The House of Atreus is cursed.I have been making my way through Louis MacNeice’s 1939 translation of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, which is sometimes tough going, but that much is clear.As a way to get a better grip on the web of treachery and stink of ancestral blood, I decided to find images of the myth in Greek vases. Sure enough, there were no shortage of them.
According to some stories, the rot goes all the way back to Tantalus, who tried to serve up his son Pelops to the Olympian gods for dinner. The gods caught the trick in time and banished Tantalus to the Underworld to be eternally ‘tantalized’. They reconstructed Pelops (replacing his shoulder with an ivory prosthesis because Demeter had absent-mindedly swallowed his original one).
Some time later, Pelops (who was now as good as new) fell in love with Hippodamia. Her father was Oenomaus, a King who had heard a prophecy that he’d be killed by his son in law. He had therefore decided to challenge each of her other suitors to a chariot race and then kill him when he inevitably lost. Pelops was afraid of losing like the 18 suitors before him, so he enlisted the help of his former lover Poseidon, who gave him four winged horses. Just to make completely sure of the outcome, though, Pelops also struck up a dirty deal with Oenomaus’ charioteer Myrtilus: If he took out the bronze linchpins connecting the axle to the chariot wheels, replacing them with wax linchpins, the charioteer would have the right to sleep with Hippodamia on the first night of her wedding to Pelops. Myrtilus kept up his end of the bargain and the King was killed, dragged by his own horses. Pelops was not grateful to Myrtilus but threw him off a cliff. As the charioteer was falling to his death, he cursed his killer (incidentally, the site of Myrtilus’ burial place in Olympia was known as a taraxippus, literally a ‘horse disturber’, a place haunted by ghosts or dangers).
Pelops and Hippodamia had two sons: Thyestes and Atreus. The brothers fought for ascendancy and Atreus won. Atreus married Aerope but she became lovers with Thyestes. When Atreus learned of this adultery, he prepared a delicious feast for Thyestes, without telling him that the meat was Thyestes’ own children. Horrified by his consumption of human flesh, Thyestes cursed Atreus:
When he knew what all unhallowed thing
He thus had wrought, with horror’s bitter cry
Back-starting, spewing forth the fragments foul,
On Pelops’ house a deadly curse he spake:
As darkly as I spurn this damned food,
So perish all the race of Pleisthenes!
Note: Pleisthenes is one of the sons in the stew.
As time winds on, the malediction ripens. Paris abducts Menelaus’ wife Helen and takes ‘the fair mischief’ to Troy. Paris was staying as a guest in Menelaus’ house when he kidnapped Helen, which means his act was not only adulterous but also violated rules related to hospitality sacred to Zeus. None of this is good news for Troy:
What curse on palace and on people sped
With her, the Fury sent on Priam’s pride,
By angered Zeus! What tears of many a widowed bride!
Agamemnon and Menelaus prepare an army to go to Troy. While they are wondering if it’s still the right thing to do, they see a pair of eagles:
And one was black, one bore a white tail barred.
High o’er the palace were they seen to soar,
Then lit in sight of all, and rent and tare,
Far from the fields that she should range no more,
Big with her unborn brood, a mother-hare.
A soothsayer gleans from this that Troy will fall but that it will anger Artemis, who hates to see young animals killed. In return she will demand “a curst unhallowed sacrifice/’Twixt wedded souls”.
Knowing that the trip will be basically successful,Agamemnon gathers forces to go help Menelaus get Helen back, but Artemis stalls the ships at Aulis. A priest advises Agamemnon to sacrifice his daughter Iphigeneia so the ships will be able to go on to Troy. He does so, and so earns the ever-lasting hatred of his wife Clytemnestra:
And ill, to smite my child, my household’s love and pride!
To stain with virgin Hood a father’s hands, and slay
My daughter, by the altar’s side!
Meanwhile, in Troy, another curse is in progress. The god Apollo falls in love with Cassandra, a beautiful Trojan princess. Afraid of him, she promises she will marry him and he gives her the gift of prophecy. She then breaks her promise and he changes the gift to a curse—no one will ever believe her prophecies. Instead, they’ll scorn her and call her a “witch and cheat”. Cassandra predicts the Fall of Troy but she is powerless to prevent it. On the night it falls, Ajax the Lesser tears her away from the sanctuary of Athena, rapes her then gives her to Agamemnon as a slave.
