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Paolo Volponi: Corporale [Corporal]

This is something of a strange book. It had the misfortune to be published the same year as Elsa Morante‘s La storia (History), which got all the publicity while this book was not much noticed. It has not been translated into English (though it has been translated into French). Frankly, it is not a particularly easy book to grasp.

The story tells of two people. The first is Gerolamo Aspri, though we only learn his name about seventy pages into the book, when he is stopped by the police and has to give his name, while the second is Joachin Murieta, the alter ago of Aspri. Aspri narrates his own story while Murieta’s is told in the third person. At the beginning, Aspri is on holiday with his wife and children in Rimini. Like his creator, he has worked for a major Italian corporation (Volponi worked for Olivetti and Fiat) and has been fired for his left-wing views. He is currently a teacher at a private religious school. Now he is trying to analyse himself, find out who he really is while, at the same time, exploring the world around him. We see him obsessed with flowers, with a murder that took place at the beach and above all with Ivana, a young woman at the beach with her grandmother. When a tornado hits the beach, Ivana’s boyfriend, Sauro, is killed but her body is never found. He continues to try and determine who he is – a lover of women (after Ivana, he moves on to other women), a man of political convictions, a father/husband – and how he fits into this world, with all its problems, a common theme in Volponi. He tries to escape the world and the impending atom bomb by building a shelter in the mountains but that does not work, either. He is concerned above all with identity. He has a close relationship with a German, Overath, who is something of a father figure, distant, sometimes admonishing him in a paternal manner. The way he is concerned with Ivana, Maria and Imelde, for example, while certainly sexual is also a need to find out their identities and what they are and how their identities mesh with his, and this is also mirrored to some degree in his need for the very rational, very German Overath.

The parts where he goes to Varese and Milan and adopts the name of the Mexican bandit, Joaquín Murieta, seem to be less interesting, with the Murieta part of his character into drugs and prostitution. The link, if there was ever a doubt, is shown when right at the end Aspri is in hospital and walks out leaving a journal, in his handwriting, entitled The Diary of Joaquín Murieta. But behind all of this, is Volponi’s concern about the rise of technology and its harmful influence on our lives. He is building his shelter to escape to, when the atom bomb falls and, indeed, the book opens with a quote from Elsa Morante on the atom bomb. This theme will be found throughout this book (and his other books).

This book now has a reputation in Italy (though it is not well-known outside Italy) as one of the great works of the latter half of the century. From its slightly odd title (it is corporal in the sense of body, not the army rank) to its rambling approach, from its psychology (Freud and Lacan are clear influences) to its split personality lead character, its attempt by one man to find out who he is and how he fits into the world of the time (neither of which he really achieves) it certainly makes for an unusual and very interesting read. Of course, you will probably never be able to read it in English and it is even out of print in Italy at the time of writing.

Publishing history

First published 1974 by Einaudi
No English translation

Published in French as Corporel by Robert Laffont 1975
Translated by Michel Sager