Vincenzo Malinconico is a wildly unsuccessful lawyer who spends most of his time at the office trying to look busy. His wife has left him. His teenage children worry him to death. And he suffers from a chronic inability to control his sentence structure.
When he is asked to fill in as the public defender for alleged Mafioso Mimmo ’o Burzone, Malinconico seizes the opportunity to turn his life around. Without dwelling too long on what it might mean to be employed by the mob, he rushes to re-learn the Italian criminal code. Soon, Malinconico’s life becomes a comic battle to finish what he has started without falling further into the mafia’s clutches.
Diego De Silva’s rollicking, Naples Prize–winning comic novel orbits the irresistible mind of one of contemporary Italian fiction’s most beloved characters. Throughout his travails, Vincenzo contemplates every aspect of the life he sees before him in a wry voice that seduces, entertains, and moves the reader from the first page to the last.
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Why you go for walks when a love affair ends:
a) Because you can't stay still.
b) So that, without wasting any time, you can crack your head against the brick wall of reality.
c) To go buy a shirt, a grill lighter, or any other object that you don't particularly need.
d) Because when you get new prescription lenses, it's best to get used to them right away.
e) So you can fall in love.
f) So you can wallow in self-pity.
g) Because you're going to suffer anyway, so why wait around at home for it to swing by and pick you up? (For instance, depression tapped me on the shoulder in a shopping mall, while I was pricing LCD TV sets.)
I don't know why it happens. It just does. Try getting dumped by the person you love sometime, and tell me if you don't get a sudden urge to step out for a little tour of the town you live in — oh, just for half an hour or so. It's desperation shopping, the impulse to invest in markets that don't exist. Obviously, when you have no alternatives, you start distorting the reality that's available to you.
Anyway, while we're on the subject, there was another thing I wanted to say. When a woman leaves you, you might find yourself going all high-minded, tossing your brain out the window and listening earnestly to monologues that often take the form of a weird blank verse, like this: I'm practically certain / that I'm making a horrible mistake / and I'll live to regret it / in fact, I regret it already / but now it's too late / to take it all back, as if someone had spiked your coffee. As if your immune system had decided to sign a full admission-of-fault accident report, instead of just doing its job. And there you are, reacting like an idiot at one of the most critical moments of your life. Actually lending a hand, trying to make your own eviction as painless and convenient as possible for the woman who's kicking you out. Listening as she rattles on, instead of demanding that she show you the timetable that says it's too late. Too late? You were there, you have a watch, it didn't seem like that much time had flown by. Instead of telling her it's never too late for two people, and that it's always one person who decides what time it is.
You might choose to spare her this line of reasoning (and a line of reasoning is what it is, in contrast with hers; and normally, you'd already be veering into the familiar territory of one of those spats that so get your blood up: ah, the fine itch that only a verbal brawl can scratch, the words jail-breaking out of your mouth without an escape plan!), and in the blink of an eye, with the sweeping power of an epiphany, you're transformed into your own opposite, a virtuoso of variables, a custodian of failed relationships, as if you were diagnosing the issues of a colleague or acquaintance, as if you'd spent your life providing even-handed advice about divorces and their traumatic aftermaths, as if the avalanche that is even now thundering down upon you (moving into a new apartment, custody of the children, monthly alimony checks, trouble sleeping, jerking awake with night terrors when you finally do fall asleep, chronic depression, loss of professional momentum, generic embarrassment at being alive, social guilt complex, encroaching baldness, weight gain from poor nutrition, and the ingestion of medications that not long ago you'd never even heard of) were just a minor inconvenience compared with the exquisitely philosophical imperative of assessing the present state of affairs.
