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Luigi Malerba: Salto mortale (What Is This Buzzing, Do You Hear It Too?)

If you like straightforward detective stories or a conventional plot where all is clear and explained, then this is not the book for you. As with his other books, there is a (very) unreliable narrator, people who may or may not be called what they seem to be called, people whose names change and unexplained occurrences, which remain unexplained. The English title shows what happens at the very beginning of the novel. Giuseppe (or as the Italian text introduces him, Giuseppe called Giuseppe; virtually all the male characters in this book are called Giuseppe to add to our confusion) hears ‘voices’, i.e. all the radio waves in the air, from the voice of the Pope to the local TV station as well as the voices in his head. The Italian title literally means fatal leap but it is also the normal Italian word for somersault. Giuseppe (the main character) is out walking one day in a meadow, when he sees something. It turns out to be a human leg. Further inspection reveals that the leg is attached to a human body, that of a man who has had his throat slashed. Giuseppe is unsure what to do. He wants no dealings with the police, whom he mistrusts. Who killed the man? More to the point, is there really a body or is it just Giuseppe’s imagination? And what, if any is Giuseppe’s role, in the murder?

The police do come and investigate (though it is not clear who called them). However, Giuseppe decides to do his own investigating. For example, he makes the assumption that as there is blood and the man has been killed with a knife, the local butcher must be implicated. He goes to interview the local butcher who is, of course, called Giuseppe. The butcher assumes that he is either from the tax authorities or the food health authorities and tries to bribe him, obviously without success. During his investigations, we learn a fair amount about Giuseppe. He is something of a loner. He likes going out for long walks or bicycle rides. He has a girlfriend whose name begins with Rosa- but is called Rosalia, Rosalinda, Rosella, Rossana and many other variations on the name. He is somewhat naïve with her. For example, she takes him back to her room, switches off the lights and then asks him to suggest something they can do together in the dark. He does not come up with the obvious solution, to her disappointment. Giuseppe has views on many subjects. He lives in Pavona, a small town on the outskirts of Rome. He is concerned that Rome is spreading out and will soon engulf Pavona and other surrounding towns. Indeed, he has a futuristic vision of the area totally covered in high-rise buildings. But he also has other fantasies. For example, he imagines that he is about to be shot and sees other people as potential killers, based in part on his experience of the war but, clearly, partially out of paranoia.

It has been said that this novel is heavily influenced by Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana (That Awful Mess on Via Merulana) and it is clear that there is some link. As with the Gadda book, the investigation, like life, is not straightforward and there is no clear solution. But this novel is more absurdist, emphasising that life is not only not straightforward but that it differs very much for different people. Death also hangs heavily over it. We read about a serious train crash, which Giuseppe describes in gory detail. We learn about the ghost of the US armoured car driver. And all the other Giuseppes seem to be dying in mysterious circumstances – Giuseppe the butcher, Giuseppe the fly killer and Giuseppe the lifeguard, who burns to death when an oil spill ignites. It certainly is a strange book but a fascinating one to read, giving a distorted view of reality that is not unknown in twentieth century literature.

Publishing history

First published 1968 by Bompiani
First English translation by Farrar Straus Giroux in 1969
Translated by William Weaver