Tuesday 8 July 2008

'let it be printed'

by Rita Monaldi and Francesco Sorti


official approval for something to be printed, usually given by the Roman Catholic Church [New Latin: let it be printed]

The title of this historical novel contains a huge irony. Despite its first printing selling well in Italy the publishers decided not to reprint. The authors claimed interference by the Catholic Church who had begun the process of canonising Pope Innocent XI, featured in this novel as far from saintly. Whether the conspiracies are true or not, it would have been a crime for this book not to have reached more readers (as it stands the novel has been translated into 20 languages with over 1 million copies sold to date).

There have been comparisons to The Name Of The Rose and, inevitably, The Da Vinci Code but having not read either of those I'm not best placed to compare. It is certainly a well researched historical thriller filled with plots, plague and papal intrigue and perhaps most interestingly comes on the back of genuine discoveries made by the two authors whilst researching their non-fiction work. You can read more about that here but let's get back to the novel. It is 1683 and whilst the citizens of Rome wait for news from the siege of Vienna, where the Ottoman Empire threatens to spread across Western Europe, the guests of the Locanda del Donzello are being held in quarantine. After the death of one of the guests from what is suspected to be the pestilence, the doors are shut up and our cast of colourful characters confined. I'll leave it to our narrator:

Here was I, a prisoner in a cramped hostelry which was suspected, with good reason now, of harbouring the plague. Hardly had I succeeded in shaking off that terror, thanks to the words of the physician, who foretold my resistance to infection, when Melani came telling that I ran the risk of leaving the Locanda del Donzello only to find Rome invaded by the sanguinary followers of Mahomet. I had always known that I could count only on the kindness of a very few persons, among them Pelligrino, who had generously saved me from the hardships and dangers of life; this time, however, I could count only on the (surely not disinterested) company of a castrato abbot and spy, whose precepts were for me almost exclusively a source of fear and anguish. And the inn's other lodgers? A bilious-tempered Jesuit, a shady and inconstant gentleman from the Marches, a brusque-mannered French guitarist, a Tuscan physician whose ideas were confused and perhaps even dangerous, together with my master and Bedfordi, who lay supine in their beds.

The only person he's missed there is Cloridia, a courtesan, but the list is colourful enough I'm sure you'll agree. Atto Melani, the castrato spy, is, incredibly, a genuine man who used his status as a diplomat to move around the Europe of this period on behalf of Louis XIV. It is he that enlists the help of our narrator, the foundling turned prentice, and the two form an unlikley Holmes and Watson as they piece together the mystery surrounding the death of Mourai and the indispositions of Pelligrino, the hostel owner, and Bedfordi. The quarantine creates the enclosed setting familiar from the crime novels of Agatha Christie but it isn't long before a discovery at the Locanda opens things up. Concealed within one of the walls is the entrance to a system of tunnels and passages that run underneath the city. From here Melani and his assistant are able to conduct their nocturnal excursions and meet two more fantastic characters. Hidden in the dark tunnels they stumble upon Ciacconio and Ugonio, two of the corpisantari, who hunt for relics in the labyrinth of tunnels, feeding themselves off the city itself. They are almost polar opposites; Ugonio's melliflous speech hilarious in its embellishments whilst Ciacconio is capable of repeating only the same 'Gfrrrlubh' which is translated by his companion to mean anything and everything. Together the two of them aid our detectives with their in depth knowledge of subterranean Rome and entertain us the reader with their unique forms of expression.

I have to be very careful of course in revealing too much of the plot but there is a very simple reason why such an interesting array of characters find themselves together in a hostel. 'Remember: the world is full of people who want to flee their own past.' In the true nature of a murder mysteries everyone is a potential suspect, each with their own secrets and as the corpisantari know, 'There are things that cannot remain buried.' With a wealth of research and historical detail behind them Monaldi and Sorti create a fully realised picture of Rome and the political machinations of State and Church across the whole of Europe at the time. If they sometimes wear that research a little too proudly, slowing up proceedings and making the prose a tad cumbersome in places, it is a forgivable sin when they clearly have such zeal for their material. The translation keeps the writing as fluid as possible and Peter Burnett clearly has a lot of fun with the utterances of Ugonio. Take this barrage of obscenity released on his companion.

'You soursaggy old scumskinned, batskinned, sow-skinned, scrunchbacked, sodomitic, skinaflinter, you puking mewlbrat, you muddy-snouted, slavering, sarcophagus shitebeetle, you bumsquibcracking sicomoron, you slimy old scabmutcheon-shysteroo, you shittard, sguittard, crackard, filthard, lily-lvered, lycanthropic, eunichon-bastradion-bumfodder-billicullion-ballockatso, you gorbellied doddipol, calflolly jobbernol, you grapple-snouted netherwarp, you clarty-frumpled, hummthrumming, tuzzle-wenching, placket-racket, dregbilly lepidopter, you gnat-snapping, weedgrubbing, blither-blather, bilge-bottled, ockham-cockam pederaster'.

Try getting some of those past your spell-checker. It is when the novel is written with this kind of humour or the breakneck pace of the final hundred or so pages that it is most enjoyable (in a Da Vinci Code kind of way I guess), but there is plenty of erudition for those looking for echoes of Eco. My guess is that it probably falls somewhere between the two whilst trying to pre-empt our criticism of its influences with an opening letter and addendum to accompany the 'manuscript' we are reading, explaining its providence and veracity as a genuine document whilst also pointing out the conventionality of its plotting. These parts of the book feel rather unnecessary, especially after the real intrigue that went on to surround the books publication. Its bestseller status shows that they've got something right even if it isn't with the backing of the Vatican (who may be worried about the planned follow up Secretum).


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