(Reviewed by Guy Savage AUG 20, 2007)
“That’s how I presented myself to him: a good sixty pounds heavier and a hundred thousand hairs lighter with respect to the last time we met. I’m here: with the moist eyes of one who eats, smokes, and drinks continuously, to fill his existential voids, erotic impotence, and a certain creeping rage.”
In the witty, lively fictional memoir, The Worst Intentions from Alessandro Piperno, thirty-three-year-old narrator, Daniel spends just over 300 pages describing the turbulent fortunes of the neurotic, eccentric Jewish-Italian Sonnino clan. Daniel, who is an adjunct professor at a university in Rome, has managed to write one book, but then spends seventeen years trying to finish a second. As a child, he’s exposed to the fabulous wealth of friends and schoolmates, and by the time the reader gets to Daniel’s adult admission that he sees himself as a failure, we also are supremely aware of the horrendous baggage of being a Sonnino. Daniel needs to stop hanging out with the rich, the glamorous, and the powerful, and then he’d have a shot at feeling "normal." In this odyssey of non-self discovery, Daniel is genetically, culturally and sociologically programmed to be strange, so it should come as no particular surprise to the reader that Daniel, a “fetishing masturbator with lots of initiative” remains locked in a pubescent fantasy involving a nubile young girl from his adolescence.
The book begins with Daniel’s description of his grandfather, Bepy, the charmingly insincere head of the Sonninos. Bepy and his wife, Ada survived WWII, and they emerged “literally infected with postwar joy” replacing “the terror of Mussolini and Adolf Hitler with a mimetic veneration of Clark Gable and Elizabeth Taylor.” While Bepy and Ada survived, discussion of the many relatives claimed by the Holocaust remains taboo. Daniel argues:
that madness of diabolic evil that had befallen the Drowned had authorized for the Saved a casual lack of scruples: was it for this reason--only this?-- that there was not a single individual in Bepy and Ada’s circle who did not feel authorized to violate bourgeois precepts, making sexual advances to the wife of his best friend or the underage daughter of his dearest colleague?
To Daniel, “the inferno had abolished prohibitions.” While he interprets this as an alternate survival mechanism, it’s also an explanation for the “sex mania” of his grandparents. Although Bepy is really just a “rag merchant,” a figure in the textile industry, his lavish movie star lifestyle of “Napoleonic splendors” creates an aura of respect from awed, overwhelmed salesmen, and a business meeting with Bepy is the equivalent to an audience with the pope:
The salesmen hung on that hospitable smile, charmed by the mellow voice, intoxicated by the odor of the drunk coffee that Bepy emanated. They felt welcomed and judged at the same time. Bepy had the habit of adjusting the knot of their tie as if they were high-school students. For a few minutes the money stopped being important. The salesmen knew he would shower them with compliments, and yet they were not surprised that that flattery--rather than offending them by its ordinary almost obsessive repetitiveness--continued after many years, to inundate them with joie de vivre. And not until a quarter hour later, when their skin came into contact with the damp summer heat that in Bepy’s office had been abolished by the efficiency of the air-conditioner, did they suddenly realize that they had been at the theater, that suspended in that refrigerated oasis, they had temporarily interrupted the struggle for a living and long-term gain. Only then, emerging from the non-time of that Oriental spell, did they understand the uniqueness and the pointlessness of the performance. And they felt contented and irritated at the same time.
Addicted to the finer things in life, Bepy’s an impeccable dresser, an incorrigible womanizer, and like all the Sonninos “allergic to inner life.” Known to have occasional “urine parties,” Bepy is an indomitable, larger-than-life character who overshadows both of his sons, the albino, Luca (Daniel’s father), and Teo who submerges himself in Zionism and escapes his father’s clutches by emigrating to Israel.
In time, Bepy’s world of “dazzling wealth” is revealed to be “supported by a perverse latticework of bank loans and a dizzying whirl of postdated and bounced checks.” But in spite of Bepy’s intensely self-centered behavior, he remains the head of the family, still commanding respect, even when he’s on the run from aggressive creditors.
But Bepy is not the only peculiar relation in Daniel’s family tree. His father Luca marries Italian (non-Jewish) Fiamma, an inflexible woman, devoted to her two sons and her mostly-absent husband. A “grim Richelieu,” she controls her sons with guilt and suffocating expectations. Daniel grows up with the knowledge that he’s not a Jew, and this leads to some peculiar feelings of estrangement.
The Worst Intentions is well written, full of descriptions of Daniel’s eccentric relatives, and their equally eccentric friends. From his one-testicled cousin, to the lure of his chocolate-addicted aunt’s smelly feet, the characters leap off the page with shades of Woody Allen-style humor. By the novel’s conclusion, I felt as though I’d met these people. And while, ultimately, they would be great fun to know (in a limited capacity), one cannot help but carry a certain sympathy for Daniel, the only wallflower in the bunch. The book smacks of a sequel, and let’s hope Daniel reappears in the not-too-distant future. (Translated by Ann Goldstein.)