When Cassandra arrives in Argos as Agamemnon’s captive, she immediately senses the family curse. She sees ghostly children—Tyndareus’ sons—on the roof and hears the Curse as Furies who physically occupy Agamemnon’s palace and gloat about all the misery therein, stemming from the ‘incestuous’ affair between Thyestes and Aerope:
Within this house a choir abidingly
Chants in harsh unison the chant of ill;
Yea, and they drink, for more enhardened joy,
Man’s blood for wine, and revel in the halls,
Departing never, Furies of the home.
They sit within, they chant the primal curse,
Each spitting hatred on that crime of old,
The brother’s couch, the love incestuous
That brought forth hatred to the ravisher.
When Clytemnestra boasts about murdering Agamemnon, the Chorus see her as a tuneless raven in an image that recalls the ‘harsh unison’ of the ‘chant of ill’ sung by the Furies of the house:
Thy very form I see,
Like some grim raven, perched upon the slain,
Exulting o’er the crime, aloud, in tuneless strain!
Clytemnestra herself agrees, suggesting that she is to some extent possessed by a daimon:
Right was that word—thou namest well
The brooding race-fiend, triply fell!
From him it is that murder’s thirst,
Blood-lapping, inwardly is nursed—
Ere time the ancient scar can sain,
New blood comes welling forth again.
Where will it all end? The problem is that the murder is wrong in at least three different, polluting ways: a wife has murdered her husband, a nephew (Aigisthos) has murdered his uncle, and a guest (Aigisthos) has murdered his host. This all means that new blood will have to be spilled into infinity. Or does it? Aeschylus hashes out the resolution in the next two plays: The Libation Bearers and the Eumenides.
Why are detective stories so appealing? I asked myself. John, from his position on the couch, suggested that it is the promise of a payoff. On reflection, this seems feasible. First of all there is intellectual satisfaction: the book begins with a question and—after several suspenseful pages of mulled-over possibilities—it ends with an answer. Simultaneous symmetry and solution! Then there is the emotional payoff: the initial outrage is assuaged or satisfied by the pursuit, if not always the punishment, of justice.
Whatever the secret of their appeal, mystery stories have been popular for centuries in many different cultures. Here is a sample of detectives, historic and contemporary, from around the world.
The Arabian Nights
The 1001 Nights contains a very old crime story now known as “The Three Apples.” The original source of the tales in The 1001 Nights is a mystery in itself. The Galland Manuscript, the earliest known source of many of the stories, dates from about the fifteenth century and is of Syrian provenance. That said, many of the stories seem to come from much older folk tales, with echoes of Arabic, Persian, Greek, Indian, Turkish and Jewish folklore. The story of the three apples, for example, portrays real historical figures of the 8th century CE: the Abbasid Caliph Harun Al-Rashid (al-Rashid means “The Just”) and his vizier Ja’far Ibn Yahya. “The Three Apples” relates how a fisherman hauls a locked chest out of the River Tigris. He then sells it to the Harun Al-Rashid, who opens it up only to find the dismembered body of a young woman. Al-Rashid tasks Ja’far Ibn Yahya with finding the culprit, and so begins an investigation full of twists, turns and unlikely coincidences. You can read Richard Burton’s translation here.
2. China’s Gong’an Fiction: 公案小说
As usual, China was there early. Gong’an ‘crime-case’ fiction was a popular entertainment of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) Dynasties. Often performed orally or as puppet shows, they described government magistrates solving crimes in the course of their official duties. The stories often include supernatural elements and martial arts. In 1940, an 18th-century collection of gong’an stories Di Gong’An was discovered in a second-hand bookstore in Tokyo. It followed the adventures of Di Renjie (630-700), who was a county magistrate and statesman of the Tang Court. This was translated into English by the Dutch sinologist Robert Van Gulik as The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee (1949). Subsequently, Van Gulik wrote and published many fictional stories with Judge Dee as the protagonist.
