Malacqua by Nicola Pugliese
Translated by Shaun Whiteside

Last month you might have noticed a flurry of links on Twitter to ‘Books of the Year’ posts. However, as Simon at Stuck in a Book very sensibly pointed out, this was a wee bit premature, given that there was still one twelfth of the year left in which to read books – and he was right. Let’s face it, who knows what real joys and treasures might come up in December. Certainly, I’ve read one of the most extraordinary books of the year this month, and I’m still trying to get my head round it a little bit…

I should ‘fess up straight away that I’d never heard of either book or author before; but I saw an image of it, I think on Twitter?, and noticed that it was emblazoned with a quote from Italo Calvino. That’s enough to get my attention straight away – I have a reasonable number of books on my shelves because they’re lauded by him, or with forewords etc, and I trace my love of Primo Levi and his works back to the fact that I bought “The Periodic Table” when it first came out because of, indeed, a Calvino quote on the cover…

With all that water coming down and coming down, and when you were about to say: there, it’s stopping now, you didn’t have time to open your mouth before the water violently returned, a harsh and predetermined rancour, an irreversible obstinacy.

Any road up, as they say, “Malacqua” has been brought out by the independent publisher And Other Stories. Looking through their back catalogue, I do feel rather ashamed that this is the first of their publications I’ve read, and they’re obviously an imprint worth exploring. The publisher was kind enough to provide a review copy, and once picked up, this was a book I couldn’t put down.

So what exactly is the book *about*? “Malacqua” has an ostensibly simple plot: the city of Naples is afflicted with four days of unceasing, almost biblical rain. Strange occurrences follow: an eerie wailing is heard coming from empty buildings; certain coins begin to play music to the children of the city; buildings and roads collapse, killing citizens; the emergency services and those in charge are puzzled; and, mostly importantly perhaps, we see the effect the rains have on the lives and loves of the people of Naples.

“and Christ!, was this city built on a void?, …”

Weaving through the story is the melancholy journalist Carlo Andreoli, watching the rain come down and trying to fathom its meaning. He is there at the start of the story, reporting on the rain and wondering, like all Neapolitans, when it will stop and why, actually, is it falling? As the rains continue to fall, we dip in and out of the lives of the people of the city, and the constant downpour, although it has a physical effect on many (destroying their homes or indeed their person), has more effect on them mentally or psychologically. The state of suspense and the interruption to the normal daily routine brought about by the deluge allows the city dwellers to take stock, to consider their lives and dwell upon what might actually be the point of it all. In ordinary everyday existence these things never come to the surface, but the strangeness of the rain allows normal functions to be suspended and life to be pondered upon.

Those poor innocent creatures? Yes, of course, they will say that, along with other things, and other facts. But let us also say one more thing, that life is in the end reabsorbed in tranquillity, collective facts are pondered long enough to be diluted a little and confused, and in the end, off you go!, in the end why do you want us to care about this whole mess and this rain falling as if it had never fallen before, my friends, let us regather, let us regather everything.

I can’t go any further without talking about the book’s actual prose, as the writing is quite extraordinary and took my breath away. The language is a liquid, fluid construct, very stream of consciousness, that washes over you, rather like the rains and floods themselves, and the effect is hypnotic. The punctuation is eccentric, the prose lyrical and involving and this, together with the events related, produces an intense and very atmospheric read. The whole effect is to create a sense of waiting, of time in abeyance, of anticipation and when added to Andreoli’s melancholy feeling of impending doom, the strange episodes of wailing dolls and singing coins, there is a real sense that normality has been suspended and Naples has moved outside of the normal time-frame of the world.

I ended this deeply thought-provoking book pondering on its meanings and what the author was saying to me. Obviously, there’s an element of allegory in there, but Pugliese offers no easy solutions, no pat answers, and that’s very stimulating for me as a reader. Calvino comments “This is a book with a meaning and a force and a message”, and I agree that it is, though what it says is not necessarily straightforward. However, I think “Malacqua” considers the notion of what it is to be human, who we are and how we live our lives, how we react to strange and unusual happenings and the basic resilience of the human spirit – which is quite an achievement for a slim novel…

He gets up for the sake of it, but also sees that water, coming down and coming down interminably, and the daylight that hasn’t come. He wonders at that point, he really wonders: how will it end? Because to tell the truth life has fled, now, and sometimes if he and his wife are left on their own there’s always that dark presence, that sad thought of the life that was once their life and has now fled; and when this happens he gets up, always, and says I’m going to the garden because I’ve got things to do.

Author Pugliese

I need to say a word about the masterly translation by Shaun Whiteside, which deservedly received a PEN Award. Obviously, I can only judge the English rendering but it reads magnificently, lyrically, poetically and almost musically in places. If the Italian original is as complex as this, he must have done a hell of a good job to render it in another language… Apparently, the book was originally published in 1977 (damn! if only it had been issued in 6 months time….) but the author never allowed it to be reprinted; I wonder whether there is underlying comment on the state of Naples that I might not have picked up upon?

Will “Malacqua” be in my top books of the year? Most definitely! It’ll be very near the top I think, because it’s rare for me to be so blown away by a book nowadays. The combination of the beautiful and hypnotic language, the intriguing storyline and the thought-provoking concept makes this a stunning book that’s going to bother me mentally for a long time, and I really can’t recommend it highly enough.

Review copy kindly provided by And Other Stories, for which many thanks!

*any weirdness you might perceive in any of the quotations is *not* me mistyping them but is in the original text…..

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