Tullio Avoledo: L’elenco telefonico di Atlantide [The Atlantis Telephone Directory]
Giulio Rovedo is a lawyer working for a smallish banking company, Cassa di Credito Cooperativo del Tagliamento e del Piave (CCCTP), in Pista Prima, a fictitious city in North-East Italy. He is facing two particular problems.
He lives in a flat in a somewhat dilapidated, eccentric building called Il Nobile (named after Umberto Nobile, the Arctic explorer.) The problem is his neighbour immediately above him. He is Architect Aurelio Fabrici. Fabrici is not an architect. He borrowed the title from his late father. (Titles of this nature play a fairly significant role in this book). His parents were killed in a car crash on the day of the Moon landing – no-one knows how it happened. No-one mourned their death.
Their only son inherited their wealth and lives off the proceeds. He spends a significant amount of it on alcohol and heroin. More particularly, he is very, very noisy, frequently shouting and screaming in his alcohol- or drug-induced state, stamping about in the early hours of the morning and having frequent loud showers. At the beginning of the book, he has just eaten a tin of sardines, the tin of which states to be eaten by 1 June 1998. The current date is 16 February, 2000. He is very, very (noisily) ill.
Because of Fabrici’s loud noise, Giulio’s wife, Natalie, and their two young children have had to move out and are living with her mother. Giulio visits at weekends.
The other problem is that his bank is being taken over by Bancalleanza, a large banking group that aims to be the major bank in Italy. By the start of the novel, his department has not been affected but, in other departments, lots of people have been made redundant. However, soon after the start of the book, he receives an email summoning him to Milan, the HQ of Bancalleanza. He is not too worried, as he has been promised by his boss as well as well as the managers at Bancalleanza, that his department will need to remain decentralised.
The meeting does not go too well and he soon learns that he has just three weeks to move to Milan. The decision is made by the mysterious Amon Gottman, whose role is not clear and nor is his nationality.
We now seem to follow various plot lines. Firstly, there is, of course, Giulio’s future in the job. This alters somewhat, with the opposition of the head of CCCTP. Giulio has been given the task of sorting out the bank’s website. This was still early days for websites, at least in Italy, and ccctp.com has been taken over by a hacker, who links to various dubious websites including, in particular, porn ones. To make matters worse, the hacker keeps phoning Giulio and claims to know him. The pair do meet and Giulio does know him but the result does not go well for Giulio. He seemingly has one person on his side, the new head of HR, Cecilia Mazzi.
The second plot line is Il Nobile. A meeting is held to try and deal with various issues, in particular the Fabrici one. That, too, does not go well, at least for Giulio. More interestingly, it seems that there are strange things going on in the building. He is referred to the mysterious Surveyor Vittorio Valdemarin who lives on the top floor in a very secure, fortified flat. Valdemarin was involved in the original building and reveals various mysterious secrets about the building, including the fact that the building was built on the site of strange ruins and that, though the building is thirty years old and many of the residents are elderly, no resident has ever died while still a resident. Even odder, when Giulio leaves, Valdemarin makes a phone call which indicates he is involved in some conspiracy which is to the detriment of Giulio.
The third plot line is Giulio’s marriage, which is not going well, partially because of his son’s health problems but also because of his extended absences and his misbehaviour.
The fourth plot line involves Emanuele Libonati. We will meet him again in Avoledo’s later novel L’anno dei dodici inverni [The Year of the Twelve Winters]. Giulio meets him on a train. He seems a kindly old man. We learn that he was sent to Auschwitz in 1944 but survived and, as a result, has lived alone, not wanting too close contact with anyone, working as an antiquarian book dealer.
Libonati, whom Giulio will meet more than once, seems to be very much on Giulio’s side and is aware of a large conspiracy. He seems to know various people Giulio knows, including Gottman and the hacker. Nothing happens by chance he tells Giulio, Everything that seems to happen by chance is in fact determined by a higher power. The main conspiracy is seemingly run by a US organisation called the Covenant Foundation, which seem both to want the world run by various Egyptian deities and are looking for the Ark of the Covenant, which may or may not be hidden in some archaeological site, including, of course, Il Nobile.
Things get more and more complicated, as regards the conspiracy, Il Nobile and what Libonati reveals to Giulio, with Giulio getting dragged into a seemingly dangerous adventure.
While, to some degree, this might seem to be in Dan Brown and/or Indiana Jones territory – and Giulio mentions Indiana Jones (but not Dan Brown) several times – when we finally get there, it is clear that he is merely mocking those who believe in these massive religious-based conspiracies.
This book had considerable success in Italy but, somewhat surprisingly, has not been translated into any other language. It may well be that readers are not sure what it is about. Is it about a religious-based conspiracy, in other words a sort of fantasy/science fiction, which is something of a stock-in-trade for Avoledo? Is it simply a satire on this type of writing? Is it about difficult neighbours and how we deal (and don’t deal) with them? Is it about a mysterious dwelling, with its own secrets? Is it about the difficulties of employment in Italy, in a changing economy and increased globalisation? Or is it simply a story about a reasonably ordinary man who gets dragged into a complex and often messy situation, against his will?
The answer, of course, is that it is all of these things and perhaps more. At times, I will readily admit, I was not entirely sure where it was going but, in part, that is what a good novel should do. At times, it seemed to slow down and drag a bit, before suddenly bursting into life again. I found it very original and very clever and am surprised that Avoledo seems to be so little known outside Italy. If you do read Italian, I can thoroughly recommend it.
And the title? Well, that’s another book.
First published 2003 by Sironi
No English translation