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Paolo Maurensig: Il diavolo nel cassetto (A Devil Comes to Town)

Perhaps the best way to describe this novel is to call it a tongue-in-cheek fable. The Italian literally translates as The Devil in the Drawer though I suspect it is partially based on the Italian phrase sogno nel cassetto which translates literally as dream in the drawer which means something like a hidden or secret wish, which, as we shall see, is somewhat relevant to the story.

The author uses a standard framing technique, namely a manuscript found by the narrator. The narrator had had some success with a novel and, as a result, receives manuscripts from would-be authors, asking him to comment on/promote their work. Initially he read them but he received too many so he just stored them away, unread. However, he needed the space and was clearing them out when he came upon a manuscript called, yes, Il diavolo nel cassetto. (Interestingly enough the translator of this book, Anne Milano Appel, translates the title literally here, i.e. as The Devil in the Drawer, so those who do not know Italian would not make the connection between the title of this manuscript and the identical title of the novel they are reading.)

The author was anonymous, i.e. there was no name or contact address. The narrator was also anonymous though our author christens him Friedrich. Friedrich works for a small publishing firm owned by his uncle. There is a three day conference on psychoanalysis in Küsnacht, where Jung lived and, as he speaks German, he is sent to the conference to see if he can find any authors to write books on the topic.

He had forgotten to book a hotel so stays at the Gasthof Adler, outside the town. However, the walk through the wood is not too long and he sets out the next morning. However, he is somewhat frightened. Firstly, he meets a giant of a man who seems to be scattering a bloody red pulp on the ground. He is then overtaken by a priest running fast, who warns him of rabid foxes.

He cannot keep up with the priest but is very glad to get to the conference unscathed. There he finds the priest is giving a talk on The Devil As Transformist. He is impressed by the priest’s talk and wants to sign him up but, search as he may, he cannot find him, so he returns to the Gasthof. There he finds the priest as the sole guest in the dining room.

Friedrich and the priest (Father Cornelius) start talking. Cornelius warns him of rabies from foxes, from which many people die a horrible death, and also of the Devil (the two are connected). The Devil has lost his influence but what’s left to him, therefore, is merely power as an end in itself, that which is exercised in any human congregation where there is competition. He also says that literature is at risk of promoting the Devil.

Cornelius goes on to tell the story of a village he calls Dichtersruhe (“poet’s repose”) . Apparently Goethe spent a night there and that is celebrated in the village. Though the village attracts hikers in the summer, it is not a major tourist destination and the villagers keep themselves to themselves.

Cornelius was sent there as a young curate to assist the 90 year old priest. He soon notices that virtually everyone in town seems to be sending off manuscripts to publishers and then having them returned, presumably rejected. Even the priest is writing his memoirs. Indeed, Cornelius had found the turn-out at his services was far less than the turn-out for the priest, till he started talking about literature and then attendances improved.

One day, to everyone’s surprise, a literary prize is won not by one of the local gentry but by a young woman who everyone thought simple-minded. She had written and illustrated a children’s book. Her fame hit the papers.

Two things then happened at more or less the same time. Firstly, there was an outbreak of wild rabies in the fox population, a sure sign of the Devil at work, said Cornelius. Then, a bit later, Bernhard Fuchs (Fuchs is the German for fox) arrived in a chauffeur-driven sedan. Fuchs is a publisher from Lausanne and he wants to publish some of the works of the village, even planning to set up an office in the village. Cornelius immediately recognises him as the Devil.

Cornelius is asked to do some preliminary reading of the manuscripts submitted – he finds them all without any value – as well as read manuscripts submitted for a prize which Fuchs has arranged. Much of the book is about what happens, Cornelius’ duel with the Devil and what happens to him subsequently. As, of course, we readers know Literature was the work of the devil, or rather, it was his favourite weapon.

This novel is told in all seriousness but, of course, it is entirely tongue-in-cheek. Maurensig is able to mock literature (as the work of the Devil), publishers (as agents of the Devil), talentless, amateur authors who think they can write but cannot (as tools of the Devil) and foxes (as signs of the Devil). It is a thoroughly enjoyable work to read and, who knows? – may contain an element of truth.

Publishing history

First published by Einaudi in 2018
First published in English by World Editions in 2019