Florian Duijsens reviews Giorgio Vasta's Time on My Hands
Translated from the Italian by Jonathan Hunt (Faber & Faber, 2013)
1978, the year I was born, was not a year with thirteen full moons; it had twelve, as most years do. In Giorgio Vasta's Time on My Hands, however, an extra lunation has been written in, put on the year's ballot to signify a cosmological instability or irregularity. The skies themselves are out of whack.
Italy, where the novel is set, had an especially rough 1978. Though it was to be one of the last 'Years of Lead,' after the bullets that terrorists from both ends of the political spectrum showered on the nation's population between 1969 and the early 1980s, no end was yet in sight. According to Euronews, this gruesome segment of Italian history saw 12,770 acts of terror, 8 bomb attacks, 342 dead, and 5,390 wounded, of whom 1,500 were permanently disabled.
Though the reader is immediately and uncomfortably transported to a time of dread, Vasta's unnamed protagonist, only eleven years old in 1978, would never have known a world not constantly under threat of sudden violence. Nor does the child place any blame on the terrorists specifically (after all, the Red Brigades, the left-wing terrorist group taunting the country at the time, were perhaps not widely supported but also not necessarily condemned), finding fault instead with Italian culture itself, with its focus on fluffy pop music, silly TV shows, and paralytic nostalgia. The latter is especially galling to him, coming in the form of Intervallo, a sequence of picture-postcard views screened during program intervals on national television. Our protagonist feels something is lacking in these idylls, calling them "ghosts of the landscape, deluders of the national self-image," portraying a "beautiful semiliterate Italy, too honest to need a knowledge of grammar." This disconnect sets him on a quest for a new kind of grammar, a language that can make sense of his Italia violenta.
He is not the first of his countrymen to doubt the national identity's reliance on beautiful ruins. In 1909, the Futurists decreed a similar discomfort:
We want to free our country from the endless number of museums that everywhere cover her like countless graveyards... Make no mistake, I'm convinced that for an artist to go every day to museums and libraries and academies (the cemeteries of wasted effort, calvaries of crucified dreams, records of impulses cut short!...) is every bit as harmful as the prolonged overprotectiveness of parents for certain young people who get carried away with their talent and ambitions. (F. T. Marinetti, trans. Doug Thompson)
Unburdened by any such overprotectiveness, the boy who is both the novel's narrator and protagonist spends most of his time away from his parents, playing with his two best friends, the fiery ideologue Scarmiglia and the far meeker Bocca. Vasta (virtuosically translated here by Jonathan Hunt) shines brightly in his depiction of the inherent power dynamics of boyhood:
We'd agreed to race from the school gate to the other side of the square. It was our way of organizing our relationship, satisfying our rivalry, settling our hierarchy.
As with many boys, even their play is methodical; they don't just kick a ball around, they reenact the goals of 1978's World Cup:
It was an exercise in submission of the individual will. It meant abandoning any idea of playing freely, just for fun, and accepting an imitative, subordinate role, waiting till the event had occurred and replicating it. Playing was an experiment, the field a laboratory where we reproduced the moves we'd seen on TV in order to study them.
It is clear that Vasta sees the dangerous potential in boys, their strange hunger for clear-cut categorizations, for discipline, for violence.
At their school, the three boys stand out for their seriousness, their interest in political news, their distaste for the flip and the ironic. Whereas the Red Brigades were fired up by industrial exploitation and the growing forces of capitalism, these boys fear the end of ideology itself. They see a lack of commitment in the language of their time, in a society "simultaneously involved and detached, observant and corrupt, resigned." Even before the days of Berlusconi and his seamless fusing of orange-tanned TV personality and corruption as a way of life, Italy's celebrity-fueled news cycle was already feeding itself.
"Every week," [Scarmiglia] said, "everything is renewed. There are new records, each with its own sleeve, new films, new TV characters. New issues of magazines appear on the newsstands. All these novelties combined produce a shared imagery that enables Italy to hold itself together. Because in fact it's falling apart. Every celebrity who ends up on a magazine cover or a screen becomes a center, something that ought to provide stability. And so bodies and poses accumulate. But the center is unstable; it holds for a week, then everything moves on, in a cycle of supposed revolutions that in fact serve only to preserve the status quo."
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold—Yeats's "Second Coming" rings strongly through the boys' denunciation of the pop culture that surrounds them, its language as baseless as it is incessant, and Vasta's tightly wound plot ensures it doesn't take a poetry reader to feel the threat of anarchy loosed upon the world.
