It should come as no surprise—if titles mean anything at all, that is—that Pitigrilli’s Cocaine was banned shortly after its 1921 publication. The slim Italian novel is not short on the white stuff, and it doesn’t skimp on the excesses we associate with its sniffing: sex, orgies, general underworld shadiness, all glimmering with the luster that illicit substances (if only through their very illicit-ness) can provide.
To readers in 2014, the novel’s purported depravity may appear mellowed, but Cocaine shocks the system all the same. The real blow in reading this nonagenarian novel, rereleased in a new translation by Eric Mosbacher through New Vessel Press, is its stomach-turning linguistic smarts that elevate this by-turns insightful and nonsensical tale to M.C. Escher-esque levels of depth. Cocaine isn’t about the drug, after all: storming through the not-quite surreal, the book reveals the addictive authority of the words we use.