Diego Marani / Text Publishing
Somewhere in the next few decades, Italy has fallen under the control of a repressive theocratic regime headed out of the Vatican by Pope Benedict XVIII. Its laws are based on the conservative real-life catechismal amendments of the incumbent pope’s deceased predecessor, the soonto- be-canonised Joseph Ratzinger.
At the centre of the state’s draconian laws are pronouncements on chastity and the preservation of life. It’s no surprise then that the main underground opposition to the regime is the Free Death Brigade, a band of guerrilla euthanasists who infiltrate hospitals to deliver the relief of death to those who are forced to endure the suffering that the Church insists is their spiritual due.
It’s to combat this stealth practice that the church deploys its attack dog, Domingo Salazar, who as a boy was orphaned in the 2010 Haitian earthquake and raised by the Church into a single-minded fanatic in his defence of it.
Salazar, as the Vatican’s secret agent, is an enforcer, an arch-conservative detective who in the hunt for the Brigadists finds himself embroiled in plots and counter-plots that, when they get closer and closer to his own life, and to his friend Guntur, who has discovered a lab chimpanzee’s capacity to speak Swahili, show that the Church will stop at nothing to protect itself from any knowledge or practice that threatens its hegemony.
It’s a whirlwind of a premise that, in its audacity and its absurdity, a mashup of counter-Reformation intrigue, hardboiled detective novel and near-future theocratic dystopia, is as refreshing as it is seductive. It’s as if Marani has taken the spirit of Luther Blissett/Wu Ming’s labyrinthine novels Q and Altai, or Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, compressed it and put it into a time machine.
Salazar, for all his frightening devotion to the Church, remains a sympathetic character, mostly because of the very human way he responds to his reality being upended. There’s a distinct sense here that Marani has hopes for the future complex life of this character.
Marani’s now-signature coldness, that for me diminished the first two of his novels available in English, New Finnish Grammar and Last of the Vostyachs, is once again difficult to ignore here. While part of the emotionless of the writing is attributable to the brisk pace of the storytelling – Marani switches from scene to scene at breakneck pace and sometimes with barely a signpost to tell us that we’ve jumped from Rome to Amsterdam, or from the mind of Salazar to that of the Free Death Brigade’s Marta Quinz – this glossing also presents as a kind of indifference to the vitality of narrative events and characterisation. Rushing diminishes affect. While this is sometimes frustrating, it’s preferable to long-windedness. Readers in the crime genre will love it.
It is, of course, impossible to read this novel without smirking at the surprise of the conservative Benedict XVI’s retirement and his succession by the apparently far more liberal Francis – despite the latter’s still-conservative stance on euthanasia and abortion. I bet Marani didn’t see that one coming.