Paola Capriolo: Il doppio regno (The Dual Realm)

Publishing history

The unnamed narrator of this story – an Italian woman aged around thirty – is unusual as regards unnamed narrators as not only do we not know her name, nor does she. She is writing about the events that led up to this situation but, as she does not remember her name, her recollection of the events are also a bit hazy. She knows that she was staying at a seaside resort. It was towards the end of the season, so it was getting cooler and there were fewer people. She is reasonably certain that she was alone but not entirely sure. She has a vague memory of having waved goodbye to an older woman leaving in a train. She also has a vague memory of perhaps having a male companion at some time but she is unsure whether he was a lover, friend or relative. What she does recollect is that, one day, she was wandering along the promenade, which was almost deserted. Suddenly everything went quiet. The waves on the sea seemed to become still. All at once, she saw a huge wall of water rise up on the horizon – a tidal wave, though she does not use that term – and start moving in towards the shore. She realises that her only hope is to make for higher ground and she runs towards the town. Initially, she cannot find a way through the houses, shops, etc but, eventually, finds a small lane, which she runs up. To her surprise, she is very soon out of the inhabited area and in a wooded area up the hill from the town. Suddenly, she comes out of the wooded area into a clearing and sees a large, single-storey building. She feels that she is now high enough up to be safe from the tidal wave and enters the building.

When she enters, she sees some men playing cards and soon realises that it is a hotel. She wanders through the hotel, looking for staff and realises that it is a lot bigger than it appears from the outside. She finds a waiter but is unsure what to say to him so he takes her to the manager. Again she is somewhat tongue-tied and unable to report the tidal wave, of which he people in the hotel seem unaware. The manager offers her a room to rest in and she is taken to a room. She lies down on the bed but feels, as she switches off the light, the rest of the world has been destroyed. She does not wake up till the morning. A waiter is in the corridor but, when she asks him about what has happened to the town, he does not appear to understand. She asks for a newspaper but is told that they have no local ones and only ones from other parts of the world and, inevitably, these arrive with several days delay. She has breakfast in bed but, wandering around, sees no other guests. She is informed by the manager that there are no other guests. She asks various members of staff where the exit is but they are unable to help her. Even the manager, when she finally asks him, cannot help her. Indeed, he tells her that, as she came in from the outside, she is probably best placed to know where it is. When she finally does get to see the foreign newspapers, they are in a language she cannot understand and, indeed, does not even recognise.

She drifts around, having breakfast in bed and eating alone in the restaurant in the evening. The manager takes her order and she is served by the waiters. The rest of the time, they seem to play cards together. Gradually, she starts losing her sense of self and wondering if the person she remembers from the past is the same person as the one writing the record we are reading. She also starts forgetting who she is and what her life as like before she came to the hotel. She mentions to the manager that she would like to read and the manager takes her to a library, from which she is free to borrow any books. However, when she checks the books, many of which seem ancient and rare, they are all in a foreign language, often in a script she does not recognise and even when they are in Latin script, she does not recognise the language. The manager’s view is that she can enjoy the books for their beauty and read them in this way, a view which she will eventually come round to.

Various events occur which cause her pause. One day, she finds that the door to her room has been removed. This is apparently for minor repairs and it will be returned shortly. It never is. She spills some sauce on her dress and is offered a quick dry cleaning service and given a waiter’s uniform as a temporary replacement. The dress never reappears. She asks for a hairdresser and one comes but cuts her hair very short, like a man’s because, as he says, it is the only way that he knows how to cut hair.

One day, however, she sees the staff in a state of furious action. It turns out that other guests have arrived. These are a married couple, Guido and Laura, and Guido’s much younger brother, Bruno. Initially, they mistake her for a waiter and are surprised to later find out that she is a guest and a woman. However, gradually, she gets to know them and tells them of her situation. And one day they announce that they are leaving and Bruno wants her to accompany them.

We can interpret this novel in many ways: as a sort of Kafka novel, as a symbol of our failure to accept responsibility and face up to our problems, as a symbol of the fact that we are all ultimately alone and unable to communicate properly with others and so on. However we interpret it or whether we interpret it at all, this is a somewhat disturbing novel but very cleverly done. It is clearly the sort of novel we would expect from Capriolo, one where reality and identity are not fixed but changeable and complex and one where our view of the world is distorted and disturbing. It is definitely a novel worth reading and one that has been translated into English.

First published 1991 by Bompiani
First published in English in 2000 by Troubador