“Darling, what’s this book?” “Which book?”
” Il tempo materiale – by a Giorgio Vasta” “Nope – you didn’t buy it?” “No” “Neither did I…”
So I thought, Well, one of us is starting losing it. We buy too many books and we forget about them.
I had a vague idea it could have something to do with a friend and colleague, so I emailed him to check if he had maybe recommended it to me; it turned out that he had actually lent me the mysterious paperback. “Time on my hands” is the title of the English translation. By far the best Italian novel I have read in ages. beautifully written,the prose is far superior to Ferrante’s. Rich, almost sensual in the relish with which vocabulary is chosen.
It is skillfully narrated in first person by one of the three protagonists – three eleven-year-old boys in Palermo, Sicily, in 1978.
It is a cruel story to read – from the very beginning, when the narrator informs us of his habit of torturing an old cat with a piece of rusty wire. He and his friends are clever, articulated, analytical, and they look at the adult world with unwavering spite. For Italy 1978 was the most shocking of the “lead years”, the years in which street violence and terrorism took over the process of changing Italian society. The young characters in the novel are convinced thet the “Red Brigades”, the extreme left wing terror group which carried out a number of shootings, murders and kidnappings, are the only people who can really change the country. The boys drink in their long, abstruse proclamation, especially those concerning the abduction of Aldo moro, a major politician whom the BR “tried” and executed. They decide that they will emulate the terrorists to help bring about the much needed change in Italian society. After adopting battle names (Nimbus, Ray and flight) they train physically ad mentally, try to make themselves independent of burgeois bonds such as affections, and learn to shadow people and take notes on their habits. They vandalise school properties and finally are ready for the real thing: kidnapping and murdering.
I have asked myself, now and then if the characters’ age is credible. I am not sure. Eleven is really very young, and maybe the age is chosen to show that evil is in our nature from the start, that there is no innocence intrinsic to childhood. Whether one can believe or not that three little boys can murder – not as the casual result of bullying, or of a sudden explosion of violence, but as the deliberate act which concludes a series of carefully planned actions with the purpose of showing that human nature can be bent to ideology, is subjective. It is one of the many merits of Mr. Vasta’s that while we read we believe that such a thing could be. The boys give themselves to ideology as a way to be free from the bonds their childhood imposes on them as sons friends and pupils. No adult, not the dull teachers or Nimbus’ father, ” The stone” and his mother, “The string”.
There are moments of doubt: Nimbus is perplexed that they are “interrogating” (i-e torturing) a victim without really asking questions. Ray explains that they are interrogating the body – which means putting its resistance, and their own stomachs, to the test.
The atmosphere of gloom that pervades the town and the whole country is interrupted by surrealistic passages in which Nimbus has conversations with animals and objects, included a pidgeon and a horse-head shaped puddle (with a tomato for an eye). These seem to try to reach him inside his wall of cold ideology and turn him back into a human being, a child. I don’t think I could have gone through the novel without these crazy hallucinations.
When the trio starts planning its final enterprise the reader’s anguish increases – or at least, mine did. The terror that they would succeed. And when I got to the last pages I read them again, and could not understand for sure. I asked my friend and he, too, said he wasn’t sure. Most commentaters on the Internet go for the positive, optimistic interpretation: at least one of these little boys is redeemed by love. I think the ending is open, that the author chose to be ambiguous, and that we cannot be sure if evil rules, or love saves. I do think that if evil is too much there can be no redemption, anyway.