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Paolo Volponi: La macchina mondiale (The Worldwide Machine)

Though it had some success in Italy, this book is pretty well unknown in the English-speaking world. It is something of a strange and unusual book but, like the rest of Volponi’s work, is well worth reading. It tells the story of Anteo Crocioni, a young man of a farming family in Italy (not far from Urbino) in the 1950s. Anteo has developed a theory that men were actually made by other men, by a race that has since died out or by aliens. His view is that we should be now preparing to make the next generation of men. Naturally, this does not go down too well in conservative, Catholic Italy. Anteo is no saint. The book starts off by telling how he has been summoned to appear at the court in Urbino for beating up his wife, Massimina. He does deny it, though later admits that he did so to force her to understand his views. Indeed, his arrogance – virtually everyone else is too stupid to understand what is going on – is part of his downfall. Before we get to the court, he tells us his story.

He is a normal farming lad. His father eventually disappears, leaving him with the house and a good field that the church claims, as his late mother had apparently written a note saying that she wanted the church to have it. He falls in love with and marries Massimina and tries to run the farm. Meanwhile his ideas have been developing. He is uneducated but manages to get some books with the help of Liborio, a seminarian whom he meets. He supplements his income by petty theft. He starts writing his treatise, expounding his ideas, some of which seem basic left-wing ideas (he will later say that he is a communist without actually being a member of the Party). His criticism of the two powers in the area where he lives – the rich landowners and the church – wins no friends and his behaviour towards Massimina does not help. Massimina eventually leaves him and returns to her family, who refuse to let him see her.

He decides to try his luck in Rome, feeling that professors and others there will understand him. While on the train, he talks to some fellow passengers who indicate that they spoke the previous day to a woman who answers the description of Massimina and who was about to depart for Rome. Anteo is determined to track her down as well as try and get his treatise accepted. Naturally, he has little luck in both endeavours. The people he can persuade to look at his treatise reject it out of hand as having no substance. Finding Massimina in Rome is like finding a needle in a haystack, even when he reports the matter to the police. Finally, broke, he goes to work for a circus, looking after the animals. He becomes friends with a woman who works there but when the circus leaves town he decides to stay in Rome to look for Massimina. He tries to work selling lupins but when he tries to tell the lupin-sellers that they are being exploited, both the owners and the sellers chase him away. Eventually, he does manage to track her down. She is working for a rich lawyer and wants to have nothing to do with him. They do meet but, eventually, as he persistently badgers the lawyer, the police arrest him and throw him out of Rome.

Back home, his farm is a mess. He tries to put it back together, all the while writing his treatise. He takes to hunting to feed himself. He remains alone till he finds that Liborio has become a priest in a nearby parish and they become friends. The trial for his assault on Massimina takes place but the judge does not want to hear his political views and he is found guilty and sentenced to a year in prison, suspended. He meets Massimina again but she tells him that she is going back to Rome and that he may write to her but that is all. At a loss to know what to do, he later reads a story in the paper about Massimina and learns that she has had a child and killed it. Eventually he learns that she killed it because she was worried that it would inherit its father’s unstable mental condition. Realising that he would never get her back, he acquires some dynamite to blow himself up.

Is Anteo insane? We see everything through his eyes and therefore many of his actions seem rational. He is critical of the exploitation of the people by the landowners, the church and the politicians and that is a view held by many. He encourages the workers to organise and accuses them of stupidity for accepting the situation, again views that many rational people hold. His view that we were built by earlier men or another race or even aliens may be highly controversial but his view that we can be improved is interesting, even though vaguely sketched out, and not necessarily the view of a madman. Volponi, by showing us Anteo through Anteo’s eyes and not those of a third party, leaves us thinking that, while unconventional and perhaps slightly unbalanced, he is voicing a view of Italy that makes a certain sense. Whatever the case, it is a fascinating novel.

Publishing history

First published 1965 by Garzanti
First English translation by Grossman 1967
Translated by Belén Sevareid