Untraditionally Traditional: Simone Sarasso’s Confine di stato

David Sharp

In 1929, the Milanese Mondadori publishing house launched a line of books in yellow covers to promote tales of mystery and detection. Since then, the “giallo”, or the detective novel, has found a vast and receptive audience throughout Italy.  The detective or mystery genre ensures a pleasurable participatory and hermeneutic experience; as the narrative unfolds, the process of uncovering clues and attempting to resolve the mystery at hand becomes the active work of both the protagonist and reader. Because of the genre’s popularity and the innately interpretive mode of reading involved therein, many Italian writers have identified it as a readymade platform to present their ideas to a broad and eager audience.

Indeed, Italian authors such as Carlo Emilio Gadda, Leonardo Sciascia, Antonio Tabucchi, Andrea Camilleri, and Dacia Maraini, have employed and reconfigured the original features of the detective form to generate awareness about social and political issues. Their works have even initiated vital dialogs about events and predicaments that may otherwise have only been broached with trepidation.  In exploring the most troubling quandaries of Italian history and society, these writers elected to eschew the tangible and immediate inquiries of the conventional giallo -a murder, a theft, a disappearance- in favor of more abstract and charged pursuits.  By refocusing the detective’s magnifying glass, they have capitalized on the probative nature of detective literature, frequently using it as a pointed tool to systematically investigate and critique the most enigmatic events of history, as well as their lingering effects and the forces operating behind them.  While securing their own enduring literary renown, these authors’ adaptations and transformations of the genre attest to the value they ascribe to literature as a serious field of inquiry.  They also set a precedent for successive stylistic and formal innovations within this genre.

The mystery genre is again the vogue in Italy, and accordingly, interesting and fresh embodiments are at the fore of the media.  From Giancarlo De Cataldo’s acclaimed 2002 novel Romanzo Criminale, to Carlo Lucarelli’s popular RAI television series Blu Notte to the controversial investigative reporting of Roberto Saviano’s Gomorra, crime fiction in Italy continues to captivate the public’s interest as it evolves beyond its traditional embodiments and audiences. Though rather varied, these modern exemplars are nonetheless linked by an overarching problematic: each delves deeply into both past and recent historical and political events in Italy in order to suggest that institutionalized explanations of them are inadequate or unsatisfactory.  The mystery genre is here outstanding in that it readily frames prolonged intellectual inquisitions and offers a compelling structure for protracted analysis and evaluation of events and eras in order to shed some light on the past and the effects it continues to wield on the present.

Simone Sarasso began writing noir fiction for television, film and comics in 2004.[i] His 2007 novel Confine di stato, roughly translatable as “State Limits,” is a particularly noteworthy example of an innovative and contemporary embodiment of the mystery form.  The narrative begins as a conventional giallo. Yet it quickly loses its purely detective filament and then evolves into a political thriller, depicting espionage and intricate conspiracies operating within the ranks of Italy’s government.  Pivoting around national enigmas that have not been adequately resolved, Confine di stato presents an alternate and rather unsettling version of seminal events in modern Italian history.  Focusing on the violent years of the Anni di piombo in Italy, Confine di stato primarily seeks to discredit facile or official solutions to the 1969 Piazza di Fontana bombings in Milan. The novel aims to reexamine the forces which deliberately produced this national tragedy, and to concurrently awaken a new generation’s interest in investigating the country’s perplexing and dubious history in the wake of World War II up to the present.  Sarasso’s novel suggests that these affairs must not be relegated to historical oblivion or dismissed with the passing of time.

While the novel derives from an actual historical donnée, the plotline of Confine di stato toggles back and forth between the last five decades to narratize an intricate and extensive right-wing conspiracy to seize power of the nation. Sarasso has incorporated and liberally fictionalized certain dimensions of four momentous events in Italian history in order to eventually concatenate the series of events.  Some directly invoke an actual occurrence, while others are thinly- veneered allegories or analogies which the reader must decipher and identify.  The novel thus commences with the actual Piazza Fontana bombings on December 12, 1969 in Milan, a reference which is cited unequivocally: the place, the time, the date and the information about the bombings unambiguously correspond to extra-textual realities.  Other episodes are presented obliquely: consequently, the narrative immediately dives into the controversial 1953 Wilma Montesi affair as detective Giorgio Valenti investigates the mysterious drowning of the fictional Ester Conti in Ostia.  Likewise, a private plane later crashes, killing an American journalist and the fictitious Fabio Riviera, the public administrator who actively seeks to dismantle the oil oligopoly of the “seven sisters” and to negotiate oil concessions that do not benefit these corporations.  Indeed, this fictionalizes the fate of AGIP commissary Enrico Mattei in 1962.  Finally, a prominent publisher and left-wing activist simply called “L’editore” (“the Editor”) is killed during an explosion in a clandestine operative placing him in combat with neo-fascist agents.  An invested and astute reader here recognizes the figure of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli in the attempt to locate extratextual correlatives corresponding to the incidents giving substance to the novel.

