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Nicola Pugliese: Malacqua (Malacqua)

Nicola Pugliese was a journalist by profession and this was his only novel. It had a certain amount of success but, when it went out of print, he refused to let it be republished. It was republished only after he died and then had considerable success in Italy. It has now finally been published in English forty years after first publication in Italian.

The basic story line is simple. It is raining heavily and continuously in Naples over four days. While we follow, to a certain extent, the journalist, Carlo Andreoli (based on Pugliese himself?), we also follow the fates of many Neapolitans as they struggle with the rain – police, local government officials and ordinary people caught up in the storm. Most of them are naturally anxious about the storm, whether as victims or as officials having to deal with its effects. The storm appears to be apocalyptic, not in the science fiction sense but more in the religious sense, even though several characters comment that they have seen worse in Naples.

The rain starts on the 22 October and we first see it through the eyes of Carlo Andreoli. However, by the next day, we see the police emergency telephone operator receiving a call about a road collapsing because of the rain. As with many of the characters we meet, Annunziata Osvaldo, the operator, has a life and character and we very briefly follow her and learn about her, and then never see her again.

The collapse of the road is not just a minor sinkhole but a major collapse. Indeed, witnesses suggest that one or more cars may have been swallowed up. If so, they are no longer visible to the fire service and police, who go to the scene of the incident. A fireman tries to descend into the hole but has to come back, as it is too dangerous.

Things get worse when a house collapses, killing the five occupants. Before the rain came, the owner had been told by the fire service to move out as the house was in danger of collapsing. He had tried to find another property and had been to the local authorities for assistance but was way down on the priority list so he would have to wait. He was advised to have seven more children to increase his chances!

In the Palazzo San Giacomo, the Naples town hall, people start hearing strange noises. Something like a roar rang out, and a long sigh, and sobbing, and faint words, and voice and voices trying to say, trying to come out, and couldn’t, they couldn’t. The police and fire services look around but can find nothing. Eventually, Vincenzo Mirasciotto, a police officer, shines a light under a bench and hears the strange voice. It seems to be a doll. The plot thickens when two identical dolls are found, one close to the bodies of two women who lost their life in the sinkhole and the second in the debris of the building that collapsed.

We continue to follow the brief stories of various people such as the father of the man who is burying his seventeen-year old daughter; the young woman who pretends to go to the funeral of this daughter but goes off with her boyfriend to have sex; the poet who wants to present his poetry but, sadly, rain has kept many people away; the ten year old who has a dispute with her bullying mother. We see the local council struggling with what to do about the crisis and also whether to hold a commission of inquiry into the building collapse. Pugliese is clearly not impressed with the council, as he imagines what can best be described as a peasants’ revolt: columns of peasants with scythes and pitchforks would come running from the countryside…they would begin a cruel manhunt.

For Pugliese, despite the comments that there had been worse storms, this is clearly cataclysmic: your life would never be the same again, never again and the perspective on life would change, oh, yes, be changed and disrupted for ever. And all the time, Carlo Andreoli is watching, a passive observer, thinking about himself and his life.

This could have been simply another book about a catastrophic rainfall – think J G Ballard‘s The Drowned World – but Pugliese’s great skill is to make it much more. Apart from with Carlo Andreoli, he jumps around a cast of characters, all of whom seem to have their own issues, sometimes associated with the rain and sometimes not. He also makes it seem apocalyptic (but not, at least to us, the readers, scary), even though it only lasts four days. However, images of the screeching doll or the car that disappeared into the chasm in the road put it at another level from a simple catastrophe novel.

Pugliese clearly was a first-class writer, getting into the psyche of the people of Naples, without even touching on the Camorra. Nearly all of them seem to live in a strange world of their own, which the rain may affect but does not bring them out of their strange world. It is wonderful to have this book in English at last but sad that it is Pugliese’s only novel.

Publishing history

First published 1977 by Einaudi
First English translation 2017 by And Other Stories
Translated by Shaun Whiteside