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Francesco Pecoraro: La vita in tempo di pace (Life in Peacetime)

Ivo Brandani is a civil engineer. He is sixty-nine and working for a private company which is replacing the coral in the Red Sea with a synthetic substance. He does not really like his job, particularly the travel. What makes this novel is Ivo’s inner thoughts – much of the book is either his thoughts or his perspective on events. Ivo takes a somewhat detached view of the world, a world, as the title says, which has been relatively peaceful, at least as far as Italy has been concerned, in his lifetime. (The book starts in May 2015, so Ivo was born just after World War II ended.) The structure of the novel is Ivo looking back (in considerable detail), while travelling on this specific assignment.

Ivo has rather a negative view of the world. Ivo Brandani era perseguitato dal senso della catastrofe. La vedeva in ogni iniziativa di trasformazione della realtà, in ogni edificio (che può crollare), in un aereo in volo (che può precipitare), in un’automobile in corsa (che può sbandare), in una presa di corrente (che può andare in corto), in una pentola sui fornelli (rischio di incendio), in un bicchiere d’acqua (che può rovesciarsi), in un uovo fresco (che può rompersi): tutto ciò che sta in piedi può cadere, tutto ciò che funziona può smettere di farlo. [Ivo Brandani was obsessed by a sense of catastrophe. He saw it in every effort to transform reality, in every building (which could collapse), in a flying aeroplane (which could crash), in a moving car (which could skid), in an electrical current (which could short out), in a pan on a stove (which could catch fire), in a glass of water (which could overturn), in a fresh egg (which could break): everything which is upright can fall, everything that functions can cease to function.] However, apart from not particularly enjoying his job and seeing catastrophe everywhere, he had other obsessions. One was the Fall of Byzantium on 29 May, 1453. (The book, incidentally, opens on 29 May, 2015.) He could not understand how it came to fall. Of course, there were theories and speculations but he did not accept them. The other was Naegleria fowleri, the so-called brain-eating amoeba, which he was very worried about. But these concerns are not shared with others. Brandani sono anni che non dice più quello che pensa, a nessuno. [It has been years since Brandani said what he thinks, to anyone.]. He regularly takes Tavor to keep himself calm.

Of course, there are things he likes. Airports, for example. He does not like flying but he likes being in an airport when he has checked in, gone through security and can sit and quietly enjoy a cup of coffee. He likes the idea of an apocalypse. Brandani che sempre aveva amato l’Apocalisse, come unica chance di assistere a qualcosa di veramente emozionante [Brandani had always liked the Apocalypse as the only chance of being present at something really moving.] He liked it when he took up a job working for Rome City Council, as he felt that, unlike in the private sector, he could really have an influence, make a difference. Of course, he had failed to realise that the politics of the public sector are very different from those of the private sector. (Non dipende da noi, ma a questi gli rode il culo, sono incazzati, lavorano sulle spese, cioè lavorano male [It does not depend on us but those who bug the hell out of you, they are arseholes, they work on expenses, which means that they work badly.] But Ivo also likes the idea of escape. He and his wife, Clara, had discovered Greece fairly early on in their marriage and had loved going there, particularly to the Island. They had travelled around the islands by boat with Nico de Klerk, Ivo’s boss at Megatecton, and Sabina. They are not sure whether she is Nico’s wife or mistress. When Ivo finally asks her she tells him (using the English words) that she is a full-time hostess. As Clara says about Nico and Sabina ( as well as about others) Noi non siamo come loro [We are not like them].

But it is Ivo’s somewhat cynical view of the world, which he raises on many occasions, that makes this novel interesting. The world is becoming fake, he says. La sostituzione della natura con una copia quasi perfetta… Che succederà quando avremo falsificato tutto? Quando avremo ottenuto un fake planet? The substitution of a nature with an almost perfect copy…what will happen when we have faked everything? When we have got a fake planet? The world is all about profit. We will do anything to gain a few more euros. His current assignment is a prime example of both of these. He blames the super-managers (the English term is used here, as well), of which Nico de Klerk is an example. As the title says, he wonders how different it is, living in a time of peace, and remembers his father saying that, during the war, everyone was a Fascist, even though they may have subsequently denied it and, indeed gone to great lengths to conceal it.

We follow him back to his early life. This includes his not entirely happy childhood and his student life. He had first studied philosophy at university and was involved, to a certain degree, not being the sort to commit himself to anything wholeheartedly, in the student demonstrations of the late 1960s. However, he soon became disenchanted with philosophy. He had met Clara at university but marrying her had not been in his plans. Indeed, life did not turn out as he planned. Ma lo sposarsi con qualcuno non era mai stato nei suoi piani, come del resto non lo era stato studiare ingegneria, così come non era inizialmente contemplato l’impiegarsi in una grossa impresa, dove non avrebbe voluto occuparsi di organizzazione di cantiere, ma di progettazione strutturale, possibilmente di ponti. [Getting married had never been in his plans, nor had studying engineering nor working for a large corporation, where he would not have wanted to be a site manager but, rather doing structural engineering, particularly of bridges.] Indeed, it is bridges that gets him started, particularly a trip he took to Scotland with Clara to look at the Forth Bridge. He is overwhelmed, while she is cold, miserable and hungry.

This is far too long – over 500 pages – too much of which consists of idle chatter but, between the idle chatter, is a very fine book, with a character who has a negative view of the world and thinking about the negative aspects of the world. Of course, just as all recent US novels have to at least refer to 9/11 and all recent German novels have to at least refer to German reunification and all Spanish novels have to at least refer to the Civil War, all modern Italian novels have to deal with the economic crisis and corruption. Ivo’s lively account of his time managing the engineering department of a district in Rome, when the river floods the day of his arrival and he learns that schools are being flooded and falling apart and that, when the department is being sued for this, it is he that will have to appear in a court, gives an excellent if somewhat gloomy view of the crisis. I would like to hope this book makes into English but I am not optimistic.

Publishing history

First published in Italian 2013 by Ponte alle grazie
First English translation 2018 by Seagull