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Mario Soldati: Le due città (The Malacca Cane)

Soldati himself said that he could have written twice the amount (my Italian version has 540 pages) but the publishers pressurised him to finish it. It is perhaps a good thing that he did not. While the first half set mainly in one of the two towns of the Italian title (Turin) is very well done, the second half (set in Rome) is less so. While we are talking about titles, I have to wonder why the English publishers changed the title. The English title refers to a cane which is symbolic of a changing era (i.e. pre- and post-Mussolini) just as Emilio Viotti’s time in the two towns also reflects this.

The first part clearly harks back to what is seen as a somewhat idyllic time. It follows Emilio Viotti as he grows up in a very bourgeois background in Turin. Despite the fact that his family is very snobbish, Emilio does mix with all and sundry. We follow his growing-up, all very well told. As his father is a lawyer (albeit a not very successful government lawyer), he is steered into this profession, though he is not very enthusiastic. More particularly, he starts a relationship with Veve, a young woman whose father is a tram driver, and who would definitely not be approved of by his family. The relationship goes on for a long time and Soldati describes it very well. It seems clear that Veve would like to marry him but is realistic enough to realise that this is not going to happen. At the same time, Emilio does not seem to love her, even though he toys with the idea of marrying her. There is a very well written scene where we see Emilio’s real thoughts, which are clearly ambiguous at best.

Emilio goes off to Rome to study and while there, meets a young woman – Elena – who is the daughter of his landlady and apparently engaged but it soon becomes apparent that she is interested in him and, eventually, they start a brief affair, particularly when Veve is not writing to him. However, when Veve does write to him, letting him know that she is marrying someone else (and someone whom she has known for some time), he is devastated and breaks it off with Elena.

We quickly jumps to ten years ahead. Emilio is married to Elena and is working in the film industry in Rome. This part of the book is less successful. The marriage between Emilio and Elena, though it continues throughout the book, is punctuated by both of them having an affair. After Emilio has spent the night with Corinna (at their home when Elena is away), he is surprised to be awoken by a kiss, not from Corinna but from Elena. Elena has discovered the affair with Corinna but admits to her own affairs (including with Emilio’s boss) and is unsure if Emilio is the father of their son, Luigino. Emilio continues his affairs and is still with another woman at the end of the book.

All of these events take place against the background of the rise and fall of Mussolini. Soldati makes it clear that it is the Italian bourgeoisie, like Emilio, that is totally complicit in Mussolini’s rise to power. They tolerate his misbehaviour, including the abduction and brutal murder of an opposition member of parliament. The film studio where Emilio works in close collaboration with the Fascists, producing films that promote the Fascist ideal and, of course, Emilio is closely involved in this. Emilio is no hero. He is corrupt, selfish and very self-centred. But Soldati tells his story well, against the background of fifty years of Italian history, even if the second part does not have the interest of the first part.

Publishing history

First published 1964 by Garzanti
First published in English 1973 by André Deutsch