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Marco Mancassola: Gli amici del deserto [The Friends of the Desert]

The unnamed narrator of this novel is going through a difficult time. Part of his problem is, inevitably, the dire Italian economic situation. He had managed to get a job as an editorial assistant for a foundation but the foundation had gone bust so he was out of a job. More importantly – though we only learn this later – was the end of his relationship with Kareen. They had been together for thirteen years. Kareen had problems. She attempted suicide twice as a teenager and, since then, she had taken a lot of drugs. Our hero had tried to help her get off them and had succeeded, briefly, on several occasions but never permanently. He had taken to having casual affairs. Eventually, he came home one day to find her gone. Her father contacted him to tell him that she had gone to a clinic and he was not welcome to visit her. As the flat belonged to the father, he asked our hero to vacate it within a couple of days, which he did. He moved to a small bedsit and lived off microwaved meals. He later learned that Kareen had recovered – was his absence a factor in her recovery? he wondered – and was now not only seeing someone else but planned to marry him. All of this prompts him to leave Italy for a while and head out to California, particularly to a monastery in Big Sur. His brother Rudi, is already there but Rudi is interested in becoming a priest while our hero wants only to escape for a while, rest and rethink his life.

At the monastery, he soon adapts, despite the fact that the vegetarian, alcohol-free lifestyle does not initially suit him. He does not do much, watching Brother Lucius watching for fires and condors and contemplating his life and where it went wrong. Then, he learns from Rudi, who has used the one antiquated computer in the monastery to read his emails, that his best friend Danilo Scotti is coming to visit him and, more particularly, wants to take our hero somewhere out into the desert to see a shaman. Our hero is not happy about this. He had been very close to Danilo, who had made a living as a comic, but Danilo had his own problems. In particular, he was a heavy drug user. He, too, had recently ended a long relationship, separating from his wife. Danilo arrives, wearing an Exorcist t-shirt, and complaining about the lack of meat and alcohol (he eventually tries to steal the communion wine) and lack of Internet access. He tells our hero that he had heard about this shaman, a half-Mexican, half-Native American called Anselmo, who could cure people. Danilo feels that he needs curing, both for his drug dependency and for his depression, part of the reason he takes so many drugs. Our hero is very reluctant to go. However, after a conversation with Brother Lucius when the two of them see a pair of condors in a heavy rainstorm, he decides to go. (The condor motive will come again. At first, it looks like a symbol for freedom, as they fly high in the sky but we later learn that condors are traditionally seen as accompanying souls after death.)

The pair are strapped for cash but eventually manage to hire a car and set off. They stop off at the home of one of the former monks of the Big Sur monastery, who is now a teacher and living with his gay lover. They have no map, as Danilo says that he can track where they are going on his mobile phone. After a mildly eventful journey they arrive at Elfrida, Arizona, a small town on the edge of the desert. In the local diner, they meet the waitress, Aylen, who initially denies any knowledge about Anselmo and then tells them that they will have to find him on their own. At this point, Danilo sees a psychedelic van and a hippy-looking man getting into it. He assumes that he must be on his way to see Anselmo and they follow him. This does not turn out well. Eventually, someone slips a map under the door of their motel and they find the way to Anselmo.

This is not a very good book but, nevertheless, an interesting read. It gives us a picture of young(-ish) Italians who are struggling in the contemporary economic crisis facing the country. Finding jobs is, of course, a major problem and the way out seem to be drugs, death or exile, at least according to this book. (Mancassola himself has chosen exile, living in London.) But we get a deeper impression of how contemporary society is turning out. Our hero is a feeling person. Il dolore delle persone che amavo assediava da anni la mia vita. La depressione del mio migliore amico. Quella della donna con cui avevo desiderato vivere. [The pain of those people I loved had been affecting my life for years. The depression of my best friend as well as the depression of the woman with whom I had wanted to live.] For him, Vivo in un mondo in cui nessuno riesce più ad amare nessuno… Nessuno può comprendere nessuno, nessuno può credere in nessuno. Un mondo senza possibile amore. [I live in a world in which no-one manages to love anyone else. No-one can understand anyone else, no-one can believe in anyone else. A world without any possible love.] Danilo and our hero argue about religion. Our hero believes that the major religions are serious, even though he himself does not believe in any of them. However, Danilo believes in new age religion, which our hero despises. Could there be something in them? The ending of the book gives us a few indications.

Publishing history

First published 2013 by Feltrinelli
No English translation
First translation in 2015 into French as Les désertés by Gallimard
Translated by Vincent Raynaud