3. Denmark and The Rector of Veilbye
A century and a half before scandi-noir was really a thing, Steen Steenson Blicher published The Rector of Veilbye (1829), a novella based on a true murder case from 1626, gleaned partly from a book about Church history and partly from oral histories. The story is told through a series of diary entries by Erik Sørensen, the judge and sheriff of the community of Vejlby, who investigates the short-tempered village rector Søren Qvist accused of murdering his servant. The story is complicated by the fact that Erik Sørensen wants to marry Qvist’s daughter Mette.
4. Parisian Turpitude with Jules Maigret
Between 1931 and 1972, Georges Simenon wrote 75 novels and 28 short stories starring Jules Amedée François Maigret, commissaire of the Paris Brigade Criminelle, a bear-like man distinguished by a thick overcoat, pipe and bowler hat. He solves cases less through ratiocination than through intuition, he often says, “I never think.” As he lurches inevitably and reluctantly to collaring his criminal, we get a view of Paris or (if he’s on holiday) the French countryside.
5. Death in a White Tie with Roderick Alleyn
There are, obviously, lots of British crime writers. One of the Queens of Crime in the 1920’s and 1930’s, the Golden Age of English crime fiction, was New Zealander Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982). The protagonist of all 32 of her detective novels is Roderick Alleyn, Detective Chief-Inspector in the CID at Scotland Yard and younger brother to a baron. Like Dorothy Sayers’ Sir Peter Whimsey, Alleyn is a ‘gentleman detective’ both in the sense that he is a member of the British gentry and also in that he is characterized by good and courteous conduct.
6. Hard-boiled Spade
Samuel Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) only wrote five novels in a short space of time but they remain some of the classics of the genre and continue to have a huge influence on books and movies. Employed as a Pinkerton operative, he drew on his own experience and claimed that all his characters were based on people he knew. Probably his most famous detective is Sam Spade, the hero of The Maltese Falcon, who was later played on screen by Humphrey Bogart. Hammett wrote of Spade in his introduction to the 1934 edition of The Maltese Falcon:
Spade has no original. He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been and in their cockier moments thought they approached. For your private detective does not—or did not ten years ago when he was my colleague—want to be an erudite solver of riddles in the Sherlock Holmes manner; he wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent by-stander or client.
7. Carvalho, the Spanish Gourmet
Manuel Vázquez Montalbán (1939-2003) wrote 13 novels featuring Pepe Carvalho, a 50-year-old ex-Communist detective who is also a passionate and expert gourmet cook (several of the novels even include succulent recipes). Carvalho was born in Galicia but subsequently moved to Barcelona. He has a lot of love affairs but can never to commit to one relationship. For some reason it is difficult to find e-books of translations in English.
8. Montalbano and Malfeasance in Sicily
In The Shape of Water (La forma dell’acqua 1994), Andrea Camillieri (1925-2019) introduced the world to Inspector Salvo Montalbano, named in honor of Manuel Vázquez Montalbán. Montalbano bridges cultures; he negotiates a complex web of relationships characteristic of Sicilian society, and deals efficiently with outsiders from the mainland, who have their own way of doing things. Montalbano is the protagonist of 28 novels and nine collections of short stories. The TV series adapted from the books is very popular in Italy and in 2003 Camillieri’s home town Porto Empedocle even changed its name to Porto Empedocle Vigata in honor of the fictional town featured in the Montalbano novels. The decision was revoked in 2009, though, which somehow seems perfectly Sicilian.
9. Nefarious Africa
Former lawyer, High Court Judge and women’s rights activist Unity Dow has also managed to write four brilliant novels dealing with contemporary social issues in Botswana. Which makes me wonder if she sleeps at all. In The Screaming of the Innocent, a young girl appears to have been eaten by a lion but a police investigation uncovers some alarming goings on that unfortunately seem to be based on actual practices.
10. Officer Lituma and his Peruvian Puzzles
Mario Vargas Llosa (b.1936) is one of Latin America’s most significant novelists and among the many genres he has aced is whodunnits. In 1986 he published ¿Quién mató a Palomino Molero? (Who Killed Palomino Molero?), which begins with the discovery of the brutally murdered body of a young recruit in northern Peru. Officer Lituma and his partner Lieutenant Silva defy their higher-ups to solve the case. Lituma appears again in Death in the Andes (1993), in the tiny Andean community of Naccos where he has been sent as punishment for disobedience. During his stint there he must investigate the sudden disappearance of three men. It may be that Shining Path is behind it, or it may be something even more sinister.
