Peter Mitchell reviews Malacqua: Four Days of Rain in the City of Naples, Waiting for the Occurrence of an Extraordinary Event by Nicola Pugliese

Translated from the Italian by Shaun Whiteside (And Other Stories, 2017)

Times of political violence and foreboding generate portents: think of Shakespeare, living in a culture obsessed with comets and visitations, writing plays in which no downward adjustment in the political world isn’t heralded by disorders of the air, meteors, or the dead gibbering in the streets. Queered, paranoiac iterations of pathetic fallacy help us to put a name to the uncanny resonances between the collapse of the individual subject and systemic crisis. In times of collective existential risk, there’s a weird comfort in exercising the apocalyptic imagination: not only does it let you submerge your very sensible worries about your own vulnerability in the bizarre ecstasy of fantasies of general dissolution, but it gives pattern, form, and reason to anxiety born of an experience which defies all three. However helpless you are in the face of your historical circumstances—the collapse of the postwar liberal order, say, or climate change, or resurgent fascism—imagined apocalypses let you contemplate catastrophe as something rich in meaning, irony, and even utopian possibility.

Floods are great for this. The image of a shark nosing down a Houston freeway in the wake of Hurricane Harvey may not have been genuine, but its wide circulation testified to the uncanny satisfaction to be found in the radical inversion that floods enact. Fire from above leaves nothing behind and martyrs its victims; water is insidious and implacable, and the destruction it wreaks doesn’t so much destroy as engorge, rearranging human landscapes according to its own bizarre logic, leaving them spongiform and monstrous. And the Anthropocene, of course, makes horribly apparent what the playwright of King Lear knew: that the natural and human worlds are legible indices of each other, and that meteors and storms, floods and earthquakes are political events. As I write this, Houston is still underwater, and the lineaments of a carceral ethno-state that works in conjunction with a warming climate to discipline and punish are becoming ever more apparent: those resonances have escaped from the realm of the fabulist and the uncanny, and become all too material.

Nicola Pugliese’s Malacqua, a strange and visionary novel about an apparently endless rainstorm in Naples, predates this new significance of floods, but the baroque weirdness of its apocalyptic imagination has a lot to tell us nonetheless. It also comes to Anglophone readers as something of an enigma. Pugliese was a journalist who lived and worked most of his life in Naples; he published Malacqua in 1977. It sold out in a couple of days. Pugliese forbade any reprints or reissues, withdrew the whole thing from publication, and died, in 2012, without having published any more fiction. Since his ban on further publication ends with his death, And Other Stories have seized on the book as a more-or-less forgotten classic of melancholy Italian postmodernism. The fact that Malacqua has been effectively buried since its first appearance makes it even more difficult not to read it as an artefact of Italy’s long, ugly crisis of the 1970s, reanimated with impeccable timing for our own widening gyre.

The essential premise of the novel is more or less summed up in the title: an apparently endless rain falls on Naples, undermining streets and storm drains, paralysing infrastructure, making buildings subside and collapse. As the rain continues, stranger visitations begin to occur: a doll, abandoned in the Baronial Hall, begins to emit deafening screams; the change in people’s pockets begins to play music; the sea level shifts. The city’s reaction to these events, as the sewers back up and plaster peels soddenly from walls, makes for a febrile, bathetic comedy of civic manners and popular disorder.

If this kind of fabulism is familiar from the high postmodernism of the period—Italo Calvino acted as Pugliese’s advocate and midwived the book’s publication—it is saved from the risk of winsomeness by a tenacious grounding in the local. Pugliese is clearly writing here about his hometown, with ferocious and unforgiving love. The city’s inhabitants could be Joyce’s Dubliners in their paralysis and frustration, their immovable indifference to what’s happening, and their scarcely articulable longing for whatever’s coming to split it all open. The novel unfolds as a succession of vignettes, recurrent plotlines, and digressions, each one inhabited by a character: a melancholic journalist whose investigations lead him only deeper into a kind of agonized waiting; a lonely schoolgirl who is the first to find that the change in her pocket has started to sing pop music; a young woman newly in love and already learning boredom; a cigarette seller; a switchboard operator; a fireman. In the moment of suspension that the rain brings—everyone slowly abandoning their jobs, dropping out of the daily circuits of obligation and survival, and giving themselves over to inchoate anticipation—Pugliese assembles a portrait of his city as he knows it, a fugitive realist novel under cover of the fantastic. He sustains a curious double vision, in which Naples is both Europe after the Rains and the apparently ordinary world that existed before them: whatever yearning or terror the events arouse in Naples’ inhabitants were there all along, only waiting for the irruption of the weird to throw them into proper relief. Fabulism provides cover for elegiac portraiture, and the real subject of the novel discloses itself not as the sequence of events leading towards some revelation, but as the frustration and yearning that attends its deferral: Pugliese’s Neapolitans wait in agony for it all to make sense, and it never quite does.

That suspension becomes the book’s controlling obsession. Many of Pugliese’s portraits get to speak, turning the novel into a succession of soliloquies which return insistently to the rain, to the sense of waiting for something to happen, to the gentle dissolution of order and time around them, or to the restrained fury of renunciation which the rain externalises. In its most penetrating moments this soliloquy often breaks the bounds of individual portraiture and becomes pure unattributed voice, as if the citizens of Naples were speaking collectively. The novel’s various voices—official reportage, realist narrative, ironic fantasy, soliloquy, collective unconscious—play against each other within the space of a few lines.

During the night of that third day of rain, reliable witnesses state that they saw cars slipping silently on the grey of the tarmac with white lights, with red lights, with blue lights, and without sirens, without breaking the silence, and those cars slipped silently along the streets of the promenade . . . Black darkness, still and silent. One wondered if it would be wise to leave, oh yes, to leave. And why not?, for what specific reason? To gather things together in silence, to close everything up, close it up and lock it up and protect and gauge and assess with a swift glance, and climb inside one’s car, and set it in motion, turn on the lights, reach the motorway . . . Away from the city in the depths of night, as far away as a separation, scorched earth, that’s it, a clean break.

Who is supposed to be speaking here? Who cares? Pugliese interleaves his voices with a formidable complexity, as if daring you to try to read against the novel’s central conceit of entropy and fluid disorganisation. Whether to trust in the existence of a controlling structure, even when you can’t see it, is entirely your own concern. But those portraits of Neapolitan paralysis, sandwiched between the vaulting irony of the over-narrative and the subterranean murmur of a collective unconscious, and buttressed by the local and the domestic, the specific and the grounded, against the forces of disintegration both in the novel’s world and in its text—they persist, after you’ve finished reading, like an after-image on the retina.

That intimacy is, I think, one of the strongest reasons to read Pugliese in 2017, as good medicine for the psychological pressure of living in an atmosphere of constant expectation of ever-more-novel catastrophes. To experience history in an age of twenty-four-hour news makes every waking moment an agony of anticipation; you’re always waiting for some kind of revelation, for a pattern to become apparent, or at the very least for an atrocity or a moment of hope that’ll surprise you. The citizens of Malacqua experience this feeling for only four days, and find it nearly unbearable: the only counterweight is their private lives. Those lives persist obdurately in all their frustration, love, unhappiness, joy, horniness, and befuddlement; and they constitute resistance, of a sort.