Semi auto-fiction Books

The interpreter of manly maladies: ‘The Catholic School’ by Edoardo Albinati, trs Antony Shugaar

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Based on a real-life crime, this Strega Prize-wining novel’s tone is surprisingly flat

This semi-autobiographical novel by Italian author Edoardo Albinati is based on a true incident — the abduction and murder of two girls by three well-off boys, Andrea Ghira, Gianni Guido and Angelo Izzo, who belonged to the all-male Istituto San Leone Magno (SLM).

The group had met at Il Fungo, the Mushroom, an old meeting spot for fascists. Over the next 36 hours, the two girls were tortured and raped. Rosaria was killed but Donatella managed to save herself by faking her death. The murderers dumped the bodies in a car. They were found when Donatella started banging on the roof of the boot.

Long digressions

This notorious sex crime which shook Italy occurred on the weekend of September 29, 1975. The SLM, a private Catholic school established in 1887, is also Albinati’s alma mater. Albinati was a contemporary of the three students accused of murder whom the popular press of the time described as “young and pitiless nabobs”.

While writing about the crime, Albinati also attempts to understand the minds of these killers. At nearly 1,300

pages, the novel mentions the Circeo massacre briefly. It is chiefly made up

of long digressions — philosophical, literary, anthropological analyses. He muses mostly on how masculinity has been defined over the decades, taking his references from literary and popular culture.

Albinati investigates the peculiar position of men in Italian society: from being mammoni (mammas’ boys) to virile, testosterone-pumped guys in public spaces who have to prove themselves as ‘men’. In case of the SLM students, did their religious grounding too contribute to the violence? Albinati thinks so — he says that religious instruction in many ways taught suppression of emotions, resulting in the boys becoming ticking masculine time bombs.

Albinati acknowledges that while the novel uses the first person to tell the story, the speaker may well “differ from the author cited on the cover” as he “freely [interbreeds] memory and imagination”. In the mid-90s, Albinati became a teacher in the maximum security wing of the Rebibbia Prison, Rome, where members of the Mafia and Camorra were among the inmates.

He puts that experience to good use here, making use of “police reports, deposition manuscripts, wiretaps, interviews, and legal verdicts” to tap into the mind of someone like Angelo.

Incurable disease

Despite the variety of experiences Albinati has at his disposal, the novel is delivered in an astonishingly flat monotone. It seems that the author is doing his best to understand the crime but not really comprehending it, and instead, by offering philosophical expositions, is hoping to find a rationale behind these despicable acts.

Albinati fails to be a convincing narrator. The reader feels no pity for the criminals. All you feel is undiluted rage for there seems to have been no change in society’s attitude towards women. It is curious that the author, while being seemingly empathetic towards rape victims, meticulously documents his own sexual encounters.

His grand conclusion from all this experience is “Being born a boy is an incurable disease”. Written 40 years after the crime, this novel won Italy’s topmost literary award, the Strega Prize, in 2016.

The translation from Italian to English by Antony Shugaar is commendable. It reads smoothly and Shugaar does not seem to believe that there are untranslatable words. As he says, “My goal is to carry the reader across that space so quietly that the spell is not broken.” Whatever The Catholic School’s shortcomings, there is no doubt that Shugaar has been faithful to his mantra of building bridges across cultures.

The writer is an independent international publishing consultant.

The Catholic School; Edoardo Albinati, trs Antony Shugaar, Picador, £16.99

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