If there’s one group of people who have already perfected the art of ‘social distancing’, it’s publishers. Like the endangered Ribbon-tailed Astrapias of Papua New Guinea, a publisher would much prefer isolation foraging in its native jungle habitat than having to deal with unknown authors. Writers, in their view, are the moral equivalent of blood-sucking poachers who will wring their necks and wear their beaks as nose rings.
After a week of trawling through inhospitable websites/jungles, I’ve noticed some patterns in this avoidant behavior. The biggest publishers don’t even bother mentioning submissions. When they see you coming, they fly to the highest tree top where you have no way of reaching them without abseiling equipment and a flight suit. Mid-level publishers can’t quite reach those tranquil heights so they use a different strategy; they lead you away from the nest with a series of clever feints. First, they make you to scroll to the bottom of the home page to find a ‘contact us’ link (in the tiniest possible font size, in the faintest feasible color). Once you’ve clicked that link, you scroll to the bottom of the contacts page, down, down, down past all the people the publisher would rather to talk to: readers, booksellers, publicity professionals, lawyers, undertakers… finally, at the bottom of that page you will see a message addressed to you: “RarissimaAvis does not accept unsolicited submissions. Any unsolicited manuscripts, proposals or query letters that we receive will not be returned, and RarissimaAvis is not responsible for any materials submitted,” which is publishing legalese for ‘Bog off bumface’. But then there are the smaller, more sociable niche publishers—the litter-inhabiting wrens—who provide detailed submissions requirements, with the caveat that they only have five staff and millions of manuscripts coming in every minute and can only publish half a book a year and please don’t fax or email them and also they can’t reply to anyone and can’t really justify the cost of reading a single paragraph of your blather.
Such is the sorry state of affairs, and no wonder writers are sad.
Ordinarily, self-publishing seems like a better bet. If I were looking to publish my own work, I’d skip the middle man and toddle over to Smashwords, where my memoir about Saudi living Teacher, We Girls! is simmering along nicely with more than 50 sales! However, at the moment I’m sitting on a hot bet—a translation the Sizzlingest Socialist Comedy of the Decade—and feel that if only I can get close enough to one of these secretive publishing birds I should be able to lure it off its branch long enough to gmake friends and let me into its special flock.
To wit, here are 20 of the less-shy publishers of literary fiction and translation. This list is not just for writers and translators, either, but readers who want to find a source of literature in translation. I was a little shocked to learn recently that translation is only 3% of annual publishing in the USA. Considering how quickly a virus can travel around the world, it seems a shame that the riches of global literature are still so inaccessible.
Note: They do not publish previously unknown authors but are open to suggestions for translations of well known works in other languages. The backlist is very niche–you’d basically have to be a furry cup to fit in.
How to submit: It will be 18 months before they start considering single-author collections again, but you can enter their competitions or anthologies in the meantime. Contact email@example.com for questions.
Notes: They are especially interested in translations from smaller regional and minority languages.
How to submit: Knopf usually only accepts mss from agents. You might have a snowball’s chance on a chilly day in Hell, though, so why not try? Just send 25-50 pages and a stamped, self-addressed envelope to THE EDITORS/Knopf/1745 Broadway/New York/NY 10019.
Notes: It will take them a year to get back to you, IF AT ALL.
How to submit: Details here; complete manuscripts are preferred.
Notes: This is University of Rochester’s literary translation press. It publishes 10 books per year. Their website is called Three Percent because only 3% of all books published in the USA per year are literary translations. SAD FACE
One of the things I like about Turin is that it’s just so gosh-darned literary. In 1933 it is the birthplace of the (now extinct) Giulio Einaudi publishing house and home to some of the country’s best known writers including Cesare Pavese, Primo Levi, Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco. Since 1988 it has hosted the Turin International Book Fair, Italy’s largest trade fair for books. So when I saw a literary guide to the city in a little bookshop, I was immediately intrigued.
