Sucked Into the Mysterious Box
If this country hasn't been completely destroyed,' the Italian writer Stefano Benni said in an interview in Rome last year, 'it is thanks to those who have continued to think'.
In Margherita Dolce Vita, the latest novel from the prolific satirical novelist and playwright, Italy edges very dose to that destruction. An instant bestseller in Italy, where it sold more than 100,000 copies in its first two weeks of publication, the novel - seamlessly translated by Anthony Shugaar - sets the violent forces of technology and conumerism against the lyrical pragmatism of a teenage girl.
Margherita is 13 and slightly overweight, with a heart defect and a penchant for composing dreadful sentimental poetry. She lives in the suburbs with her father, a dilettante repair-man; her soap opera-obsessed mother; her football-mad older brother; and her precocious younger brother, nicknamed Heraclitus. Her sage grandfather Socrates holds court in the attic, preparing his body for the effects of nuclear fallout by eating food past its sell-by date.
When, overnight, a dark cube appears magically next door and out step the apparently perfect Del Benes, Margherita is suspicious. As her own family falls under the new neighbours' spell, it is left to Margherita to investigate exactly why they have taken an interest in her family's lives - and why identical cubes are appearing across the city's suburbs.
She does so with a mix of childish naivety and wisdom beyond her years, making her a compelling and sympathetic narrator. Margherita blends classical references - the noise of kissing while wearing braces is a "clash like a duel in the Iliad" - with insights from TV and popular music - "being in love, as both Plato and David Bowie have pointed out, is horrible,' she declares.
Margherita makes up words, quotes proverbs she has composed herself and refers to books she has invented, which lends a rich imaginative landscape to the novel. Much of her time is spent wandering in the meadows behind her house, imagining conversations with "Dust Girl", a shadowy victim of a long-ago war, and as real to her as her family and friends.
'What distinguishes a real person from a ghost?' Margherita asks. The question becomes harder to answer as life starts to resemble soap opera, with Margherita's mother reduced by anti-cellulite pills into an automaton and her father turned into Mr Del Bene's aggressive sidekick. Fact and fiction blur not just in Margherita's overactive imagination, but as part of Benni's wider critique of the vacuity of consumer society.
In his satire of that society and his powerful depiction of the violent consequences of totalitarianism, Benni's political message is dear. But the novel is so shot through with humour, its passages of magical realism so lyrical, that it is provocative rather than worthy. Margherita Dolce Vita works in Benni's own words as a reminder that 'If something is going to change, it will be because people continue to think.'
By Laura Barnett