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Mario Soldati: Lo smeraldo (The Emerald)

Soldati’s novel is, indeed, a strange book. It starts off looking as though it is going to be one of those innocent-man-meets-strange-character-with-magical-powers-(who-may-or-may-not-be-the-devil)-but-is-going-to-change-the-life-of-the-innocent-man novels and then suddenly morphs into a science fiction novel. Our unnamed hero, presumably Soldati himself, is on holiday in New York with his second wife. He is out shopping at Saks, while his wife is at the hairdresser’s. While shopping he meets Count Cagliani, a fellow Italian who has lived in New York for a long time, who, according to the narrator, must be at least eighty years old and is two metres tall. They chat and Cagliani invites the narrator and his wife for dinner. His wife cries off but the narrator goes and finds that Cagliani can recognise precious stones by their taste. After some mumbo-jumbo Cagliani says that the narrator should go to Saorge, a town the narrator has previously visited, where he will find an emerald which will be of importance to him. The narrator does go to Saorge but his wife refuses to stay with him the two weeks he plans to stay and leaves. He pokes around the town, finding nothing that could lead him to the emerald, then ends up falling asleep in his hotel room. The rest of the novel, except for the final few pages, is the dream he has while asleep.

In the dream, he seems to be in some future world. The world is divided into a North Zone and a South Zone, the two apparently divided by some sort of radioactive strip of land, so that crossing between the two is restricted. The border line in Italy is somewhere south of Siena, so that Italy is divided between the two zones. The North Zone is under some sort of communist control, with Russians in abundance but, as we later learn, not controlled directly from Moscow. Children are taken from their parents at birth and brought up to avoid harmful influences such as family love. While there is some technology, cinema and TV, for example, do not exist. Our hero, when he awakes, is living in some sort of rural cottage and eventually finds out that he is a fairly well-known painter, called André (to the French) and Andrea (to the Italians) Tellarini. He also has a twenty-year old son, whom he will shortly meet.

Much of the novel will recount the journey Andrea, accompanied some of the way by his son, will make to the South Zone, specifically to Naples. He is carrying a large and valuable emerald to Mariolina, whom he knows in this life but who is also Genevieve, his first wife in his waking life. The journey describes blighted landscapes – Rome is in ruins and virtually deserted – and strange characters. He will meet up with a group of gypsies, with his son going off with one of the women while one of the men, Carmelo, will take Andrea to Naples (they even have a quick homosexual fling). When they get to Naples, apparently under the control of the Shah of Iran who is having an affair with the married Mariolina, things do not quite work out as planned, not least because the emerald may not be genuine. And, of course, Andrea wakes up at the end, back in Saorge and back with wife number two. Has the narrator discovered himself? And what was the point of the emerald? Who was Cagliani and what was his role? It is never really explained, the story ending rather abruptly, but the journey is certainly well told and the novel is certainly different.

Publishing history

First published 1974 by Mondadori
First published in English 1977 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich