Paola Capriolo: Una di loro [One of Them]
The unnamed narrator of this book is staying in the Hotel Flora, somewhere in the Alps. He is enjoying it, as it conforms to his stereotypical expectations. There is lovely scenery, the girls are blonde, blue-eyed and pretty and people seem to dress in the traditional Alpine fashion. He is actually there so that he can write his book in peace. The book is called Narcissus and Narcissus or the Labyrinths of Beauty. He wants peace and quiet, at least initially, so when a woman sits next to him at dinner and starts chatting, he tolerates it but is not very enthusiastic, though his view modifies somewhat when he sees her the next day getting out of the swimming pool.
It does rain, of course, but when the rain stops he is able to go for a very enjoyable walk, with beautiful scenery and locals in Alpine costume greeting him as they pass. The first mildly disturbing thing that happens is when he sees two people, who are not dressed in the local costume. They are clearly elderly and seem to be in a hurry, and seem to be wearing city clothes. As they approach he realises that their clothes are the clothes of the very poor, not in good condition and ill-fitting. Moreover, he notices, that unlike others he has seen, they seem to ignore the scenery and are only intent on moving on. When he greets them, they do not respond. He has a morbid fear of poverty and this upsets him.
When out for a walk the next day, he notices a bench which looks out over the valley but there is someone who seems to be sitting there and he thinks it is the old man from the previous day. The man is still there when he returns, to his annoyance, but he realises that it is not the same man but nevertheless a man in the same type of poor man’s clothes.
Back at the hotel, he returns to his room soon after breakfast and the chambermaid is still there, making up his room. He tries chatting to her and it is clear that she is foreign and does not speak Italian well. When he asks her where she is from, she answers from everywhere. She is again there the next day and he finds out that she is called Iasmina but he gets little further information from her. He finds her beautiful in a special way and the only way he can describe her beauty is with the word truth. He keeps seeing Iasmina leaving in the evening, watching her from his balcony and likening her to Eurydice. He wonders where she is going, as she is heading away from the village. However, his relationship with the woman he met at dinner, Claudia, develops and she even suggests a late night swim.
As he carries on walking, he keeps meeting the poor people he had seen before so much so that he is somewhat put off walking. One day, he decides to do a longer walk, taking a somewhat different route. To his surprise, on his walk, he sees a sign pointing to the Grand Hôtel d’Europe et des Alpes. He was unaware that such a hotel existed. It certainly was not mentioned by his travel agent when he was looking where to stay. He follows what seems a very narrow path and sees further signs to the hotel. He is high up and sees that he has to cross what seems like a rickety wooden bridge and he is a bit concerned but descends towards it. As he descends, he sees a group of the poor women, all elderly, sitting there. As he gets nearer the bridge, he sees a group of the poor children playing with a woman who is completely naked. As he gets nearer, he realises that it is Iasmina. He is so perturbed that he quickly crosses the bridge and, fortunately sees a sign pointing to the village, so he returns to his hotel and does not visit the Grand Hôtel d’Europe.
The next day he goes to his room straight after breakfast to speak to Iasmina but there is another woman there who tells him that Iasmina was a temporary worker and will no longer be working at the hotel this season. He decides to return to the Grand Hôtel d’Europe but when he asks the way, no-one has heard of it. He does eventually find it, does go in and but does not find Iasmina. He learns from the waiter at a local café that there was a hotel there but there no longer is and it was one of the finest in Europe, attracting the rich and famous from all over the world and even a famous Hollywood silent film star. But what is it now? Who are those people? And what is Iasmina doing there? The waiter states that it has long since been abandoned. But our hero has to find out, even if he is concerned about the Diana/Artemis and Actaeon legend.
Capriolo very cleverly builds up the tension in this story. While his relationship with the attractive Claudia develops, admittedly more at her instigation than his, he is gradually becoming obsessed with Iasmina, particularly after seeing her naked. At the same time, he is concerned about the poor people, whom he sees both at the Grand Hôtel d’Europe but also, increasingly frequently, in and around his hotel. Indeed, he comes across them inside the hotel, in the swimming pool and even in the corridors. With one exception, other people do not seem to see them. So who are they and what are they doing? Gradually, his obsession both with Iasmina and the poor people takes over and he can no longer not only not write his book but not concentrate on reading or on his relationship with Claudia. It is a very well told story, undoubtedly influenced by Capriolo’s reading of German novels.
First published 2001 by Bompiani
No English translation