Beware the evangelists next door
As loyal readers of Stefano Benni might expect, his new novel is a lively, whimsical and furiously contemporary satire, which can and should be enjoyed on its own merits. However, like his other books, it also raises interesting questions about international reputations and today's lamentably one-way traffic between Italian and British literature. To put it rather more bluntly - are there any loyal readers of Stefano Benni in this country at all?
The question is not quite as facetious as it might sound. Margherita Dolce Vita reaches us thanks to a small independent imprint, and its publication has not, to be honest, been hailed as one of the key events of the literary calendar. And yet the Italian edition sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Benni is a celebrity in his own country. At his Italian readings he is treated more like a rock star than a writer. Huge audiences hang devotedly upon his every pronouncement. At one such event in Milan, I watched as a fan rose up from the crowd to read his girlfriend a love poem about how they had met by bonding over Benni's novels. And the Italian language apparently even has a new word - "benniano" - which is meant to denote the particular blend of comedy, magic realism and political engagement that characterises his writing.
What, then, are the qualities that make Benni so appealing - both as a writer and as a personality - to all those Italian readers, and why, so far, have they failed to make the same impact here? Margherita Dolce Vita is as good a place as any to look for the answer. It's narrated by the eponymous heroine, a bright, optimistic and (by her own admission) slightly overweight teenager. Margherita's voice is perky, precocious, confident: "My hair is blonde," she tells us, "with strangely shaped curls - let's just say that they look like a sort of fusilli farm ... I do reasonably well at school, and when I grow up I'd like to be a poet." The security of her fragile adolescent world is abruptly threatened at the start of the book, when a new building appears in the vicinity of her parents' house: a gleaming black modernist cube, home to the kind of family this ramshackle neighbourhood has never seen before - controlling, squeaky clean and, to Margherita's beady eyes, indefinably sinister.
What immediately strikes a British reader of Margherita Dolce Vita, as soon as this narrative premise has been established, is the extreme contrast between the book's tone and its patent satirical intention. On the one hand, there is a directness to the satire - with a heart-on-sleeve leftism and anti-consumerism at its core - that will doubtless play better in Italy than here, where literature and politics are still expected to keep a polite distance from each other. On the other, the element of unembarrassed whimsy projected by Margherita's narrative voice might quickly start to grate on ears that are still, even after any number of historic revolutions in literary style, largely tuned to social realism. British literary taste continues to gravitate towards the middle ground, which Benni emphatically eschews, on both counts.
The whimsicality of Margherita's narration, too, poses formidable problems for the translator. Anthony Shugaar has done a sterling job of capturing it in American English. There are times, all the same, when you can feel him struggling to give coherent form to what was obviously baroque wordplay in the original. A mysterious trapdoor in Margherita's house, for instance, is supposed to "provide access to the pluriversal fifth dimension, also known as the Abyss of the Will-Be Was". Turns of phrase like that provide support for Nick Hornby's recent assertion that reading literature in translation, even a good translation, can be like listening to a radio that hasn't been tuned in properly. It's interesting to reflect that the only other European writer of Benni's huge popularity and cultish appeal never to have made the smallest dent on the British readership is Daniel Pennac, another novelist whose work depends upon deft, sly, pervasive linguistic inventions that far too often fall flat on their face when rendered into English.
Margherita Dolce Vita comes garlanded with a cover quotation from Dario Fo, and indeed there are plenty of touches here that call to mind Fo's exuberant merging of farce and satire. Most of all, though, I was reminded of the films of Jacques Tati - particularly Mon Oncle, which also pits the forces of childlike spontaneity and innocence against an adult world that is seen as sterile, unfeeling and in corrupt thrall to technological change.
Benni's vision, however, is fired by something more astringent than Tati's genial, left-leaning humanism. The neighbourhood's new family, the Del Benes, turns out to be more threatening than anyone had anticipated. Their immaculate modernist house is found to contain, among other things, a cache of weaponry and a library of evangelical literature, with which they gradually set about brainwashing Margherita's family - who themselves prove to be all too susceptible. You don't have to be the most quickwitted interpreter of political allegory to work out that Benni is excoriating the neocon agenda, including the "war on terror", which is chillingly evoked when the Del Benes are asked to name the enemy against whom they are so anxious to protect themselves: "The enemy is whoever we say," they answer.
It is, of course, a commonplace for writers to mellow with age and abandon their earlier political radicalism. The fact that Benni continues to be drawn towards an adolescent voice - which he has adopted in his last three novels - suggests that he has not succumbed to this process, and has no qualms about sounding gauche if that means that he can also retain some of the teenager's earnestness and refusal to compromise. This is what gives his otherwise frothy, high-spirited fiction its edge: its stubborn clinging to the conviction that Margherita herself voices at the end of this novel: "Precisely because we are little, shouldn't we fight for our tiny crumb of justice, lest the stars themselves fall from the sky?"
by Jonathan Coe, whose latest novel is The Closed Circle (Penguin)