Piero Chiara: La stanza del vescovo (The Bishop’s Bedroom)
It is 1946. Our unnamed hero has a yacht and spends his time sailing around Lake Maggiore.(Chiara was from Lake Maggiore). He is clearly independently wealthy, though his source of income – his family – is only hinted at and he also makes claear that, at some point, he will have to seek employment. He stops every night at a berth, goes and eats at a local hotel and sleeps on the boat. He has a girlfriend at one of his stops. Her husband is in England carrying out research. He himself has a house in Luino (on the eastern shore of Lake Maggiore) where he stops occasionally.
One day he stops at a place called Oggebbio. A man starts talking to him. We later learn that the man is called Temistocle Mario Orimbelli, though he is referred to as Orimbelli in the book and his wife calls him Mario. He lives in a nearby villa with his wife, Cleofe, and his sister-in-law, Matilde, and several servants. Matilde is, in theory, a widow, though we soon learn that she was married by proxy to Cleofe’s brother, Angelo Berlusconi. (The book was published in 1976 before the other Berlusconi was well-known). He had been called up, so they were married in separate places. Angelo was killed (or, at least, disappeared) in the Abyssinian War, hence she is now a widow. Inevitably, this turns out to be somewhat inaccurate as do other stories in this book.
Orimbelli is clearly bored with his life. He had been separated from his wife for a long time because of the wars (i.e. the Abyssinian War and then World War 1), both of which he had served in. In the latter stages of the war, he had been in Naples, where he had been in business. As with the narrator, the source of his income is not entirely clear, though his wife clearly comes from a well-to-do family.
Our narrator is invited to the house and Orimbelli soon becomes one of his crew, spending his time in Oggebbio at the villa and sleeping in the eponymous bishop’s bedroom. (Cleofe’s late great-uncle had been a bishop and stayed in that room. His vestments are still in the wardrobe.)
The two men, with Cleofe’s full approval, go off on their travels round the lake, with Orimbelli soon learning how to crew, the various parts of the lake and the winds. In particular, both men seem to know various women who are entertained on board or in hotels, though our narrator is somewhat bitter that Orimbelli always seems to end up with the more attractive woman, despite the fact that, in the narrator’s eyes, he himself is singularly unattractive. I had to acknowledge that Orimbelli had always been more adept at taking my prey off me. …He’d managed to snatch the tastiest morsel right out from under my nose.
Though Cleofe is jealous, not least because her husband seems to have had affairs before, she is glad to get him out of her hair, as there seems to be little love lost between the two. Nevertheless, the narrator and Orimbelli make sure that the women are kept away from her or, at least, seen only as being with the narrator.
However, the narrator is gradually learning that Orimbelli is not exactly what he seems. Orimbelli was surely one of those devils who stir things up wherever they go, who lack respect or a shred of principle, a well-mannered monster, a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Things take a turn when Matilde decides she wants to sail on the yacht and soon she is a regular, with things becoming complicated, with both men attracted to her. Things become even more complicated when an unexpected death takes place though both men have clear alibis.
Chiara shows here a story of men who have been through war and now want to make up for lost time. We were convinced, instead, that we’d been robbed of our best years, and when the war was over we wanted to reinvent our youth. We wanted to recover, to make the most of our physical strength and our continuing youth. For them recovering their lost youth is the freedom to sail around Lake Maggiore, casually moving from Italy to Switzerland and back, stopping where they want, when they want and, of course, lots of casual sex. What is interesting is that not only the men but also the women seem happy to indulge in casual sex. Some of the women are married. This is not the conventional view of Italian women of that era.
Chiara not only gives us an effective portrait of the post-war Italian man and woman. Throughout the novel, indeed, almost from when we first meet Orimbelli, we are aware that there is something distinctly shady about him and our narrator eventually catches up with us, though keeping his suspicion to himself. Chiara cleverly builds up the suspense, throwing us off the trail more than once.
It is interesting that this book was first published in 1986 and is now published in English for the first time, some forty-three after its original publication and thirty-three years after the death of the author. More and more, it seems that small publishers like New Vessel Press are finding hidden gems from the past and not just focussing on recently published works. This book does seem somewhat dated but it is a charming datedness which make the book that more enjoyable.
First published 1976 by Mondadori
First English translation by New Vessel Press in 2019
Translated by Jill Foulston