There are nods to dark masters in Malacqua — undercurrents of Kafka, a drumbeat of Beckett — but Nicola Pugliese’s novel has its own compelling voice, filled with the sound of water rushing, gushing, flowing, hammering on rooftops, falling in threads from the sky.
Naples is drowning, disintegrating, battered by relentless rain. Buildings collapse; huge sinkholes swallow cars and people. Ghostly and unsettling events are reported all over the city: mysterious visions, hidden dolls howling in anguish, coins that emit music audible only to small children. Signs and portents. Naples is an urban nightmare, the saturated ground itself a treacherous element. With a sense of mounting dread the inhabitants are witnessing the liquefaction of their city.
Pugliese, a Neapolitan journalist, published Malacqua in 1977 with the support of Italo Calvino. It was an instant best-seller in Italy, but the author inexplicably refused to permit a reprint, and only now after his death has it been reissued, evocatively translated by Shaun Whiteside.
Glimpsed through the deluge over four days in October of an unnamed year, we get vignettes of the local people: the café owner and his blue-eyed English wife; the local poet poised to give a public reading; the fruit and veg shopkeeper; a marshal of the carabinieri with a nervy wife; and (a startling foretaste of this year’s sleaze-fest) the sexually exploited secretary to a successful lawyer. There are others, and their voices blend in a stream of soliloquies —heartaches; sex, both passionate and dutiful; secrets; everyday pleasures; marital bitterness and failed chances.
The central figure (and occasional narrator) is a despairing, world-weary journalist gripped by the existential question: what if? What if the rain never stops? And in the final pages, granted an epiphany in his shaving mirror worthy of Proust, finding a flicker of hope in a hopeless world.
Many years ago, arriving at Naples central railway station, I needed a local street map. The man at the tourist desk handed me one, adding confidingly: ‘Be aware that Naples is not like other places: it is a theoretical city, una città teorica. Naples is a state of mind.’ The true protagonist of Malacqua is Naples, every street and piazza memorialised.
Beneath its dazzling postmodernist surface lies anger at what has been done to this city, not by the violence of nature but by bureaucratic inertia, neglect, buck-passing and corruption. Pugliese has captured with force and beauty the state of mind of a city that is both ‘theoretical’ and real.