`It was one of those cans of worms they do so well here. You know, everybody guilty, nobody guilty. The government, the church, the Mafia...'
Gay psychological thriller, set in Rome during the last 30 years. A set of police photographs is transferred through the criminal, artistic, gay, religious and journalistic communities of Rome, leaving numerous suspicious deaths in their wake.
The story is told across an number of different time frames and points of view. Lambert switches between the past and present, real and imagined events, effortlessly. ANY HUMAN FACE is a masterpiece of authorial control.
[PAST] Bruno and Alex are lovers. Bruno is older, richer and a successful journalist who has promised Alex assistance in his career. Alex is a semi-whore and/or trainee journalist. Bruno gives Alex some mysterious packages to store in his apartment `for a few days'. On his return to Bruno's place, Alex discovers the mutilated corpse of Bruno. Alex flees home and examines the packages finding them full of police photographs: mug-shots and crime scenes. A few days later Alex meets Jamie in the apartment of the Birdman, an asexual eccentric, pornographic photographer and ad hoc agony aunt, well-known in the Roman gay / art world. Several months previously Jamie had been dumped by his lover (Andrew) and replaced by a `french' photographer. Alex seeks out the photographer and sells him the photos, but when returns the next week for a second instalment of the agreed payment, the photographer does not meet him. He is, Alex is informed, dead. Alone and confused, Alex makes a clean breast of it with the Birdman, who offers to find out all he can about Bruno's murder and a few days later takes Alex to a prison outside the city where nothing of significance occurs...
[PRESENT] Andrew Caruso, the half-Scottish owner of a second-hand bookshop is writing and article about his ex-lover, Michel, a young Belgian photographer who had died (suspiciously?) some twenty years before. Andrew also recalls the beginnings of his first `real relationship' with Jamie, a young English journalism student, in Rome to gain work-experience. Amongst the junk in his flat Andrew unearths a box of Michel's which he had neglected to look inside for many years. Inside the box are the photographs which he bought from Alex. Andrew shows the pictures to Daniela, a journalist and art-critic, and they decided to stage an exhibition in the room above his shop. Amongst the photos is a scrap of paper with Alex's name, an address and a doodle of a fat bird. Andrew remembers once seeing Michel with a fat man in a hat with feathers. Andrew visits the address on the scrap of paper and finds the Birdman still in residence. Daniela suggests that a foreign journalist should write a piece for the exhibition catalogue. Andrew thinks of Martin, a semi-retired journo who once came by to ask after Jamie and stayed to become something of a friend, and asks him to look at the pics. Later Martin explains to his young Ukrainian wife, Alina, his belief that amongst the pictures is the image of a girl, kidnapped around the time the pictures were taken, and never found. The girl's father held a prominent position in the Vatican. Martin covered the case for his newspaper and thinks the picture was taken after she was kidnapped. The picture also shows a man, recognisable, but whom he can't place.
Martin wants to see the pictures again. He identifies the girl as Silvia Castellani. When Andrew tells Daniela she dismisses the picture on the basis that they have several hundred others to chose from. Daniela will pay all the costs of the exhibition.
A girl is handing out fliers for a new cosmetic shop. The job is boring, but very well-paid. She feels she is being watched. Crossing the road, she is dragged into a car and has a bag put over her head. She thinks she is about to be raped. Instead she is driven through Rome and led into a cellar, fitted out as a small apartment. She is left alone there and after some hours a woman brings her some food. She tricks the woman and attempts to escape. She is immediately apprehended by one of the men who brought her there. She is struck by how unconcerned everyone is to conceal their identities and concludes that they intend to kill her...
It has proved impossible to find anything bad to say about ANY HUMAN FACE. It is a fabulously well constructed and written novel. It could be billed as a `gay' novel but the work is so powerful that it transcends such simple categorisation, and it would be a great shame is the book were to be pigeonholed.
The story is essentially one of isolation. All the character's are in essence lonely people who only truly find themselves when they find a partner. Alex, Martin, Alina and Sandro are `winners'; Daniela and Silvia are losers. The Birdman flutters above it all. Rome is place notoriously difficult to establish friendship in, and to some extent, this is the theme of the book. Rome's spirit of place dominates the book, whilst always remaining in the background.
Lambert has clearly been considerably influenced by Alberto Moravia, with some passages so highly reminiscent of Roman Tales
that one almost feels that formal credit should be given. Lambert writes as Moravia may have written, had he written in English. Moravia's standard themes of middle-class angst, the difficulties of finding happiness, sexuality and the necessity of hypocrisy are all present here in a rationalist / realist style.
From the beginning, the book has a very cinematographic feel to it; a Bertolucci feel, falling somewhere between Il conformista and The Dreamers. I was frequently reminded of Bieneix's Diva, with lives torn apart and put back together as they come unwillingly and unwittingly into contacts with objects that have their own independent destinies.
My reading of gay fiction is sadly lacking and I have been unable to dig up anything from the genre which remotely resembles ANY HUMAN FACE. Perhaps it is a truly original work? I would be very keen now to read Little Monsters
, though I expect this is a far superior work.