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Giorgio Manganelli: Centuria (One Hundred Ouroboric Novels)
This work may well be Manganelli’s most accessible work. It consists of a hundred very short “novels”, which are generally only a couple of pages long. Manganelli calls them romans-fleuve. Indeed the Italian title is Centuria which, of course, means century, though later editions of the work add some more novels, that he wrote later. The Italian sub-title translates as One Hundred Small Romans-fleuve, the word ouroboric appearing only in the English translation. As this is Manganelli, they are certainly not straightforward. A feeble attempt to describe them might be Borges, written by Quasimodo though they are, of course, peculiarly Manganellian. They might also be described as novels reduced to their bare essentials. Manganelli himself said Vuole una mia definizione del romanzo? Quaranta righe più due metri cubi di aria. Io ho lasciatio solo le quarante righe: oltretutto occupano meno spazio, e lei sa bene con i libri lo spazio è sempre un problema enorme. [Do you want my definition of the novel? Forty lines plus two cubic metres of air. I have left only the forty lines: besides, they take up less space and you know very well that with books space is always a huge problem.]
Manganelli wrote these novels between September and November 1978. They were published in the order he wrote them. He said that he felt no need to change the order. He wrote them to the length he did because he happened to have some slightly oversized paper and made himself a rule that the story would have to fit on one side of the paper. Each story is autonomous, i.e. there are no repetitive characters or plots. Some of the stories are fairly straightforward, others are definitely not. Most have a twist. For example, there is the story of the man who leaves his house at twelve minutes to nine precisely for an appointment at half past nine with a woman to whom he is going to propose marriage. He has allotted a specific time to think about what he will do if she says no or is inconclusive, a specific time to think about what he will do if she says yes and a specific time to read the paper. On his way, civil war breaks out – he had been somewhat distracted and was unaware that it was imminent. Leading officials are deposed and/or shot and at the end so is he, for having the wrong newspaper, regretting only that he had not had enough time to think about what he would do if she said yes. From a plague-ridden city to the man who dreams all the dreams in an apartment building, shutting out other inhabitants from dreaming, to the writers who write about writers who write about writers, to the church architect who does not believe in God and feels he is building nothing, Manganelli’s fertile imagination gives us a series of very clever, sometimes disconcerting stories about a world which is not quite our world, yet is. Now if only his other books were so accessible and so enjoyable.
First published 1979 by Rizzoli
First English translation by McPherson & Co. in 2005
Translated by Henry Martin