You might muster every ounce of determination and strive to aid the efforts of someone who's bent on wrecking your life; you could say, yes, I see her point of view, deep down / we both / knew it was true (I wonder if they're still paying royalties to the guy who came up with that last line), say your dignified final farewell, issue a full acquittal on all charges and add a kiss on each cheek, and forego entirely the red-faced shouting, the fuck-you's, the slamming of whatever comes to hand, the mean-spirited cross-examinations that verge on mental cruelty. You can respond to the crushing rejection with nothing more than an ironically raised eyebrow, while bestowing upon her the incalculable goodness of simply issuing an amnesty for all the outstanding grievances you'd been holding on to for a rainy day. You might find yourself rehearsing statements like: "Should I remind her of this one thing, or that other? Should I consider myself indemnified by this fistful of pennies?" knowing full well the whole time that the correct answer is: "Yes, indeed!" (But for the love of God, when you find yourself thinking back on this humiliating spectacle — which she, don't kid yourself, is the first to find less than entirely convincing — how will you face yourself in the mirror? And what will you do then? Pick up the phone and heap insults upon her that are not only out of place but long past their sell-by date?) You may realize you're on autopilot, that you can no longer restrain yourself, that you're letting yourself slip into a pool of saccharine masochism where it seems eminently reasonable that your wife is fed up with you and is now free to go out into the world, as if she were a daughter who's turned twenty-one and has received a job offer in a big city to the north. You can offer to be the one man she'd want by her side when she needs someone who truly understands her (and she'll tell you, as she holds both your hands in hers, not to go too far: she needs you, not your I Told You So's). You can even have sex with her — why not? — every now and then (when it's right for her, of course), and you may decide that the milquetoast architect who took your place and now lives in your apartment isn't such a bad guy after all (why is it that ex-wives always seem to wind up with architects?); he's perfectly nice to your kids and he'd never dream of pulling the loathsome move of trying to compete with you in that sphere. You might talk yourself into believing that it's possible (and actually surprisingly easy) to resolve the conflict of interests, to construct a new relationship with your wife, certainly as meaningful — if not more so — as your previous one (so routine and contractual, after all), and finally learn to think of her as a human being, and not a possession, a woman / with a world / that you had always / ignored.
Sure, you could do all that.
It's just that, once you decide that this is the way to go, though it now seems like an amazingly simple thing to do (so simple that it's not worth thinking about), you will realize that spitting in your own face is an endeavor that better men than you have been unable to accomplish.
So how on earth are you going to be able to pull it off?CHAPTER 2
I started telling this story from too far back; no, that's not right, because far back is a distance. Telling a story from too far back would mean starting at a certain point and reaching a brink after which there is nothing, but still you stand there looking around you as if there were something you ought to have understood. Instead, I started by setting forth a theory. That in itself wouldn't be a problem, if only I knew where I was taking that theory.
It strikes me that this is my shortcoming: I lack conclusions, in the sense that I have the impression that nothing ever really comes to an end.
I only wish (really, I do wish) that the out-of-date disappointments, the wrong people, the answers I failed to give, the debts I incurred needlessly, the small cruelties that poisoned my soul, all the things I can't relegate to the past, love stories especially — would just vanish from my mind and never come back. But I'm filled with residue and aftereffects, specters with nothing better to do who just drop by to see me all the time. I blame it on memory, which freezes and thaws of its own volition, hindering the digestion of life and making you feel appallingly alone when you least expect it.
So, anyway, that's how I began ... well, you'd hardly call it telling a story. A story should have a beginning, an end, and a fat juicy middle, with plenty of meat. Otherwise, inevitably, you lose your reader.
Why on earth — say the readers you're busy losing — should we go to the trouble of understanding you? We don't want to do your work for you. Why don't you take us for an enjoyable ride someplace?
And you can't blame the distractible readers. Beginning, end, and juicy middle: that's what people want. Even if — truth be told — they're willing to turn a blind eye when it comes to the matter of the ending. Unless you decide to tack on the ending as a contractual clause, like at school, when you had no idea how to conclude an essay and you tried to fake it with one of those sentences cobbled together with spit and chicken wire, like: "To me, the Christmas spirit that fills the air is especially nice because it takes our mind off the problems of modern-day life." And when your middle school teacher handed back the graded papers, you found a squiggle in red ink next to that sentence, which wasn't a correction or a verdict, it was a genuine graphic shudder.
The fact is that I'm an inconsistent narrator. I'm not a narrator you can rely on. I'm too interested in incidental considerations that can take you off track. When I tell a story, it's like watching someone rummage through the drawer where they keep their receipts and records. First I feel around a little bit, to get familiar with the bulk and heft of the material, and then I delve in, pretty much at random, hoping to find what I'm looking for. Of course, I find nothing, and I start pawing through a little more frantically. I shuffle things into a jumble. I daydream, I get distracted. I make little piles of paper. I find receipts I wasn't looking for and stop to think about them. I look at the date embossed into the paper on a return receipt, recognize my own handwriting from when I was younger (have you ever noticed how people's handwriting shows the passage of time?), and I try to remember where I was and what I was doing when I mailed it. Was I better or worse off? Was my son already born? What our apartment smelled like. Who my friends were. I like to get a glimpse of myself in a delivery confirmation form. Somehow I find it more reliable than a photograph.
All this is just another way of saying my thoughts don't seem to grip the road, they tend to skid and drift. In fact, I think that my pathology is basically just an intermittent collapse of this natural tendency. I cheat on the topics I'm talking about, is what happens. And it's not really that I lose the thread of what I'm talking about. Even when the tangled does get more than a little thread.
There, I knew it.
