finds his way, like a blind man, by sound), he has naturally not seen it and would love to do so. In fact, he has once seen a bit of a Rome. By the Trevi fountain, apparently an English (female) tourist took the penis out but when The Boss saw two priests looking at him, he hurriedly put it away. His other main complaint is the lack of action. What he really likes is, as he puts it, going in the garden and that does not happen as much as he would like. The Boss does not seem to have a job but spends much of his time chasing women, not always successfully. He is part of a radio ham group, whose main intention seems to be to attract women and then have vulgar conversations with them. He has tracked down a student in Orvieto called Elisabella and he talks to her and even persuades her to strip completely (though, of course, he does not really know whether she has). He tries to persuade her to come to Rome and she is reluctant to do so. He eventually goes to see her in Orvieto, where he only meets her twin sister Isabetta, who, he is convinced, is in fact Elisabella. When he finally persuades her to come to Rome, he is too ill to take much advantage of her.

There are other women that the penis is eager to explore the garden of, though he does not know their name. There is the Unknown Woman and the Black Widow, for example. Sometimes The Boss is successful and sometimes not. As this is Malerba, there are odd asides. For example, he (the penis) is convinced that the cause of most problems is vibrations. It is the vibrations of cars, for example, that is destroying all the trees along the Appian Way, not pollution. But, for him, vibrations are important as when vibrations occur, he is happy. At times, it seems the penis and The Boss are the same. We learn of the Boss’ illness when the penis says that he (the penis) is unwell and comments in detail on his ill-health, only later stating that the ill-health of body parts is separate from the ill-health of the owner, though the ill-health of the owner can affect the health of the body parts. While his main interest is entering the garden, he also seems to have something of a soul (and control of his owner). When the Boss finds a secluded part of the beach to have sex with a German tourist, the narrator refuses to go in the garden but keeps slipping out to admire the sea, a sight he rarely if ever sees. The German woman and the Boss are both mystified by this behaviour.

It is certainly quite fun and, as always with Malerba, somewhat eccentric, not just in the subject matter but in the way Malerba tells the story. There is no question who is boss and what the penis wants to do and where it wants to go. Many women would no doubt say, probably accurately, that there are many men who are controlled by their penis and think with their penis. They should perhaps read this book – if they can read French, German or Italian – and have their suspicions confirmed.

Publishing history

First published 1973 by Bompiani
No English translation
Published in French as Sa Majesté by Grasset in 1975
Published in German as Der Protagonist by Suhrkamp in 1976
Also translated into Japanese and Turkish