A rough translation of this review of Di viole e liquirizia by Nico Orengo:

The new novel by Nico Orengo begins and ends with two people talking. They aren’t the same, but they introduce one of the key aspects of the narrative: the conversational form, how it talks about the encounters between people, experiences, and histories. It’s enough to turn the page because the narrative voice — as always, a heterodiegetic narrator; but with Orengo we must be attentive to the ease or difficulty of the narrative structure — he introduces the protagonist, who arrives on all fours at the hotel Savona. It is not exactly a solemn entrance, but it is appropriate for the character, the Parisian sommelier Daniel Lorenzi, who has landed in Italy, and in the Langhe, to give a wine-tasting on the great wines of France.

The man is troubled: divorced from his wife, he has a daughter, Nicole, who runs away from him and her mother, and for whom his friends have found a rehab center. He is a man on the run from from his present circumstances which, it is obvious, are persuing him and give him no respite. Arriving in Langhe, Daniel meets Amalia, his female double. Amalia is persecuted by the memory of her father, who died one night on the family estate while looking for her, a young girl, who had left the house without his permission. Ginotta, the family estate, is half-lost in a game by Amalia’s brother, seemingly an unbalanced character, borderline psychotic, though much of the plot revolves around him. The rest is a story assembled with the usual skill and also with a device that Orengo’s readers have come to expect: the chorus of a small, circumscribed community, where even the big problems (the disfiguration of the land, the constantly changing landscape, the sudden riches and the difficulty of managing them) become the subject of chatter in front of one or more glasses of wine, or during a taxi ride.

Because in “Of Violets and Licorice” there is also a taxi driver, Luciano, who is a bit of a critical conscience of a group that doesn’t want to hear much about conscience or criticism. He drinks beer as an afront to the wine that’s become almost obligatory, criticizing everything, a talking cricket. It would seem, so far, to be a variation on the ambient staging with which Orengo has repeatedly confronted in recent years, perhaps finding its best result in “Curva del latte” (Einaudi, 2002). Not so. To begin with, the author changes the theater; the much loved far western area of Liguria is almost abandoned and the transfer of the facts and personalities to the Langhe has the flavor of a challenge. Orengo is an intellectual and a man of letters too worldly to be unaware that, even today, the Langhe evokes the names of Cesare Pavese and, even more, Beppe Fenoglio. There are no visible traces of Pavese and Fengolio on the surface of these pages. The one and the other, maybe even in the company of Mario Soldati, are nevertheless glimpsed, updated to the present time, in its ability of representing a human and natural landscape that is rapidly mutating. The taxi driver Luciano comments, “You can’t buy anything here. No one is selling. Whoever owns the land holds onto it. The last purchase, it was in the Seventies, went to Fiat in Turin, who bought 17 million hectares. Today it’s worth 700, 800. Look around: they are all millionaires…”

It is not a treatise on political economics, but it’s a sign that “Of Violets and Licorice” puts a bit to one side the light touches that enliven many of Orengo’s works. It comes from a sociologist who knows current times very well. What remains standing are narrative structures that are more congenial — above all, the story of a small and closed community, the vivacity of direct discourse which few in Italy master like he does, and the portraits of women of complex and mysterious charms — the novelty of this book lies in the tone. Nico Orengo touches here and there on the vaudeville and, poorly hidden behind a pair of characters (in addition to Luciano, there is also the quirky, and perhaps unfinished, deus ex machina Eta Beta: without speaking, and this is new also, in a narrative voice less rambling than in other novels), finally putting into play his interests and personal passions.

It seems superflous to add that in a novel the questions are rather more interesting than the answers, and Orengo is careful not to furnish them. He adds instead, and this is actually a confirmation, his sinuous and ambiguous writing that is almost sensual, with a taste for detail that is reminiscent of certain Flemish: both the polyphonists and the painters (but the beautiful cover is by the remarkable Nicola De Maria, “one who writes poetry with hands full of colors”). “Of Violets and Licorice” is not a perfect novel; the complicated conveyance of Daniel to Nice to pick up his rebellious daughter does not seem entirely necessary. It nevertheless is a book with a strong temperament, blunt and disillusioned in times of recession, as much cultural as economic.

Giovanni Choukhadarian

Originally published at ofvioletsandlicorice.tumblr.com.