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Luigi Malerba: Il serpente (The Serpent)

Malerba’s narrator/protagonist is one of those characters beloved of writers – an inveterate liar, a loner, a fantasist, a man who lives entirely in his own world and who despises people who do not (i.e. everyone else). He comes from a poor background – his pleasure as a child was to watch the rich kids eat their ice creams. As an adult he sells stamps to collectors. He does not collect stamps himself, indeed he rather despises stamp collectors, but it is a living. He is married but certainly not happily. As he says, he and his wife rarely spoke to each other before they were married and now speak even less. They argue and he even buys a gun, threatening to shoot her. He takes up a hobby – singing – when he meets Furio Stella, a choirmaster who is forming his own choir, though he is told that he is half way between a tenor and a baritone. He annoys Furio Stella when, while very reluctantly going to the beach at Ostia with his wife, he”invents” mental singing, i.e. singing to himself. He realises that when he sings mentally, he is much better than when singing aloud and cannot understand why Furio Stella does not understand this. It is at the choir that he meets Miriam.

Miriam is a fellow chorister. Her name is probably not Miriam. He calls her that but when he asks her her real name, she says that names do not matter. He asks her if she minds his calling her Miriam. She does not, so he and we know her as Miriam. After one session, he offers her a lift and then they stop somewhere in the centre of Rome and seem to spend the night in what he calls one long kiss. Early in the morning, when it is time to leave, his car will not start so both go on their separate ways on foot. After he has met her, he persuades her that the choir is a waste of time and takes her round to his shop where, in the back, he has a camp bed. They slowly get undressed, each one removing one article at a time, till they are naked. When they are having sex, he is worried that she will make too much noise and be heard by neighbours, so he has to keep her quiet when she is coming. But our protagonist is jealous. He used to regularly drive to the beach, even though he hated it. He hated the drive, waiting in traffic, where it was either too hot or the fumes were too strong if he opened the window. He could not swim and was embarrassed to go in the water and then, pretending he had forgotten something, return to the shore. He never turned brown, only red. He would hire two deckchairs, hoping a woman would join him. None did. But, as he tells Miriam, he had seen her there three years before, with a handsome, hairy, bronzed man. The two were wearing matching (in colour) bathing costumes. He remembers the couple going into a bathing cabin and staying there for twenty minutes, presumably, at least in the narrator’s view, to have sex. Miriam denies this several times but, as he persists, she admits it to keep him quiet and he can now claim that he has been cuckolded. Something similar happens with his friend Baldasseroni. Baldasseroni is a stamp collector and customer of the narrator, specialising in stamps featuring royal families, which he arranges in a family tree. The narrator is keen that Baldasseroni does not meet Miriam, as both are regular visitors to the shop. One day, Baldasseroni arrives as Miriam is leaving. The narrator immediately assumes that the two are having an affair and even follows Baldasseroni to his house, returning later with his gun.

By now, we have realised that the narrator is a liar, is paranoid and, indeed, is insane. He tells us on several occasions that some of the various stories he has told us are completely untrue. In short, he is the perfect unreliable narrator. Not only that, he sees conspiracies everywhere. Not only does he see conspiracies involving Miriam, but he sees other ones. He knows that Baldasseroni travels to other countries to go to philately fairs. He now feels that these fairs are all part of a giant espionage conspiracy of which Baldasseroni is part. A woman who comes into his shop who has blood on her hand – she says that she had to pick up her dead cat and got blood on her hand from it, before throwing the body of the animal into the Tiber – has clearly just killed her husband. He and Miriam have a row and she walks off, never to return. What has happened to her?

Malerba tells us the story of the narrator, as he himself sees it, perfectly seriously, as though his view of the world is logical. We are dragged into this logic and are never sure what, if anything of what he tells us, is true. By the end of the book, we are doubting everything he says and so are Baldasseroni and the police. Is he completely mad, somewhat insane or is there something to what he says? Malerba leaves us to make up our own mind.

Publishing history

First published 1966 by Bompiani
First English translation by Farrar Straus Giroux/Hamilton in 1968