Political sature dresses up as teen fantasy
There's a cheery endorsement from playwright and Nobel Laureate Dario Fo on the cover of Stefano Benni's comical-allegorical-fantastical fable, the first of this Italian writer's many novels to be published in English. Once you've sampled "Margherita Dolce Vita," Fo's support makes perfect sense. This unhinged, doomsday-predicting wolf of a satire, dressed in the cuddly sheep's clothing of a teen fairytale, contains much that would charm 's zany chief political farceur. Benni's plot conjures up a gruesome family of fascist, consumerist, exploitative wing nuts who descend on and brainwash a more averagely lunatic Italian family, and the world is only saved -- if saved it is -- by the good graces of 14 1/2-year-old Margherita, a sassy specialist in bad poetry, with a weak heart and a friend who is a ghost.
Margherita tells us she is also known as "Maga or Magic. My classmates like to poke fun, because I'm not what you would call slender, and so they call me Mega-Rita; my grandfather, who has a touch of old timer's disease, calls me Margheritina, or sometimes Mariella, Marisella, or else Venusta, which was his sister's name." Margherita embodies elements of Cassandra, the young speaker of truth in "The Emperor's New Clothes," and Chihiro, the heroine of the Japanese animation film "Spirited Away." She alone remains clear-eyed about the advancing threat to all she holds dear, and it is she who must try to rescue her family. So who or what is she: a shape-shifter, the spirit of Italian life at its sweetest, or just an unusually insightful teenager?
Readers will have to make their own judgments about how many layers of symbolic weight to pile on this wispily exuberant offering. Like fellow Italians Fo and the filmmaker Roberto Benigni, there would seem to be something of the eternal child about Benni. His short, irregularly paced and sometimes inconsequential fantasy dances to its own beat, whether making scatological observations about Margherita's dog Sleepy or inventing magical realist nonsense, such as her grandfather's occupation ("oasis salesman") and tango dancing partner (Dona Lupinda de Camarones Gutierrez, who died in 1854). But the author clearly has a political dimension, too. In another light, his novel functions as a chilling morality tale skewering the encroaching new era of right-wing, corporate, fearmongering authoritarianism.
The story follows a conventional science-fiction model: an alien invasion penetrating the safe confines of the home. The Del Benes, who have built a black cube of a modern house next door to Margherita's, in an Italian suburb that is "not country, not city," arrive with a raft of seductive, state-of-the-art gadgetry and a sexy young daughter. Soon, Margherita's mother, father and older brother are in thrall to them. Her skeptical grandfather has been disposed of -- first injured in a traffic "accident," then incarcerated in a care home. This leaves only Margherita, her little brother, Heraclitus, and Sleepy to defend the old life, which includes a Gypsy encampment and old farmer Pietro, who lives on a sweetly fertile piece of land down by the river. When the Gypsies are routed, the river polluted, Pietro killed, the meadows sprayed with insecticide and Sleepy disposed of, the entirety of Margherita's old, comfortable, chaotic way of life seems to have been routed by another regime -- repressive, selfish and rapacious.
What can a young girl do to hold back a tide of high-rise apartment blocks (built on treasured fields), plasma screens, video games and bio-ionized air? How, in other words, can Margherita hold back the future (and what other teen would even want to)? The most she and Heraclitus can manage is to confront the monster's human face, Frido del Bene, the patriotic patriarch next door with the arms cache and ruthless vision of a long war ahead ("The enemy is whoever we say"), and counter him with an explosion, a whirlwind and a ghost.
After slapstick and acid realism, Benni's decision to close with the mystical and allusive doesn't seem like much of a conclusion, nor indeed consolation. Playfully derisive indictments of cynical right-wing developments are doubtless easier to create than are plausible political alternatives. But then again Benni is a fabulist, a romancer if ever there was one. Could it be that after so much free-form yarn-spinning and invention, even an absurdist like him judged a recognizably happy ending to our current predicament to be inconceivable? Matters may be even graver than we thought.
Elsbeth Lindner is a writer in New York.