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Herald Scotland: "If [Sorrentino's films] are a mistral, this is a typhoon: hot, wet and blowing in from the south."

Date: Aug 5 2012

Nice and Sleazy

In his day job, Paolo Sorrentino makes the sort of finely-tooled films arthouse cinema-goers appreciate and festival directors love to screen.

Consequences Of Love (2004) turned on a businessman with Mafia connections living a lonely, mysterious life in a Swiss hotel; Cannes hit Il Divo (2008) was a stylised biopic about Italian prime minister Guilio Andreotti; and in This Must Be The Place (2011), Sorrentino's first English-language film, Sean Penn was a reclusive rock star going home to America from his Dublin hideaway.

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Swap the Irish capital for the Brazilian state of Amazonas, make the Swiss hotel a cockroach-infested flat in its main city Manaus, turn the rock star into a cocaine-guzzling crooner of Neapolitan love songs, throw in a few shadowy businessmen and Camorra figures, and set the whole thing against the background of Naples and Rome in the 1980s and 1990s, and you have Everybody's Right, Sorrentino's debut novel.

It is, then, a fusion of the themes he has laid out on the big screen, but rendered without the slow-moving precision and icy glimmer which is those films' trademark. If they are a mistral, this is a typhoon: hot, wet and blowing in from the south.

The crooner in question is Tony Pagoda, also the novel's scabrous narrator. He's a man who, by his own admission, wants to die "stark naked, drowned in a well of Ballantine's, surrounded by whores". He doesn't, of course, though he tries his hardest. In the end we leave him, aged 76, ruminating on his lost love, Beatrice, while dreaming of his childhood and looking with jaundiced eyes at the vacuous Roman socialites he has fallen in with.

"Rome is an impression," he tells us. "It's a shroud. A faded shroud. With no god inside." A few pages earlier: "The long sunset of this city never really ends, which is why it deceives you so completely as to what you think you are, but aren't."

Tony's return to Italy on New Year's Eve 1999 follows an 18-year sojourn in Brazil which takes up most of the final third of the novel, also the most intriguing and successful section. He washes up in Manaus after leaving his wife and his band and his life of partying.

There he lives simply – no coke, no hookers, no Italian newspapers – and has no friends except countryman Alberto Ratta, whom he meets when Ratta bests 14 men in a brawl. Ratta is squat, strong, wise and apparently indestructible. He is also "connected" to an almost supernatural degree and besides Tony himself is the novel's most powerful character.

Though flooded with neat aphorisms and winning vignettes which build a picture of its subject's interior life, on another level Everybody's Right is meaningless to non-Italians. Tony's stream-of-consciousness narration regularly throws up real people – Gigi Rizzi, Alba Parietti, Rosa Fumetto, to give just three examples – whose relevance is obscure at this distance.

Even the character of Ratta has a meaning we can only guess at. When Tony asks him who he really is and confronts him with the theory that his assumed name is an anagram of his real one (an inspired deduction as it turns out), the reader is still none the wiser.

In an Italy of corruption and Masonic conspiracies, where the Red Brigades murder politicians and prominent bankers are found hanging under bridges in London, the best we can do is surmise that Ratta is the man who knows where the bodies are buried. He certainly knows the truth about what happened to Beatrice, flooring Tony with the revelation in what will be their last meeting.

Everybody's Right has been a hit in Italy, with six-figure sales and a place on the shortlist of the Strega Prize, the country's most prestigious literary award (the winner in 1979, the year Everybody's Right opens, was Primo Levi). It found favour in part because it works as a cock-eyed state-of-the-nation address after the years of Berlusconification. That meaning doesn't transfer into English, but no matter. What remains – a blackly comic birl through a life of excess, regret and reflection – is enough.

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