The thing is, I suffer (but only now and then; in fact — did you notice? — it hadn't happened till just now) from a morphosyntactic impairment, a dysfunction of the structure of my phrasing. In practical terms, the nuts and bolts of my sentences come undone. My words go haywire, it's like herding cats. The words fail to yield the right-of-way. Like with the thread and the tangled — I can't even remember how that was supposed to go anymore.
The embarrassing part is that in my mind, I have the sentence set up correctly, and then it comes out all discombobulated. If I could tell it was about to happen, I'd just keep my mouth closed. But no: the mouth opens wide, and it ruins my reputation.
The first time it happened I was in court. It was around noon, Court of Appeals, the courtroom was packed (by the way, I'm a lawyer by profession), a civil procedural hearing assigning cases for deliberation and judgment. The kind of hearing where you do practically nothing at all, except to wait your turn and then formally request that the panel of appeals judges proceed to deliberate and issue a finding in your case. Here's how it works: when the judges call the case with the names of the parties (which is the legal title of the file) immediately followed by the names of the legal counselors, the only thing that you are required to do is rise (that is, if you were able to find a place to sit; if not, you can skip the part where you rise) and state: "The cause may be submitted for judgment."
Nine times out of ten, the appeals panel doesn't even dignify you with a glance, and simply moves on to the next case. Your work is done. So easy that the first time you perform a legal service of this kind, you think to yourself: "Ah, what an excellent degree I took." Choreography of the law: they should make that a subject in the curriculum of law schools everywhere.
So there I was, cheek by jowl in the crowd (already a humiliating experience in itself), poised to declare: "The cause may be submitted for judgment." But when it was my turn, I said: "The judgment may be submitted for cause."
Whereupon a pause filled the room that was deeply reminiscent of one of those extended "Oooooh!" moments that were so common in American movies from the forties when — in a courtroom, as it happens — someone who's completely above suspicion takes the stand and, without warning, breaks down and admits they did it. And then you'd hear that "Oooooh!" followed by the judge banging his gavel and threatening to have the bailiff clear the courtroom. After which the audience regains its composure (which is exactly what an audience is: a roomful of people who bought their ticket in the hopes of saying "Oooooh!").
Now, if you stop to think about it, "The judgment may be submitted for cause," even if it's not really that bad — in the sense that you can kind of understand it — is decidedly odd, as sentences go. It smacks of a rank beginner, someone who doesn't quite know how to work the language, speaking Italian but with training wheels on. Say I had modified it just a little, said: "The judgment of the cause may be submitted," then it would have been an entirely different matter. Awkward but functional. Instead, I came out with that monstrosity, the sort of mild anomaly that immediately flags, however, out of a crowd of normal people, a victim of disorganized thinking.
For a moment, the courtroom went into a collective organizational state of systole, just long enough to calculate the exact duration of the subsequent diastole, and then once again lunged at the new object of its attention, namely me, as I stood there inspecting my surroundings, moving my head back and forth with odd little birdlike micro-jerks of the head. Really, a disgusting situation. As far as I knew, I might have been on the verge of Parkinson's, the incipient extinction of all cerebral functions, an early-onset dementia (I know one guy whose mother woke up one morning and she just wasn't hitting on all four cylinders, like for instance he said "Good morning, Mamma" and she looked at him and said well it's taken them long enough to send someone up to the fix the water heater), but I managed to tamp down my spiraling sense of panic, because what I was chiefly worried about was my reputation. What I wanted more than anything else on earth was to get out of there, to get myself and my name out of that courtroom and then, and only then, once I was out of range of the morbid fascination of that roomful of eyes, try to come to some conclusions about what malfunction had come over me in that unseemly fashion.
It's unbelievable how an emergency reveals the hierarchy of truly important things. For instance, your reputation.
Alberto Tritto, a specialized broker in traffic accident lawsuits, shot me a close-up stare at a distance that fell just short of a kiss. Ivo Frasca (a complete moron) looked at me with the scorn of someone who has just confirmed long-held beliefs (but has he taken a look at himself lately?); Gisella Della Calce, a Roman Catholic divorce lawyer, covered her mouth with one hand, probably a psychological transference of what she thought I ought to have done (so thoughtful of her).
Aside from these few examples that I was able to gather in the immediate vicinity, most of the onlookers were, I have to admit, nonplussed. You could hear them buzzing with dismay. There was even an asshole or two who barely stifled a laugh, and I know their names.
The judges, who take great care not to look anyone in the face on general principle, raised their collective heads, making an unmistakable effort to remember my name (unsuccessfully, I imagine). They probably assumed that I was mocking them. Judges are always worried that lawyers are mocking them, basically because they can't wait for that day to come; then they'll show those lawyers who they're dealing with.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "I Hadn't Understood"
Copyright © 2007 Giulio Einaudi editore s.p.a. Torino.
Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions.
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