To understand why it is that ideology is so important to these boys, and what exactly they understand by the word itself, we must first grasp why language is so important to our protagonist. He has a great pleasure in precise names, and the book is filled with the most specific words for, say, a mosquito's anatomy or with academic Latinate adjectives such as sebaceous, cucurbit, pulviscular, or sidereal.
Yet it's not mere nerdiness that fuels this dictionary hunger; it's that naming things is the only moment he truly feels in control of his life. In all their Marxist-Leninist certainty, the Brigades suggest they have found a language that can explain the world behind the world, the real world, making theirs an immediately attractive cause for the boy.
Emotions such as fear, love, or desire, then, are hard-to-deal-with concepts for this self-described "ideological, focused, intense little boy, a non-ironic, anti-ironic, refractory little boy—a non-little boy"; emotions cannot be anatomically or etymologically analyzed, as they have no real-world equivalent. And just like emotions, the one 'thing' that remains out of his linguistic reach, unnameable, is a girl.
The crush he has on the one Creole girl in school—though he of course could never call it a crush—is impossible to integrate into the dour-boy ethos he and his friends are developing. Her very existence stupefies him; he doesn't even know her name. (Not that naming her would solve matters, as words seem to have no dominion over her.)
She was so beautiful, so serene; I heard packs, swarms, flocks of words move from the world toward her; whole dictionaries disappeared into her body, all conceivable language became microscopic matter and found a place within her flesh.
Her singularity makes it impossible to use words to describe, let alone address, her. Crippled by this linguistic impossibility of communication, he tries different means, secretly lining up a row of snails ("fingers of solid, gray water"), letters painted on them with his mother's nail polish to spell out his questions for her. Needless to say, both his hopes and his snails are crushed in the rush of children storming the school steps the next morning, and she remains unaware of his tortured existence for that much longer.
His friend Scarmiglia has his own issues about language, condemning the use of Palermo dialect as too simplistic, focused only on the sensationalistic: "to a dialectal Palermitan, every event is a horror." The protagonist seems to agree, but only due to the dialect's naturalness; to him language should be artificial, separate from the world it describes. His own desire, then, is alien to him, too natural to make sense of in linguistic form.
Though love might be too abstract, what of sex? It's not that he doesn't understand sexual mechanics—he's been extensively and illicitly schooled by the graphic images in comics (see some NSFW examples of the rich world of 1970s Italian porn comics at Vasta Images/Books, no relation)—but he does find it terribly hard to see how the girl would fit into those scenarios; his own fantasies seem irreconcilable with those of his countrymen or fellow readers:
[S]uddenly the Creole girl was there, bewildered among the pornoworld pictures. She looked around at the huge penises and cavernous vaginas, uncertain which way to go, then wandered about, a tiny figure among the pen-drawn movements, and eyed them anxiously, she herself nothing more than the faintest of sketches on the paper, always on the point of disappearing. She sat down beside the mustachioed man, looked at him and the penis in his hands, then turned toward the beast-woman and observed the cannibalistic mechanics of the penetration, the astonishing feast that the fair-haired man was making of the impaled woman.
Scarmiglia, for his part, seems untouched by preadolescent dilemmas such as these; his focus is exclusively on ideology, an ideology frightfully without basis, without cause. Soon, the boy takes on the leadership of the other two boys and their discussions take on increasingly fascist-sounding (though never actually political) forms:
"The Red Brigades," I said, "are the only people who've understood that a dream without fulfilment is bound to wither." ... "What the Red Brigades have grasped," he said then, in a very low voice, "is that a dream must be linked to discipline; it must become hard and geometrical, and be projected toward ideology." ... "The Red Brigades feel all this," he said; "they are all this. They lend substance to what is intangible, pith and impulse to what was shell and inertia. They've excised the political gland of an entire nation, and now they're forcing Italy to look at them."
This alarmingly mature ideological chatter turns out to be political just like the futurist manifesto was political, ideology as unfounded and useless as the most thrilling works of art. Yet Vasta is also saying something about the politics of terrorists, the way any ideology that's drawn too starkly turns to parody, the way any single-minded thought blinds itself to the position of others, or the way a boy's harsh judgment can become weaponized, a danger to the world.
If all this sounds like DeLillo, it's because Vasta evokes a more lyrical and less clipped DeLillo, and one profoundly interested in the demarcations of innocence and ideology. Like the American author before him, for instance in the semi-randomly killing terrorists of The Names, Vasta tries to get under the terrorist's skin, to figure out what hold terror itself has on us, what hold dread.
