Giorgio de Maria, “The Trangressionists” (Italian 2019; English 2021)
I got the chance last year to read this short novel by the little-known Italian musician and writer De Maria. Specifically I got the chance to read it in this fluent and expressive new translation by Ramon Glazov (it’s due out later this year from Night Shade Books). Plotwise the book is not complicated: an unnamed narrator becomes aware of, and later joins, a strange group known as the ‘Transgressionists’, folk who go about the city staging strange and unsettling interventions: nothing ostensibly violent, but things odd, unnerving and deracinating. The first Transgressionist the narrator sees is pointed out by his friend Silvio. A middle-aged man enters a sporting goods store:
Despite the place being jam-packed, he was standing in front of that store clerk, but he didn’t say or do anything — at least to my impression — that suggested he was there to make a purchase. He seemed concerned only with the clerk, and the clerk only with him. The other customers’ impatience and the breathless hurry of attendants pulsed all around them…
“Things are getting interesting, am I right?”
“Yes, but I can’t understand what they’re aiming for, unless it’s to hold up people in their shopping rounds?”
“And why should they be aiming for anything? They’re there, and that’s enough.”
Silvio had a point. There was nothing premeditated in the way they’d anchored themselves there, nothing conspicuous. It was simply that: two men of different ages looking at each other at seven o’clock in the evening inside an average shop in Central Turin. All in all, a fairly disarming event.
Later, at a party, the narrator meets the ‘Master’ of the movement. By doing nothing more than raising his glass and saying ‘CHIN CHIN’ this figure manages to strike terror into the heart of the narrator
I now find myself on the threshold of the inexpressible, unable to convey the effect those tiny words had on me and on the three old ladies. If some magical formula for alienation had been uttered in that room, the impact would’ve been much stronger — yet easily explained, since it’s not every day you’d hear such a thing recited, with the proper loftiness, in such a place. But what exorcistic power could a human being ever draw from those hackneyed monosyllables, from that trifling commercial cliché? I don’t know how to answer. I can say only this: the “CHIN-CHIN!” rang out through the bar like it was packed with ultrasonic waves that shot in every direction, piercing glassware, porcelain, bowels and nerves, and leaving nothing undamaged in their wake. … But the deathly quiet that came immediately afterward, the fierce blushes that struck the three ladies’ faces, as if their very modesty had been wounded, how they dashed away — nearly forgetting their handbags, which they ran back in to retrieve — while the Master continued to watch them like a cold-hearted Don Juan, sipping his vermouth with a smile that had become scathing, and the electric charge that ran through the hall when the silence seemed to hit the limit of human tolerance.
De Mario’s ability to make you believe in this kind of reaction, not just that moment of apprehending the skull beneath the skin, but a world in which the skin is starting to shimmer into transperancy such that the skull is unmissable, is remarkable. The narrator is drawn increasingly into this strange world, and becomes increasingly alienated from the regular world, or perhaps becomes increasingly aware of how strange the ‘real’ world has always been.
De Maria’s life was almost as unusual as his fiction. From Glazov’s introduction here I learned that in his youth ‘he was a dextrous and talented pianist, with classical training from Turin’s Conservatorio’ with a speciality in witty songs reacting against his strict Catholic upbringing performed in ‘at-home salons for a close circle of intellectual friends’. He got a desk-job at FIAT, and married a senior director’s daughter, but ‘a poor fit for the white-collar world, he would be fired from various day jobs throughout his life’. Then tragedy struck at the start of the 1960s:
De Maria developed a permanent cramp in one hand that made piano playing impossible. Its cause was never found, and De Maria’s children remain unsure whether it was psychosomatic or wholly organic. Losing his musical ability caused De Maria lifelong pain, and he spent much of his time in front of a piano hopelessly struggling to play with his disabled hand.
Unable to play, he started writing fiction, producing a series of strange, compelling short stories, and then two longer works: The Transgressionists (1968) and The Twenty Days of Turin (1977). Glazov notes the parallels with the kind of fiction J G Ballard was writing at the same time (although it seems De Maria, who didn’t read English, wasn’t aware of Ballard). I can see why, although at the same time (and much as I love Ballard) there’s more of a … well, schtick would be a cruel way of putting it: but a fixed set of particularities to the unease that JGB generates. The reviewer cliché about empty swimming pools and deracinated towerblocks/gated-communities has more than a grain of truth to it. The Transgressionists, though, manages to generate its peculiar affect out of the least expected things. ‘Chin Chin!’ indeed …
De Maria’s writing career did not go smoothly. Like some other sui generis writers he found it hard to reach an audience: too literary for the SF crew, too odd and fantastical for the mainstream. He is also an intensely local writer, as Glazov notes, which can’t have helped his broader popularity:
De Maria had the mixed fortune to live in Turin, a city whose contradictory character forms the soul of his fiction. In the decades after the Second World War, Turin distinguished itself as a bastion of high modernist sensibility, of manufacturing, engineering and world’s fair techno-utopianism. Its rapidly swelling blue-collar population (by the late 1960s, FIAT alone employed roughly 100,000 factory workers in Turin, drawn from all over Italy) also made it a hotbed of left-wing radicalism, competing labour movements and mass strikes against substandard living conditions. Contrasting strangely with this rapid industrialisation was the middle- and upper-class refinement of the old Turin. Bred in a cityscape of baroque royal palaces, the archetypal Turinese native is haughty, honour-bound, cagey and dignified. But our English phrase “stiff upper lip” doesn’t quite capture this culture, whose repression comes with a shell of outward warmth and self-effacement.
De Maria moved through the city’s margins, befriending various avant garde types, including Lorenzo Alessandri, ‘a surrealist painter and occultist who gained a reputation as the “Black Pope” of the city’s Satanist subculture’. Then, in the 1980s, he abruptly repudiated all that and returned to this childhood Catholicism with intense fervour: ‘he published no more fiction from that point on and instead wrote religious essays that his acquaintances judged to be vastly inferior to his previous output. As the new millennium approached, De Maria’s behaviour became increasingly erratic and painful to his loved ones.’ He abused his former friends, acted increasingly oddly and paranoid. At one point ‘he believed that he was an angel and attempted to “fly” to Heaven. He barricaded himself in his home, raucously played on an old violin and then climbed out through the window, standing on a narrow ledge on the fourth floor. Police, firefighters and his family gathered in the street below, begging him not to jump.’ He jumped anyway, though he escaped with nothing more than a turned ankle. He died a recluse.
What matters, though, is the writing, and the writing is strangely powerful and powerfully strange. I don’t want to say more, because I don’t want to spoil this unique novel, but I urge and exhort you to seek it out when it’s published in English later this year.