While the substance of the novel converts facts into fiction, Sarasso subtitles Confine di stato as “an Insane Sketch”.  This designation takes on a double meaning throughout the work:  after abandoning the detective filament a quarter of the way into the text, the novel proceeds to unfold through the actions of Andrea Sterling, a formerly institutionalized patient in a mental asylum moving amongst clandestine segments of society.  Significant portions of the text thoroughly document and follow his institutionalization.  Upon his subsequent release from an asylum, Sterling is seen operating within the ranks of the government, mingling with members of the Democrazia Cristiana, and is occasionally brought into direct contact with the highest ranks of the Cosa Nostra. Sterling is oblivious to the actual influence of the nefarious rings he represents, yet he willingly executes the work of a hired bravo. Sarasso suggests Sterling’s lack of conscience, a blind hatred of socialists and his unquenchable thirst for blood is clearly hallmark of a sociopath.  Moreover, the reader inevitably draws a parallel between the insane individual’s actions and the maniacal will to power of the neo-fascists that he unreflectively supports in their quest to subvert the influence of the political left from the national terrain.  Sarasso’s “insane sketch” thus takes aim at an enduring legacy of corruption and outrageous political machinations, all which have resulted in instances of extreme violence against individuals and an inexcusable and irrational lack of progress in Italy.

In addition to the subject matter, the style of Confine di stato is of particular interest in this discussion of unique manifestations of the giallo. Confine di Stato incorporates some of the most salient features of the noir or hardboiled form, but does not sustain them as the narrative progresses.  Whereas Sarasso initially introduces a detective in his novel honing in on the investigation of Ester Conti’s drowning, the investigator’s presence is fleeting.  At this point, the novel becomes a protracted exploration of a larger conspiracy and evolves into a political thriller or a spy novel and becomes less of a traditional giallo. As a result, perfunctory attempts to definitively locate Confine di stato within the parameters of a singular genre are fruitless.  The novel resists such confines and defies a definitive taxonomy, and even presents useful questions about the relevance of such classifications. Incorporating elements of cinema, graphic novels, comics and invented documentation, Sarasso operates at the interstices of genre. He robustly intermingles various media in his literary form, attesting to a hybridity that fashions something completely unorthodox from the familiar and conventional.

Confine di stato is constructed on two distinct levels which render it stylistically unique: the literal, and the visual.  The reliance on visual narrative as another modus operandi is apparent throughout the text, and immediately structures the reader’s entrance into the work.

The very cover of Confine di stato quickly prefigures the extent to which an unconventionally cinematic dimension lurks within this text.  Replicating elements associated with the conventions of cinema noir, the cover depicts a man wearing a fedora hat.  Silhouetted in black and white, enveloped in shadows, it is a particularly nuanced aesthetic, immediately associated with the style of private detectives, gangsters, or other ruffians in Hollywood films during the 1940s and 1950s.  Moreover, the cover presents the author, illustrators, the publishing house, and a cast of the work’s characters through a billing of opening credits; the “Insane Sketch” is not merely written, but instead “written and directed by Simone Sarasso.”  Applied to a literary work, such cinematic conventions are decontextualized, unexpected and appear to be quite innovative.  Indeed, a reliance on the conventions of film permeates the content of the text itself.  The initial bombing of Piazza Fontana is conveyed textually by invoking the visual and technical elements of a film, stating: “La camera è a volo d’uccello sulla città […] La camera è ad altezza uomo […] Ruota di 180 º […] Allarga sulla facciata del palazzo.  Zooma sull’insegna: ‘Rinascente.’” (“The camera gives a bird’s eye view of the city […] The camera is at eye level […] It rotates 180º […] It moves in on the building’s facade.  Zoom to the sign: ‘Rinascente.’”) This shot-by-shot analysis initiates the narrative, indicating both the novel’s symbiotic reliance on the conventions of film as well as a presumed familiarity with cinematic direction and screenplays on the reader’s behalf.  Meanwhile, this technique depersonalizes and objectifies the scene being staged. In a view ascribed to no character or personage involved, the reader is placed at Piazza Fontana without any sentimentality or emotions.  It is an impartial and detached introduction to the disturbing world which will immediately unfold in the pages of the text.[ii]

This technique then reappears throughout various episodes of the work, but Sarasso “directs” this novel with other visual components as well.  In addition to the cinematic element, Confine di stato also incorporates highly-stylized graphics and illustrations within the novel which visually supplement or retell the substance of the plot.