In the weeks after 9/11, we were encouraged to go out and live our lives as if everything was normal, as if everything was ok; not doing so would mean 'the terrorists have won.' This mindset suggests Al-Qaeda's aim was not to avenge Palestine or the United States' immoral and military hegemony, but to make Americans fear for their lives, fear they could be struck down at any place, at any time. For a long time the attacks did have this paralyzing effect, American homes suddenly awash with dread about what tomorrow might bring. And although the Red Brigades shared an actual list of demands much more quickly, their acts of terror were also intended to instill a spirit of dread in men of power.
The three boys turn their admiration for the Red Brigades into plotting their own attacks, giving Palermo a taste of the reign of blood so far reserved for the streets of Rome. The Red Brigades started with fiery bombings, then moved on to 'symbolic' kidnappings, their victims released after a brief captivity. After their first assassination, they turned to kneecapping people in professions they opposed: politicians, army officials, industrialists, journalists. The apex of their activities came in 1978: the kidnapping of former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro, a fifty-five-day ordeal that had Italy on tenterhooks, with letters being sent back and forth, the Pope chipping in, but negotiations ultimately falling through and Moro's corpse delivered back to Rome in the back of a Renault 4, shot to death through a red sheet, his lungs perforated.
It was a message writ in blood. The Red Brigades simply did not recognize the legislature or authority that imprisoned or threatened them, instead electing themselves guerrilla judges conducting a nationwide trial that found many prominent men wanting and guilty. In the chilling documentary They Were the Red Brigades, interviewed former Brigades state that they never saw the people they kidnapped, maimed, or killed as enemies, nor as people that directly caused them any harm; they were just cogs in the machine the Brigades would give up their lives to destroy. That machine was Western capitalism, and its weakest cog was Italy's democracy; when that fell, the rest of Europe would follow.
Though the boys follow the Brigades' example and start their own terrorist cell, they have no such lofty aim. In the end, they seem merely to want to step outside the system. Just as the Red Brigades proclaimed themselves outside the law when they accorded themselves the status of 'political prisoners,' the boys aim to declare themselves as fundamentally hors concours; they do not want to participate in a system based on systemic irony, a culture revolving around itself.
Their name: WIN—Wild Italian Nucleus. The nucleus, of course, is what contains a cell's DNA, and it's essential in reproduction. A wild nucleus, then, can be conceived of as anything from cancerous to evolutionary—offspring gone wild.
It is when WIN's actions become public that Vasta's book is funniest, though the comedy is pointed and morbid:
[S]ome parents shouted that this couldn't go on, that it was one thing to have the Red Brigades elsewhere, in Rome, or in the universities, or at worst in the secondary schools, but that this kind of thing could not be allowed to happen in middle school.
In the boys' communiqués to the town, their language is a parody of the Red Brigades' strident ideologizing: "Forced by risible considerations of age into a subordinate social position, we react by constructing the destruction of the system itself." Having mastered the terrorists' jargon and discipline, they have also mastered the art of terror. More like futurists or pure anarchists than the terrorists of their day, they attempt to turn a state of panic into existence, revive an exhausted reality through the introduction of chaos.
WIN's campaign, which starts with petty arson, soon turns more violent. And as the reader has sensed from the book's first pages, murder is inevitable.
A note on dread: Like Chekhov's fabled first-act gun or the body thawing in the prologue of The Secret History, this book is charged with dread from the opening paragraphs. Not that there are any corpses—not yet, though the protagonist does torture a sick stray cat, slowly pressing a piece of rusty barbed wire into its thin matted fur. As we know from countless serial-killer backstories, animal cruelty at an early age is a one-way ticket to the realm of Chianti cannibalism or Arkham Asylum.
The originator of this stock plot ingredient is probably Freud, in whose Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex we find an explanation that's a little less Profiler and a little more Freudian, natch. Starting from the familiar observation that children can be cruel because they lack the experience to engage in empathy, the ur-psychologist points his finger at the kids' erogenous zones:
Children who are distinguished for evincing especial cruelty to animals and playmates may be justly suspected of intensive and premature sexual activity in the erogenous zones... The absence of the barrier of sympathy carries with it the danger that the connections between cruelty and the erogenous impulses formed in childhood cannot be broken in later life.
Vasta's book makes no such easy parallels between sexuality and sadism. In fact, the boys' first murder is scarily physical but not at all sexual; it seems that while they see that ideology and sex are somehow related, and certainly the Red Brigades hold a sexy appeal, it's simply not an appeal that they can do much with in their barely pubescent state, with their desire unfocused, their bodies not yet developed.