This book devotes each chapter to one particular author and provides quotes from his or her books describing some aspect or place of Turin, often adding excerpts by other authors to fill in the picture. For example there is a quote from Giorgio di Maria’s Twenty Days of Turin tucked into the chapter titled “Citta livida e notturna” (“A Lurid and Noctural City”). The book has a little map tucked into a pocket in the back, showing the exact places where the (sometimes fictional) events in the excerpt took place. All in all I like it but, as a semi-literate Italian reader, I wish the quotes were better signposted as sometimes they lack attributions so you have to guess which book the excerpt comes from.
Anyway, I shouldn’t complain because this blogpost is basically me looting the thing for quotes and then translating them into English. I justify this outrage by arguing that we anglophones are woefully ignorant of Torinese authors and this must stop. So let me introduce you to the following…
Edmondo De Amicis (1846-1908)
[H]ere I feel my mind is free. My thought spans the vast piazzas and launches itself through the very long streets, through the great sunburst of alleys fleeing from all sides towards the countryside. The buildings don’t attract a second glance; but for this exact reason they don’t distract you from the greatness of the whole or from the beauty of nature; indeed, here and there they draw themselves back to give room for the eye’s flight up to the Alps and to the hill. In no other city is so much green seen, so much blue, so much whiteness; no other has a laugh so fresh and a spring so splendid, the impression of a renovated world. And then, in so many years the city has transformed before my eyes, I constantly see and love in new faces the faces of the departed, I am enveloped in a cloud of memories at every step, I hear a thousand voices of people and things past that call to me, I drink again the air of youth—my country’s and my own. Here I delight in beauties that are nothing but my eyes illumined and colored by a ray from my own heart.
Natalia Ginzburg (1916-1971)
Our city, after all, is melancholy by nature. On winter mornings, it has a distinctive smell of the station and soot, spread through all the streets and down all the avenues; when morning comes, we find it in grey fog, and wrapped up in its scent. Sometimes, through the fog, a dim sunbeam is filtered through, tinting the fog pink and the snow-piles lilac, shining on the bare branches of plants; the snow, in the streets and along the avenues, has been shoveled and gathered into little piles, but the public gardens are still buried under a thick, untouched, fluffy blanket, a finger-high on the abandoned benches and on the rims of the fountains, the galloping clock has stopped, since time incalculable, say a quarter of an hour. Beyond the river the hill rises, that’s white with snow too but patched here and there with reddish brush; and at the top of the hill looms a circular orange building, once the Opera Nazionale Balilla. There is a little sunlight there, and the glass cupola of the Automobile Show gleams, and the river runs with a green twinkle under the great stone bridges, so the city even seems, for a moment, laughing and hospitable: but it’s a fleeting impression. The essential nature of the city is melancholy: the river, losing itself in distance, vanishes in a horizon of violet mist, which makes you think about sunset even at mid-day; and in that moment you breathe that same gloomy scent and industrial soot and hear the whistle of trains.
Cesare Pavese (1908-1950)
The asphalt of the avenues was scattered with potholes, with layers of leaves, with puddles. It seemed to have hailed. In the clear light the last red fornicating fires. The school, as ever, was intact. The old Domenico collected me, impatient to get home to see the disasters. Dawn was already coming on, at the ceased alarm, in the hour that everyone was coming out and some operator opens the door and filters the light (so great were the fires), and something is drunk, nice to meet again. He told me what had happened that night in our refuge where he used to sleep. No lessons that day, it was understood. For the rest, even the trams had stopped, wide open and empty, where the end of the world had surprised them. All the lines were broken. All the walls smudged as the crazy wings of a bird of fire […] A cyclist passed who, foot on the ground, told us that Turin was totally destroyed. There are thousands dead, –he told us. –They’ve flattened the station, they’ve burnt the markets. They said on the radio that they’re going to return tonight. And he went pedaling away, without turning back.
La casa in collina (1949)
Primo Levi (1919-1987)
Our laboratory resembled an old junk shop and the hold of a whaling boat. Apart from its offshoots which invaded the kitchen, the anteroom and even the bathroom, it consisted of one single room and of the balcony. On the balcony there were the scattered parts of a DKW motorbike which Emilio had bought disassembled, and which, he said, one day or another he would put together: the scarlet tank straddled the railing, and the motor, inside a mosquito net, became rusty as it was corroded by our fumes. Then there were some ammonia bottles, a residue of an epoch preceding my arrival, when Emilio made a living by dissolving gaseous ammonia in demi-johns of drinking water, selling them and tarnishing the neighborhood.
