After Hannibalby Barry Unsworth
Unsworth's contemporary invaders include the Greens, a retired American couple seeking serenity among the Umbrian hills, who are
Golden Umbria is home to breathtaking scenery and great art; it is also where Hannibal and his invading band of Carthaginians ambushed and slaughtered a Roman legion, and where the local place-names still speak of that bloodshed.
Unsworth's contemporary invaders include the Greens, a retired American couple seeking serenity among the Umbrian hills, who are bilked out of their savings by the corrupt English "building expert" Stan Blemish; the Chapmans, a British property speculator and his wife, whose dispute with their neighbors over a wall escalates into a feud of nearly medieval proportions; Anders Ritter, a German haunted by the part his father played in a mass killing of Italian hostages in Rome during the Second World War; and Fabio and Arturo, a gay couple who, searching for peace and self-sufficiency, find treachery instead. And at the center of all these webs of deceit and greed is the cunning lawyer Mancini, happy to aid the disputants--and to exploit to the fullest the faith that these "innocents abroad" have placed in him.
The Chapmans are British; the Greens, American; Blemish, British; Ritter, German; Arturo and Fabio, from the south; Monti, from the north; while Mancini, like God, has no place of originleaving the three Checchetti as the only ones with roots in the richer ocher of the Umbrian soil. But the locals are a conniving lot who approach the Chapmans to ask for reparation when the Chapmans' garden wall collapses into the road shared by all, blaming their expatriate neighbors' moving-truck traffic for the damage. As Cecilia and Harold consult their attorney, Mancini, the elderly Greens, who need to renovate their old farmhouse, are being hoodwinked by the lugubrious Blemish, who intends to fleece them for all they're worth as their "project manager." Ritter, meanwhile, his interpreting career ending in a breakdown, is meticulously clearing his bramble-choked land, work that looses a flood of childhood memories of Rome, where his father was a Nazi intelligence officer in WW II. Fabio is about to be duped into turning over to Arturo the deed to the house he and Arturo have shared for 15 years, only because Arturo is now eager to be gone, while Monti, a professor of Italian history from Turin, loses himself in the regional intrigues spanning blood-soaked centuries after his wife leaves him. For one and all, moments of crisis prove cathartic, and more often than not, the ageless, serenely just Mancini has a hand in guiding the outcome.
As if for just a change of pace, Unsworth offers this gentle sendup of the ongoing drive to colonize pastoral Italy. But the exquisitely evoked Umbrian landscape that serves as backdrop for these petty squabbles and personal dramas is the real draw here.
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At this point the peace of the morning was disturbed by the sound of an engine no longer young, a clogged, catarrhal chugging. While they still watched, a tractor of antique design rounded the bend, came into view. Sitting up on it, stiffly heraldic, were an old man in a woolen hat of Phrygian shape, a scowling younger woman of large proportions and a round-faced man in a cap, who appeared to be smiling slightly. They drew to a halt before the house and sat for some moments together while the tractor panted dark breaths from a sort of small chimney.
"It is the Checchetti family," Cecilia said. "The ones who helped us with some of our things when we first came here. They are very...archetypal, aren't they?"
Harold grunted. It was not the word he would have used himself. "They charged us plenty for the help," he said. "We'd better go down and see what they want. I'd go on my own, but--" He had not learned much Italian as yet, though it was at the top of his list. Cecilia, on the other hand, spoke the language quite well. As a girl she had spent two years at a finishing school in Florence and before her marriage had often come back to visit friends made then.
The Checchettis got down from the tractor in order of authority, the father first, the son-in-law bringing up the rear. The old man was unkempt, his long-sleeved vest stained a rancid buttery color from the sweats of many summers, his woolen hat stuck through with bits of straw. The daughter, on the other hand, was got up for visiting, in a dress with a pattern of large red poppies, earrings in the form of copper hoops and hair frizzed out round her large head. The husband continued with his haplesssmile, which was not really a smile at all but a sort of permanent relaxation of the features. His name was Bruno, Cecilia now remembered. She was on the point of asking them inside but for obscure reasons decided against it at the last moment.
The daughter began the conversation from some yards away, speaking volubly and with rapid gestures of the hands.
"What does she say?" Harold was impatient. He had been looking forward to his breakfast coffee.
"I don't get it all--the accent is rather tricky. She is saying that life is difficult, money is short, the cost of everything keeps going up all the time, the olives have been damaged by these heavy rains."
"Same thing in Britain." Harold smiled his tight smile at the Checchetti daughter. "Anche in Inghilterra. Not the olives of course. Surely," he said to Cecilia, "they can't have come at this hour of the day just to talk about the cost of living."
The old man muttered a few words looking away from them toward the horizon.
"They are upset about something," Cecilia said. "The father is saying that what Italy needs is a strong government so as to weed out all the crooks and perverts."
