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Humour does not translate,
This review is from: The Story of My Purity (Paperback)
In Francesco Pacifico's translated Italian novel "The Story of my Purity", Piero Rosini is a 30 year old, ultraconservative Catholic working for a radical Catholic publishing house. His marriage is devoid of physical contact, and he yearns for his virginal sister-in-law. Largely to escape these longings, he heads for Paris, never the first choice of one seeking to preserve their purity, where he is further tempted by a slightly unlikely group of girls, and one in particular, which is further complicated for him by the fact that she is Jewish. Almost living a separate life in his head, he cannot escape either the intellectual or physical constraints of his old life in Rome. I had high hopes.
For much of the book, I strongly disliked this novel. Part of the problem is that Rosini is deeply unlikable. He's hypocritical, misogynistic, anti-semitic, racist, repressed and generally quite vile and for most of the book is introspectively examining these very aspects of his unwholesome character. He seems young to be going through the mid life crisis in which he finds himself and old for the breast infatuation he has that would shame many a 14 year old boy. The first part of the book, based in Rome, is a particular struggle as the narrator is not in an interesting situation in that he is surrounded by similar people. His publishing house is planning on a book that exposes John Paul II as being Jewish. Yet a fundamental religious group disliking another religious group is hardly challenging. Things pick up slightly when he gets to Paris and even more towards the end of the book, but this still isn't enough to really save it.
There's another problem beyond this structural challenge and that is that much of it simply doesn't translate. That isn't the fault of the translator, Stephen Twilley though. It's not the words that don't translate but the ideas and the humour. It is fairly clearly intended to be humorous but it simply isn't very funny to English eyes. Towards the end, there's a moment of farce which is well written and works much better. It's not that I am a particular fan of farce but simply that this type of humour is easier to cross linguistic and cultural boundaries. Also, I suspect there is a cultural difference in the situation. Italian politics and views are much more prone to extremes whereas English politics and religion is much more benign and extreme views are much more suspicious to us.
In Paris, Rosini falls in with four girls who hang out together but seem to have nothing in common other than a tolerance for Rosini. They nickname him "Chewbacca", which they irritatingly shorten to "Chewb" when surely "Chewie" would be the natural choice, for reasons that are not clear. Perhaps it is his appearance or perhaps it's some reference to the battle between the dark side, although I like to think that it is because he spouts dangerously erroneous information like a veritable "Wookie-pedia". He falls into company with one of them in particular, the Jewish Clelia, and Rosini and her uncle have faith based conversations which rather than seeing Rosini enlightened to other ideas seem to involve them both insulting the other and yet they both see this as a kind of friendship. It's all a little strange.
If you can get as far as the end though, the book does get more interesting. The final chapter is certainly much more clever although even then it falls into the category of interesting rather than enjoyable. But you can see evidence here of why Pacifico might be an interesting writer if you are Italian. Ultimately though the failure of the comedy and ideas to translate are a major barrier here. Introspective novels need something to lift them from the gloom. They either need to be serious or funny and this, unfortunately, is neither although you do get a sense that it is cleverly written.