That morning Moisìn came with his handcart to the place that is now called ‘the centre’ and at that time was where the city began. He looked for the ghetto, asked for directions, followed them and at a certain point raising his head from the ground saw for the first time that kind of lump that was the Mole under construction, for more than ten years now. Started in 1859 by commission of the Jewish University […] in 1875 the pharaonic construction site was ceded from the bloodless coffers of the community to the ruddier ones of the municipality of Torino, which saw the completion of the Mole Antonelliana only in 1888.
The institute [Cottolengo] stretched through crowded and poor districts, through the total area of an entire district, comprising an asylum and hospitals and hospices and schools and convents, almost like a city within a city, encircled by a wall and subject to other rules. The contours were irregular, like a body gradually swollen by new bequests and buildings and initiatives: over the wall there poked the roofs of buildings and spires of churches and foliage of trees and smokestacks; where a public road separated one body of construction from another, elevated corridors joined them, as in certain old industrial establishments, augmented by the dictates of practicality and not of beauty…”
Into the sky of milk and ash there rose the ferrous scraps of the trams along the avenues. If that sky hadn’t resembled an enormous upside-down frying pan, there would perhaps have been visible, to the west, the thin and tormented noses of the Alps, and to the east the soft outline of the hill of Oltrepò. But only the great winds of March managed to clean the horizons, those winds so bizarre and whirling that they swept the city of Turin with whirlwinds of leaves, of foliage, of skirts, filing the gables and edges of palaces, changing the clouds into strips, brightening the veins of the porticos and female eyes.
Carlo Fruttero (1926-2012) & Franco Lucentini (1920-2002)
The piazza that in Torino is familiarly called Carlina is rich in monuments and contradictions. It ought to be dedicated to Carlo Emanuele II of Savoy (1634-1675), the thick, chalky group that rises in its centre don’t celebrate, as we might expect, the undertakings of that duke, but the glory of the count Camillo Benso di Cavour (1810-1861) to whom is owed the unity of Italy and on whose political foresight the Torinese of strict observance today nurture serious doubts. For allegorical reasons (but according to more gossipy historians, not so allegorical) the count seems surrounded by a certain number of half-naked women, not dissimilar to those portrayed on strip-club billboard overlooking one side of the piazza. Another side represents a baroque palace eternally in disrepair, eternally under restoration, the work of the architect Amedeo di Castellamonte (1610-1683). Another, the baroque church of Santa Croce, work of the architect Filippo Juvarra (1678-1736). Another, an eighteenth-century building that in 1814 saw the birth of the Carabinieri Corps, and that today hosts the Legion Command.
A che punto è la notte (1979)
Enrico Pandiani (1956-)
And there Barriera stretches out before me, Corso Giulio Cesare, the beating heart of absurdity. Arabs, Sudanese, Congolese who greet each other, ignore each other, talk shouting into cellphones as if they were giving orders to the world but maybe they were just asking how’s it going. The Chinese people in front of restaurants were getting ready to welcome customers who didn’t have money to pay for a decent lunch and offering the no-frills experience their frequenters expect. One that I know is from the Ivory Coast is leaning against a wall next to the pharmacy, where his clientele waits: he’s narrow in a faded grey jacket and smokes without taking the cigarette out of his mouth, in the lining of his pockets he has a little hashish for the kids who are coming out of school. The 4, the city tram that flies over Turin—whatever that means—whizzes past me and I quicken my pace, jump on a pile of snow massed against the rubbish skips and I climb aboard.
Today it was rainy and misty in Turin, with a creeping sense of gloom. In short, it was perfect weather to view some of the landmarks mentioned in one of the great modern ghost stories The Twenty Days of Turin by Georgio De Maria. The English translation was published by Ramon Glazov in 2017 and ever since I first read it I have been wanting to visit the places mentioned in this chilling story, just to double check…
As Glazov says in the translator’s introduction, the book “is a sinister, imaginary chronicle of the author’s home city as it suffers ‘a phenomenon of collective psychosis.’” Strolling around the city center on a dark day, it was almost disturbingly easy to slip into an apocalyptic frame of mind.
