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Paolo Volponi: Memoriale (My Trouble Began; The Memorandum)

When first released in Italy, this book had a certain amount of success as a thorough examination of industrial alienation. Volponi, of course, had worked for Olivetti and the town where this is set – Candia – seems likely to have been based on Ivrea, the headquarters of Olivetti. The narrator is Albino Saluggia. He is half French but served in the Italian army during the war. He was captured by the Germans and spent time in a prisoner of war camp, where he contracted tuberculosis. The war is now over and he is living with his mother (a widow) by a lake in Candia.

The novel tells of his work experience in the local factory. He applies for a job there. As with Olivetti, there seems to be a certain willingness to help those who were injured in the war. However, the application seems to take a certain amount of time. Eventually he goes to work in the department of a man called Grosset. Grosset is one of the few characters he finds sympathetic. The story follows Saluggia’s journey through the system, as he becomes increasingly alienated and struggles to hold on to his individuality. That he is ill seems to be clear but he is not too willing to accept it. The company, however, through its somewhat Kafkaesque doctors and personnel department, is continually trying to get him into the system to take treatment and cures, visiting doctors, having X-rays and warning him of the dire consequences of not doing so. He does not believe the doctors but finds out that they all seem to be in conspiracy together. Whether this is just his paranoia or is really the case is left open to doubt. Indeed, his paranoia extends to believing that his mother is part of the conspiracy. Whatever the truth of the matter, there is no doubt is that he is up against a system that is far stronger than he and can and does outmanoeuvre him. In other words the system will always win against the individual, a message that has since been reinforced in other novels about industry.

Saluggia’s fate is clear. At the end he is sent to stay in a sanatorium where he remains for two years. On his return he finds that his friend Grosset is dead (at age forty-four). He briefly gets his job back but, when a strike is called, he is unwittingly involved and is fired. Volponi’s story of a man’s struggles through a system is well told in the realist manner. This is not Kafka. The doctors and company officials are seemingly well-meaning and kind but, of course, they are looking after their interests and the interests of the company and Saluggia’s interests are paramount only for him.

Publishing history

First published 1962 by Garzanti
First English translation by Grossman 1962 (as My Trouble Began), Calder & Boyars 1967 as (The Memorandum)
Translated by Belén Sevareid