I finished Diego De Silva’s I Hadn’t Understood, the Italian novel I discussed in my last post. Usually when I finish a book, I have a basic “reading” or take on it. This one, I don’t, just random observations.
- I’m not sure what to think about the ending. From one perspective, it’s happy (it ends with the line “an unexpected wave of happiness crashing over you, without warning”). But since I didn’t really care for narrator-protagonist Vincenzo, I wasn’t sure I wanted him to be happy, or not for the reasons he was. I’m going to pass this book on to my husband; I need someone to talk it over with.
- The cover flap suggests De Silva’s book is “one of the subtlest and most cunning accounts of the Mafia’s [in the book it’s the Camorra] influence on everyday life in recent decades.” I think it was too subtle for me to notice. Or maybe not. Vincenzo feels hard done by; nothing is going right for him. Even as is horrified by some of the things he sees the Camorristi do, he’s envious, because they do things. They take what they want! The yappy little dog in the office next door has terrorized the building for years; Tricarico, his Camorrista handler/bodyguard, breaks into the office and smacks some sense into it. Problem solved. When Vincenzo imitates this kind of brutal action (walking away from his ex-wife in a restaurant, telling off a corrupt official who’s let other lawyers jump a line), he feels empowered by it, but also uncomfortable. I don’t think I understand enough about Italian culture to really get what the book was doing with this.
- I did feel the book was misogynist, ultimately. I’d connect it to Vincenzo’s disempowerment. His ex is more successful professionally, she’s in charge of the kids, she’s got a new partner . . . . He gets to put her down and win a new girlfriend, and that makes him happy. I was reminded of all the news lately about how women are becoming breadwinners and the disruption that can cause in relationships. I have really mixed feelings about these news stories. The idea of the man as “breadwinner”–rather than each partner contributing something important to the household economy–belongs to a particular, and probably brief, historical moment, not to mention to particular cultures and classes. It’s not some deep genetic role (if you grew up reading Laura Ingalls Wilder, say, you know that both Ma and Pa contribute crucially to the family’s survival). I’m pretty sure we can adapt to new roles. But for people who have been raised to think of certain roles as central to their identity, to their masculinity or femininity, the current disruption of those roles is painful and difficult. Even for those who welcome them, negotiating these changes can be difficult. I wondered if the book was exploring these questions, but I wasn’t really satisfied with its answers.
- I liked the IKEA references. Vincenzo refers to all his IKEA furniture by name: “I pulled out the Stefan [chair]” or “I slumped across my Jonas [desk].” This is partly a sign of his failure, of course (divorced guy in crap, mass-produced apartment, fridge full of frozen dinners. In Italy). It also makes him an Everyman (I have some of this furniture in my house). And because the furniture has human names, I think it underscores how, especially at the beginning, he is cut off from or not very good at relationships with people. That’s not a happy state, and I think that’s something the novel emphasizes effectively. It may, possibly, also say something about how easy it is to objectify other people.
- This is a very rambling, stream of consciousness narrative. I thought the Mafia legal stuff would be a bigger part of the book, and it would be structured more like a thriller. No. This might drive some readers crazy. I found it a refreshing change from the more plot-driven genre fiction I tend to read.
- There are a lot of astute observations in the rambles. Vincenzo often notes, for instance, that people behave as if playing to the camera: “When you happen to walk into a building crowded with people, after a while you just naturally start to walk as if you were in line waiting to audition for a part. . . . You can tell me you don’t care about what other people think of you until you’re blue in the face, but I know better: you care. Bodies know when they’re being observed.” This is one of those reader moments where I think, so it’s not just me, then. I like when a book makes me feel less alone, when I find a quirk I have is shared by others.
- There’s quite a bit about falling in love. It’s not romance novel falling in love. Alessandra is hot (so is his ex). They have sex. He thinks he’s falling in love. Um . . . why? But you know, when you’re first falling in love, can you say what the reasons are? I can think of a million good reasons why I love my husband, but I was in the middle of falling in love before I had any idea of most of them. I think I prefer the romance-novel way of narrating falling in love and courtship, but I’m not sure this was any less “true.” (It’s tempting to say it’s a “male” view, vs. the romance-novel “female” view, but I think that’s essentializing and oversimplifying. Not all men think like Vincenzo. Luckily). Vincenzo is right on about how we invest events with meaning after the fact, “when you’re trying to prove your love affair was written by destiny in the stars” (if X hadn’t happened, we never would have met!).
One last thing: I would never have found this book if not for the lovely little independent bookstore in my in-laws’ neighborhood (Hager Books on 41st in Kerrisdale, if you’re a local Vancouver reader). It’s true that like many independents, they don’t carry romance, though they do have a lot of British women’s fiction with romantic elements. They have a great mystery section where I’ve made many happy discoveries. They have a nicely-curated “literary” fiction selection. The people who work there are readers. They’re great hand-sellers who know their stock. The customers are readers, too. I’ve sold books to other customers, and they’ve sold books to me. People stick their heads in when they pass just to comment on something they’re reading.
I picked up I Hadn’t Understood because the cover caught my eye. It’s a lovely trade paperback on nice heavy paper (although I found a surprising number of copy-editing errors). It’s published by Europa editions, which I don’t think I’d ever heard of. It’s in translation. How would I stumble across this at Amazon?
I love book blogs, Goodreads, and online reading friends; that’s how I find most of my books now. I love e-reading; it’s how I read most often now. But I’d miss Hager’s dreadfully if it closed. My reading world would narrow.