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Massimo Romano: Fantasmi di carta [Paper Ghosts]

This first novel by a renowned literary critic and academic is something of an oddity. It is set in modern-day Turin, where Romano lives. We first meet a group of strange people, apparently headed by someone called the Count (we later learn that he calls himself the Count of Monte Cristo) who have a singular aim. They feel that the older literature is being ignored, both at the expense of more modern literature as well as by other distractions such as television. They maintain that all the stories that exist have been told and that, therefore, there is no need for any new literature. As a result, they plan to put a stop to all new literature, either by destroying manuscripts, working documents, etc or even by killing the writers. Their secondary plan is to remove the heads off statues of historical figures in Turin and replace them with the heads of famous authors. As we later learn, they all have the names of characters from the works of dead authors – from Long John Silver to the Queen of Spades, from Nell (in The Old Curiosity Shop) to Lord Jim.

We next meet Diego and Francesca. Diego graduated with a degree in philosophy three years ago. However he has not found any job that pleases him, not wanting to go into the usual jobs such as teaching, the civil service or librarian. As a result, he spends his days at the Institute of Philosophy, reading and wandering around the city. While not averse to the opposite sex, he has not spent much time with women. However, he has now met Francesca and they are to meet for a cup of coffee in an old café. Francesca has become obsessed with literature. She reads incessantly and ponders on such questions as why Raskolnikov killed the old lady or why there are so many people drowned in Dickens’ novels. She has realised that this is harmful and now plans to write her own novel (called The Ghost of Lost Opportunities) and plans to do this by travelling around Italy, finding characters and stories. Diego is her first. Diego is much taken with her and she enjoys his stories. He wants to meet her again but she says it will have to wait till she has finished her travels, which she is about to start.

When Diego gets home, he finds a mysterious man on his staircase who tells him that, if he values Francesca’s safety, he should go to the cathedral at midnight where he will be given further instructions. He does and meets Sara from Lithuania, who warns him that Francesca must give up writing for her own sake. Diego knows that she is travelling but does not know where. Meanwhile, he meets a flower-seller called Giuliana, who also warns him of the dangers of writing. After a sexual encounter, Giuliana vanishes but when Diego sets out to find Francesca, Giuliana is on the train and promises to help him find her. Meanwhile Francesca has gone to a small town in the North where she meets two English people, Henry Stevenson, the great-grandson of Robert Louis Stevenson, and Madeleine Collins, a married woman whose husband never leaves England. She also learns that two English women had hired a car and had set off in snow storm. The two women are now lost. When Madeline sees their picture in the paper, she realises that one of them, Judith Forrest, is Madeleine Collins, particularly as Judith Forrest also seems to be a friend of Henry Stevenson. However, there is no sign of either Henry Stevenson or Madeleine Collins.

The rest of the novel recounts the somewhat mysterious adventures of the two, as Diego tries to track down Francesca. Obviously, Henry Stevenson is part of the mysterious group that is opposed to new literature and he is linked with the destinies of both Diego and Francesca. We also learn about their beheading of the statues. To Romano’s credit, the ending is not predictable. The story does tread considerably into the realm of fantasy, while maintaining a fairly conventional realist story-telling approach. It is an interesting and rather unusual book but perhaps not to everyone’s taste.

Publishing history

First published in Italian 1986 by Studio Tesi
No English translation