Monday, June 4, 2012

The King of the Storeroom: A Review

Antonio Porta's The King of the Storeroom (originally in Italian as: Il re del magazzino - 1992 translation by Lawrence R. Smith) is a post apocalyptic novel set shortly after the collapse of the Italian (and presumably other Western) economy.  A collapse initially triggered by German 1920s style hyper-inflation.  It takes the form of a found journal left behind by the elderly narrator.

Antonio Porta  (from Guernica Additons
(1935-1989) was born (as Leo Paolazzi) in Vicenza. He was recognized as one of the most important Italian writers of his generation. He was one of the founders in 1961 of I Novissimi, a group of avant-garde poets who were instrumental in the development of a new poetics in postwar Italy. The author of numerous poetry books, as well as fiction, he won all of Italy's top prizes.
Groupo 63, which he helped found was an anti-materialist, anti-capitalist movement that was very influential in post-war Italy until it broke up over differences in how to respond to the student riots that swept through Europe in the late 1960s.

The English language publisher's blurb does a reasonable job of summing up what the novel is trying to do:

Porta's haunting images of the apocalypse are anchored by a discontinuous but tautly integrated narrative, which purports to be a series of journal entries by a dying intellectual. In an anguished howl, achieved by combining narrative, poetry, newspaper clippings and scraps from scientific texts, the narrator bears witness to the demise of modern social and political institutions. The setting is Italy in an unspecified future, when the economy has collapsed and anarchy begins; the government interns people in labor camps; organized religion dies; starvation is endemic; cannibalism occurs; mass suicide and random executions proliferate as the natural order breaks down.
The entire story is far more chaotic than this.  The narrator comes across more as a fuzzy-headed old man who manages to totter to the  banks of the Lambro River, finds a little storehouse, and sits down to write of his experiences.   The journal entries are recorded over a months time.  It is very disjointed, and it is very hard to understand where the narrator is trying to take us.  Much of the early portion has the narrator blaming the failings of capitalism for the economic collapse.  It is only latter, that he also shows that the revolutionary communists expectations are not any better.  That the turn to communism is a turn to becoming a slave to a different master.  He also makes a trip to a small settlement, that had tried to remove themselves from the commercial world and had found that it too had collapsed.

The continuation of the blurb above implies a happy ending, a more peaceful society.  They publishers seem to be confusing the narrators acceptance and peace with  his personal end, with a peace within society.  In fact the very last descriptive lines of this post-capitalist society are:

Now the survivors...are living happily as slave (of whom? everyone of course!) in order to eat beans. Like the old peasants, they are slaves to the land that starves them, in a new and different way each day.  Meat when you can find it: dogs, cats, and mice.  But they're very hard to find. If they are found, they're chopped up and thrown into the pot of cooking beans, then fished out.  Theses slaves of everyone know exactly where the gods favor new cultivation -  and they are competent hog-raisers. You need to establish yourself where the grass can be cut five times a year, on the wedges of the [River] Po's flood plain, and along the riverbanks, as always.  The gods, in fact, live in your stomach.
I suppose the author could have thought that the best that humans could achieve would be a return to pig farming.  But such an outcome would have to be viewed as  at least ironic (in a sense of the contrast of ideals to reality), and particularly ironic from one who made his living within the arts.

Did I enjoy the book?  I am ambivalent.  The language is very disjointed, harsh, and even crude at times.  It is possible that this may be the result of a very literal translation of the original versus are more poetic interpretation.  Or possibly, that is exactly the tone that the original had.  There are a number of poetic asides, that I can make absolutely no sense of.

On the plus side, it is a fast read.  So while there is some confusion as to where this story, this narration, is supposed to be going, it is resolved quickly enough.  It also makes fairly good use of an unreliable narrator.  It is fairly obvious that he is losing coherence, and is not always to be trusted: particularly with regards to the occasional reference to goings-on in the present.

There are also occasional flashes of insight that could come straight from today's headlines:

I'll start this with a note on young people (the last one/ don't bet on it}. They proclaim everywhere  - through all the media...that "they " had rejected the logic of sacrifice, "hence the [attacks] against austerity measures, etc.

That could apply to a lot of our protesotors today: Tea-partiers worried about their social security, Occupiers worried about their college loans, Greeks worried about...everything.

Over all I guess I would lean slightly toward a positive assessment:  I mean after all, how many afternoons can you spend reading post-apocalyptic novels, and be able to tell your friends and impressionable associates that you are reading Italian avant garde literature - two birds - one stone.  My new blog byline - "Welcome to Reflexiones Finales - reviewer of apocalyptic fiction and Italian avent garde literature".

We will zip through our descriptive catagories, Realism and Readability, 1 to 7 with 7 being highest.

Realism is always a little tough with the "found manuscript" approach.  It allows in the unreliable narator (intentional or otherwise), and tends to take away some of the immediacy of the situation.  Before we even get to the first line of the journal, we know our narator is dead.  On the plus side, the author is obvioulsy basing a lot of what happens in the novel on his personal experiences of strife and discord in Europe.  He has attempts at labor camps, that fall apart, and a  novel that ends up with the survivors making due as pig farmers can't really be accused of being a cozy.   For all its oddness, I will say that it is slightly above our mid-point at a 5.

Readablity is a bit conflicting.  It is a short,  fast read.  But whether it is the translation, or the original document, it is a very disjointed read.  I suspect there are sub-themes working through the novel that I lost in all the confusion.  I will say that it is a literary 3.


PioneerPreppy said...

Pig farmers? Sounds like Ayn Rand meets Mad Max at the thunderdome :)

russell1200 said...

PP: Because of the location and timing, I get more of a sense of the European student riots of the late 60s (different than ours) meets the French revolution. Nothing as exciting as Mad Max, I am afraid.

I wish I knew if the translation was true to the original. I suspect that it may have been too literal. But then agian, it is avant garde.