It starts with the cover, and continues with the odd use of language throughout this book: the uncanny impression that you're holding a dog-eared penguin classic in your hands, something published thirty years ago and on all the high school essential reading lists, rather than a brand new release from an independent press from a relatively unknown author.
And if any of that reads like an insult at first, let me assure you straight away that it is meant as quite the opposite. My theory for some time has been that most of the big mainstream publishing houses are now clinically soul-dead while the best and most interesting ideas are left to crop up in the looked-down-upon and unprofitable world of independent small presses. So why I am I so surprised when the proof of this theory finally comes along, and I find myself holding in my astonished hands, page after sublime page: a true modern classic of the twenty-first century which no one else has read yet?
Yes, I did just say that.
The ambition of this book is staggering: to write thirty-six short chapters (most only two or three pages), each set in a different world city, each exposing some unexpected aberration of human desire, and for each to convince independently while also forming a satisfying whole. Connell's technical achievement even in making us feel he has visited each of these cities and are re-visiting them with him, in creating convincing local colour and characters for each setting: this alone, is bewildering, impressive to the point of jaw-dropping. But it doesn't stop there.
Attempts to summarise the contents of this book could easily misdirect the reader into thinking there is horror and sexual perversion within these pages. But really there is virtually neither. It's far too clever and profound for that. Connell has his sights set higher, gazing at the stars, to paraphrase Wilde, while so many of his contemporaries are... well, `nuff said. I am reminded of Andre Breton's great pronouncement that "Beauty must be convulsive or not at all". Yes, Metrophilias is a book full of convulsive beauty, and one that any of the original surrealists would have loved. Its real topic is not sex but desire, in both its physical and spiritual characteristics, and the latter he explores by parading before us fabulously eccentric deviations: lovers of statues, woven rugs, urns, toads, armpits, the list is endless. But the miracle is that each time he repeats this process he shows the arrow of human love bending away from its usual human target and towards.... yes, incredibly: the divine. Not in a specific religious sense, but in that mystical yearning for the unknown, the irresolvable, the magnificent flaw at the heart of nature and in each of us. "Love is Man unfinished", as Paul Eluard said.
One feels haunted upon finishing this book, as you should do, when re-awakened to the marvellous and mysterious in everyday life. So many writers today write to impress us, as if we care. Connell reminds us of the only good reason writers should really write: to inspire us and inspire themselves. Metrophilias goes back to the ancient roots of storytelling, with an innocence and simplicity of intention, like a wave of the Mediterranean breaking over our faces, astonishing and refreshing.
There are stories of genius within this book, like that of a Chinese prince who marries his favourite vase, a Spanish duellist who falls for his own sword, of an Indian yogi so attuned to his senses that he can feel the antennae of every insect walking across him.
The tone varies between the beautifully simple, like ancient fables or Greek myths, to experimental sentences of colliding words and atmospheres, to the deeply lyric and alchemical, like this description of a man ruined by the pleasures of absinthe:
"He will continue to drink, to slide his tongue over its milky emerald thighs... happiness will settle over him like a cloud of lace as on all sides the city roars with the sounds of its eternal fiesta, thoughts fly sharp and straight as arrows to the stars".
And there's another peculiarity. Perhaps through living in Europe for a long time and speaking Italian, Connell has developed an extraordinary ability to write in English (his first language) as if it is translation, that is to say with a splendidly stripped simplicity, like a man rediscovering the beauty of the English language for the first time.
The final extraordinary achievement of this book is what happens inside our heads when we close our eyes afterwards and weigh up together the effect of so many disparate stories from all across our world. The effect is nothing less than a summation of our world, a long lingering taste of that peculiar brew that is the human condition.
You have to pinch yourself to remember that all this came out of one man's head. If you enjoyed Italo Calvino's "Invisible Cities" then you should buy this book to sit beside it. The work of a writer of genius at the height of his powers while the world isn't looking. You heard it here first.