Dread, in its literary form, can be defined as a state of fear, a fear of something terrible and unnameable, a form of dramatic irony based on the certainty that something awful will inevitably happen, we just don't know when, where, or how.
From the early animal torture, the fascist slant to the boys' discussions, and the smothering atmosphere of terrorist threat, the reading experience becomes more and more dreadful—more and more full of dread. As soon as Vasta describes the boys' slow classmate, or as soon as we see Scarmiglia has noticed the protagonist's conflicted glances at the Creole girl, we know things won't end well for these two. The question then becomes: Why keep reading if we are only heading for a horrible DeLilloan abyss of death and destruction?
Strangely enough, what kept me going was this dread, this teleological drive that would inevitably lead to murder or even rape. Well, that and the hope that clings to any first-person protagonist, that he or she is a good person. Not to be confused with Hollywood's predestined arc towards the happy ending, it is this involuntary hope that makes unreliable narrators a thing and that made Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl such a strong bestseller. Why should we expect our narrators to be reliable? Why insist that they be good?
These perennial questions obscure the reassuring reflex behind them: that we identify with our narrators, and that all we want is to, at heart at least, be good. Vasta's narrator, in all his pre-adolescent confusion, just doesn't know what that would be; that kind of ethics being as hard for him to parse as love, or fear.
You could say that dread is a terrorist's raison d'être, all the more so when it is spread for its own sake, as with the three boys and WIN. The novelist and the terrorist in this case share a certain skill set, then. As Jack Gladney, the Hitler Studies professor of DeLillo's White Noise, suggests, writers and terrorists are not the only ones:
All plots tend to move deathward. This is the nature of plots. Political plots, terrorist plots, lovers' plots, narrative plots, plots that are part of children's games. We edge nearer death every time we plot. It is like a contract that all must sign, the plotters as well as those who are the targets of the plot.
As the boys' campaign of terror on their school draws the attention of the Palermitani, Scarmiglia's speeches become ever more filled with contradictions, turning into lectures in paradox of sorts. Soon the boys are developing their own language, 'Alphamute,' consisting entirely of twenty-one gestures cribbed from pop culture, such as Travolta's wide-legged pointing of a skyward hand from Saturday Night Fever—here denoting an unforeseen event. In practice, of course, Alphamute proves not only ridiculous, but also unwieldy: an incommunicable language.
While our protagonist is showing signs of deviating from Scarmiglia's escalating drive towards violence as an aesthetic instead of a means to some ideological end, the animals he has tortured in the past start to haunt him. Here, my reading experience began to flag. Ghosts of the past haunting the present, guilt personified in specters—it all seemed a little too familiar, and to my mind a hallucinating narrator is as much fun as hearing about other people's dreams, only more infuriating, as one assumes the author tried to hide some kind of meaning amidst all that obfuscatory fog.
Yet as much as these invasive apparitions annoyed me, the plot had been set in motion, my dread propelling me to its inevitable horrible end. Which is exactly when Vasta pulls out a masterful deus ex machina in the form of Venera 11, a Russian space mission that landed on Venus in 1978. (Yet, as Wikipedia drily tells us, it never could send back all its findings, as its lens cap had never come off. It did find lightning and thunder, however, so there's that.) I'll not be a spoilsport here as to what the final reels of plot reveal—and it took me a second reading to feel I was following along—but know that the protagonist's struggle to understand the world, the struggle to communicate his feels, if I'm allowed a drop into internet patois, is ultimately both frustrated and resolved. Even failed communication, it turns out, is communication.
Tracking the girl as part of the plan for a new act of terror, the protagonist starts to catalog all the parts that make up her:
Her eyes were ocular globes. They were situated in the orbital cavities. Inside them was the vitreous humor, which was a transparent jelly; on the outside was the sclera, which was fibrous and opaque. The hair and nails were keratin; keratin was a protein containing sulphur. Inside the ear was the cochlea, which was a bony spiral; it contained the perilymph and the endolymph. The heart consisted of striated muscular tissue and was surrounded by the pericardium.
No matter how hard he stares, he can't get a grip on her, on his own attraction. You might be able to name each anatomical part of a loved one, as our protagonist learns—to name each molecule or nucleus even—but nothing explains her existence, her importance. Ultimately ours is perhaps a mineral life, a language made of carbon that connects us to another being, to each other being, a sidereal language that unites us with the stars themselves.