While I try my best to get to as many of the books that drop through my letterbox as possible, unfortunately several get squeezed out by later arrivals and end up forgotten and unloved somewhere at the back of my bookshelves. It’s something that causes me the odd pang of guilt, particularly when the book is from a small press hoping for a little publicity, and today’s choice is one of these forgotten souls, a short novel I received a year or two ago and promptly forgot about.
Which is a shame, because it’s an interesting little book with a dark side many will appreciate, a story of coping with tragedy – and getting even…
Vincenzo Cerami’s A Very Normal Man (translated by Isobel Grave, review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press) is set in 1970s Italy, where Giovanni Vivaldi, a civil servant working on pension paperwork, is looking forward to his imminent retirement. His joy at the free time he will soon receive is compounded by the hope that his son, Mario, might be able to take his place, as the younger Vivaldi is an accountant preparing to take the entry exam for the civil service.
However, when it becomes clear that Mario’s ascendance to his father’s job is far from a done deal, Giovanni realises that he may need some outside help. While his wife seeks divine intervention from the church down the road, he instead turns to his boss, Doctor Spaziani, who recommends joining the Freemasons. Surely with God and a shadowy organisation on his side Mario’s path to prosperity is assured? Sadly, in Italy nothing is ever that simple…
A Very Normal Man is sarcastically titled as it proves to be the story of anything but. Cerami, a journalist turned author and screenwriter, uses the novel to take a look at the Italy of the day, a grey, violent country hamstrung by corruption and nepotism (which may not be a bad thing depending on which side of the desk you’re on). Every trip into town is accompanied by aggressive confrontations and the usual traffic chaos:
On either side of him score on score of cheap runabouts ripped past at full speed, mounting the curb freely, driving along the tramlines, young thugs at the wheel in a breakneck charge, horns blaring as if they were delivering road victims to Emergency at San Giovanni.
p.8 (Wakefield Press, 2015)
When Giovanni gets to work, the situation is no less bizarre. Having managed to escape from the walk of shame of the latecomers, he then goes up to his office in the large, gloomy ministry building – to relax until his boss finally arrives an hour or two later (efficiency doesn’t seem to be highly prioritised in the Italian civil service).
Giovanni himself is initially a, well, very normal man. He goes to work every day, enjoys his paperwork and is well regarded at the office. When taking a break with his son, his accountant side shows through in his meticulous organisation, changing the batteries in the old clock there, just in case. Even during the stressful situation of his induction into the Freemasons, he takes his time with the application from, checking carefully for spelling errors. It’s a level of organisation that will hold him in good stead later when it will be very important for him to keep his head.
There’s a fair amount of humour in the book, with much of it initially focused on Giovanni’s gloomy work environment. There’s something very British about the quirks and inefficiencies of the Ministry, with the separation of workers and bosses, and the poor man’s ordeals on joining the Freemasons also throw up some clever scenes. In fact, these early parts are deceptive, pushing the reader into expecting a certain type of story, when it actually turns out to be a rather different affair.
A Very Normal Man is a clever book in that you’re never quite sure where it’s going. Without wanting to reveal too many of its secrets, there’s a twist almost exactly half-way through that changes the novel completely, from an amusing comedy of manners to a darker tale, where Giovanni tries to recover and prepare himself for the time when he might be able to take his revenge. As all around him first sympathise, and then turn away, he develops a mask that protects him from the outside world while never forgetting the hurt inside, just waiting for a time to deal with it. By showing us the violent environment surrounding his hero, Cerami sets the scene for Giovanni’s reaction to the attack on his comfortable life, and as unexpected as his subsequent actions are, they never seem as unlikely as you might expect.
I realise that today’s review seems a little secretive, and there’s good reason for that. A Very Normal Man is a fairly short work, and with the turning point coming so far into the story, it’s hard to really discuss it without giving too much away. However, I enjoyed my little trip to Italy, even if it does turn a tad dark towards the end, and Giovanni is a wonderful invention, a man who uses the skills he’s learned throughout his life to a very different end. As those around him attempt to console him, he tries his best to push on:
Giovanni alone knew the secrets of his heart. It bothered him that they’d started treating him normally again. Could they really think he’d stayed the same, as if nothing had happened? Could a man such as himself let life cheat him like this? (p.71)
The answer, of course, is no – I’ll leave it to the reader to find out just how our very normal man decides to take his revenge…