In the twentieth century, Turin was probably best known as an industrial city, particularly as the home of Fiat. Now it is a center of sports (Juventus), a gateway to the Alps and home of the Slow Food movement. Even so, there is a lingering, almost vinegary scent, of the supernatural.
‘Here we have the automotive industry, we have the ethos of central-city Turin, we have the commonsense citizen who represents the solidest of our institutions…All of that would suffice to throw the most hardened army of specters into retreat!’ (p. 16-17)
Looming large in the book are monuments found in the city’s streets, piazzas and parks. It was these monuments and statues that I was particularly interested in checking on this little literary tour. One such monument was the statue of Vincenzo Vela in the process of sculpting the dying Napoleon. Vela (1820-1891) was born to a poor family but became a very profilic and celebrated sculptor. His most famous work was the “Last Days of Napoleon” (1867). His connection to Turin began in 1852, when he assumed the chair at the Albertina Academy of Fine Arts and proceeded to sprinkle his monumental works all over the city.
‘Do you want to know something funny? I could swear the statues of Vincenzo Vela and Napoleon Bonaparte had swapped places. It isn’t Vela with his back towards us is it?’ No, I answered him, I’m sure it’s always been Napoleon’s back, or rather, the back of his armchair. He shrugged his shoulders and gave a sad smile. ‘Must be,’ he said. p.10
One of the tallest monuments in Turin is that of Victor Emmanuel II, near GAM, the museum of modern art. It stands in the middle of a roundabout. VEII (1820-1878) was the first king of a united Italy, Padre della Patria.
‘Anyway, I would say that the first scream came from over there, at the intersection.’
‘Near the monument to King Victor Emmanuel?’
‘Roughly. The second scream came from the opposite side, from the area around the cottages…Of course, I couldn’t pin-point where exactly…Then a third scream, much father away…farther away, and yet even more terrible. It seemed like they were relaying some kind of message.’ (p. 21)
Towards Porta Nuova train station is Piazza Carlo Felice, where a particularly gory incident takes place in the book. It’s a lovely spot, with a little fountain shaded with greenery. At the back of the piazza is a monument to Edmondo de Amicis, a children’s author whose novel Cuoreused to be my Spanish teacher’s favorite book.
Anyone who went to Piazza Carlo Felice on the morning of July the third to observe the “scene of the crime” will remember the mustachioed face of the Piedmontese writer, jutting from a slab of marble, still fouled with blood and gray matter, gory splatters from the victim reaching high enough to lick at bas-reliefs of children and the naked feet of the muse positioned on top of the monument. (p.45)
Near Piazza Carlo Felice I saw another statue and went to photograph it just in case. As I suspected, it pops up in the novel too. Pietro Paleocapa (1788-1869) was a civil engineer who worked on railways, tunnels and waterways. He even took part in the design of the Suez Canal. He died in Turin.
“This square…” I began casually. “At one time it used to be called ‘Piazza Paleocapa? Wasn’t that the name?”
Eligio pretended he hadn’t heard me.
“I’m asking because I came by here once—it must’ve been quite a while ago—and it seemed to me that on that pedestal there was a monument to Pietro Paleocapa—you know, the engineer and government minister—not to Lagrange.” (p.114)
Another landmark often mentioned in the book is the Gran Madre di Dio Church. This distinctive building was built to celebrate the return of King Victor Emmanuele I to the city after Napoleon’s defeat. The Latin inscription on the tympanum (under the roof) can be translated ‘the Nobility and the People of Turin for the Return of the King’.
‘At the fore of the neoclassical church stood a monument to Victor Emmanuel I: King of Sardinia—returned to his people—the XX of May MDCCCXIV…” Guarding the church, from either side of its grand flight of steps, were two symmetrical rows of statues in white stone: two veiled women dressed in peplums with open books resting on their laps, each raising a chalice in her right hand, and at their flanks, two angels giving gestures of command.” (p. 67)
This is by no means a comprehensive list of the sites mentioned in Twenty Days of Turin, but I was starting to get tired. Besides, for now I was fairly satisfied that, despite the brooding atmosphere, the demons are calm for now.