The daughter made a gesture which might have signified impatience or agreement with her father's words. She began speaking again, with more visible emotion now. Her bosom rose and fell, an alternation which her amplitude of form and the low cut of her dress rendered dramatic. Cecilia listened intently, trying at the same time to suppress her feeling that the Checchetti father and daughter were rather awful people, he with that foxy, feverish look, she with her beefy arms and heavy, ill-humored face. Bruno seemed less malignant but he was obviously far from bright. She felt guilty at feeling like this about them, as they were contadini, peasants, and therefore very authentic people and by definition admirable.
"What does she say?" It galled Harold to be left out of the conversation like this.
"The gist of it is that their garden wall has fallen down."
"That is tough luck." Harold nodded his head and compressed his lips to show sympathy. Relations with neighbors had to be put on a sound footing right from the start. "Tell them we are extremely sorry to hear this and hope that they will soon have their wall back in place again."
But this was not well received. The daughter bridled. The father turned farther away and spoke passionately toward the sky. Even Bruno looked resolute for a moment or two.
"It is the section of the wall that borders the road," Cecilia said. "Pieces from it have fallen across the road. They seem to be suggesting that it is our--"
"That is awkward," Harold said. "Typical example of Murphy's Law. The wall falls down, that's bad enough, but it has to fall just in the wrong place." He paused, a thought having occurred to him. "That is our road too, isn't it? They are on the corner where it joins the public road. They have come down here to tell us that the road we share is partly blocked and it may take them some time to clear it. That is really very considerate. Tell them we appreciate it."
"No, that's not it." She felt a sudden surge of irritation with Harold. Did he really think that this demeanor of the Checchetti indicated a mission of good will? He was so terribly prone to interpret things to his own advantage. Then he would feel aggrieved because he had been wrong, and get aggressive. "No," she said, "it seems they are blaming us."
Harold's expression changed instantly and a heavy frown settled on his face. "Blaming us? What on earth has it got to do with us?"
Cecilia spoke to the Checchetti again and father and daughter answered at the same time, each speaking loudly in what seemed an attempt to drown out the other.
"They are saying that the lorries from our building work--the work we had done when we bought the house--were overloaded and caused heavy vibrations and this made the wall collapse. The Signora says that these lorries, constantly passing back and forth, were a nightmare at the time and now they have caused the wall to collapse. When she protested to the drivers they laughed in her face."
"And well they might," Harold said. "I've never heard such a load of poppycock in my life."
The Checchetti, understanding that the man of the house was now in full possession of the facts, were looking intently at him. In the silence that descended, he heard the sound of a motor lawn mower somewhere above them: that German fellow up there again, cutting the grass on his olive terraces. He seemed to start at first light--Harold had been meditating a complaint for some time now. "Vibrations, is it?" he said. "That building work was done six months ago. Why should it take their bloody wall six months to register the effect of the vibrations? Ask them that, will you?"
"I'll try." Harold's swearing always frightened Cecilia a little. She was aware again, as she spoke to the averted faces, of the ugliness and pathos of their visitors. The old man's breath was atrocious, even at this distance. He had a look at once brutish and febrile, as if he might be subject to some disorder of the nerves. The daughter, with her billowing fatness and frizzy hair and bright dress, looked like a sulky troll dressed up for a party. She did not bear the marks of physical toil on her as the men did, and Cecilia wondered if she had some other work. Narrow lives, mean and sordid and grasping. Now they had come here seeking some small advantage. She felt a kind of pity for them as well as repugnance. She glanced at Harold in the hope of finding some similar response but saw nothing on his face except the same look of frowning displeasure.
The Checchetti spoke together again, even more loudly than before. Bruno joined in this time, his voice surprisingly high-pitched. They were addressing their surroundings and one another, like a chorus in a tragedy. The fury that had lain below the surface from the beginning was evident now and there was a new, more threatening tone to their voices.
"What do they say?"
"I don't know. I can't make it out. They are going to turn on us and start shouting any minute now." She felt helpless. As always, she clutched at her husband's displeasure, his combativeness, as a shield. He was never divided--it was his great strength. "What shall we do?" she said.
Harold considered. It was something of a facer. Going to see the collapsed wall would not commit them to anything, of course; but it might be taken as acknowledging a degree of responsibility. Not going, on the other hand, might have repercussions he couldn't at present foresee. It would be wiser not to make enemies of these people if it could be avoided. "Tell them we'll come and have a look later on this morning," he said.
It was the way that the Checchetti greeted this concession that gave Harold his first real intimation of their tactical cunning and formidable unity of purpose. None of them said a word. In silence they turned away, in silence climbed back up onto the tractor. For a few moments the drone of the German's grass cutter was audible once more to the Chapmans. Then all other sounds were overlaid by the throaty coughing of the tractor. After this had rounded the bend it was visible for some seconds more in a space between the poplars that grew along the roadside; and in these seconds it seemed to Cecilia strangely like a war chariot, with the Checchetti daughter resembling a bright-robed, snake-haired goddess, urging the men forward into battle.
Meet the Author
BARRY UNSWORTH, who won the Booker Prize for Sacred Hunger, was a Booker finalist for Pascali's Island and Morality Play and was long-listed for the Booker Prize for The Ruby in Her Navel. His other works include The Songs of the Kings, After Hannibal, Losing Nelson, and Land of Marvels.
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