Consequently, there is a “titoli di testa” or opening credits segment, and a “trailer” which frame the main story arc.  In these visual sequences, the reader is presented with black and white drawings, reminiscent of comics or the signature features of a graphic narrative. The sequences present various characters and events that either will later be or were already introduced throughout the novel.  Additionally, one memorable scene in the novel unfolds between Mago, a Cosa Nostra boss, and Andrea Sterling, in which a parable of American ruthlessness and power is presented as a comic strip involving Superman and a young boy. Yet even this is juxtaposed: the customary visual medium of comic strips is translated into text and narrated only through language, completely forsaking any illustrations.

Such references to popular culture, as well as the inclusion of sketches, comics and other similar pixilated graphics, are further indications that Sarasso may be appealing to a young and contemporary audience, one that is largely unacquainted with the remote and past events of their national history.  Unlike previous generations, this audience may not necessarily be attracted to literature, but instead drawn to the intimacies of television and film.  The somewhat recognizable form and style of the narrative may thus serve to further attract and foment their interest in literature. This is a compelling hypothesis, given the unconventional method of advertising the book prior to its publication; a cinematic book trailer diffused via the internet announced the work’s 2007 “release,” suggesting that visual media might better attract Sarasso’s intended audience as he himself sought to move beyond traditional literary forms.

The insertion of graphics in the novel, however, performs another crucial function: it deliberately fractures the narrative and thwarts a linear development. Confine di stato frequently interrupts narrative progression by creating intermittent breaks between story sequences and the frequent presentation of other media.  This is particularly evident in the recourse to “documentation” as a way to create a different perspective of events.  Such documentation includes interpersonal and institutional correspondence describing conditions in a mental asylum, fictitious newspaper clippings reporting events, lengthy reports from police investigations, and transcripts of televised news reports.  While there is a caveat at the onset of the novel stating that all pieces of documentation are invented, Sarasso has explicitly stated elsewhere that his own research for the novel was almost entirely based on archival documentation.  Yet by interspersing these various invented “documents” amidst scenes, Sarasso breathes life into what he has deemed the static and dispassionate “language of bureaucracy”[iii] that formed his research.  By altering and providing these documents with a subjective narrative, Sarasso has translated facts into fiction.  They are now imbued with a context and supply the reader with an interpretative principle for digesting the facts contained therein.

In tandem with the formal language of these invented documents, Confine di stato unfolds through decidedly colloquial and nonliterary language. Trafficking in popular culture references, vulgarities, vernacular and slang from both the present and eras past, Sarasso’s prose sharply contrasts with the often erudite works of other Italian mystery writers like Sciascia, Gadda, Maraini and Tabucchi. His work is decidedly devoid of literary allusions, metaphysical concerns or philosophical meditations.   Nonetheless, the text is complex as it employs a range of dialects and registers to a very crucial purpose.  Language in Confine di stato vividly depicts distinct classes and social strata in Italy, and it evokes particular historical periods as well. The various linguistic ranges and the language of his characters often create atmosphere in the novel.  From the brusque and vibrant Romanesco of the urban dweller, the parolacce of the Mafiosi and drug lords,  to the clinical and institutional language of doctors and politicians, Sarasso conveys language as a unique schematization and understanding of the world, and the ability to employ one code over another quickly positions characters within or outside of communities.  As Sarasso himself states with regards to this aspect of the novel, “language [is used] to stigmatize characters [and to] render them as bidimensional as much as possible.”[iv] Sarasso thus manipulates different linguistic registers to establish a clear and simple dichotomy between the “good” and “bad” characters appearing in the story.  Sarasso concedes that it is an “unreal” language, one which exists only in cinema.[v] Yet in this “insane sketch”, the polarized use of language also enables the reader to quickly identify and classify the sort of character presented within a narrative that deliberately and constantly flutters from one protagonist to another.   While this shift from one character to another provides narrative valence,[vi] it also has a profoundly destabilizing effect on the reader.  Yet it is only one way that Sarasso has elected to propel forth his narrative.

Ultimately, any absence of reference points[vii] caused by the narrative shift and intentional breaks in its progression are unified when the polarized languages, invented documents, visual narrative, and distinct episodic divisions are viewed holistically.  The reader synthesizes them, and recognizes that the pastiche of divergent and fragmented components blends into a cohesive and wholly original narrative. While writing within the confines of the giallo, Simone Sarasso simultaneously innovates and reconfigures the genre to reflect his unique aesthetic sensibilities. Confine di stato boldly tackles the elusive mysteries of Italy’s past, expands the scope of readership, and ultimately rouses an interest in history for a new generation of Italian readers.

[i] Sarasso discusses his development and sensibilities as a writer in an interview available at Liquid Magazine at http://magazine.liquida.it/2009/03/26/intervista-a-simone-sarasso-di-confine-di-statocom.

[ii] Sarasso considers this and other aspects of his novel Confine di stato in detail in an interview available at Blackmailmag at http://www.blackmailmag.com/Intervista_a_Simone_Sarasso.htm.

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Ibid

[v] Ibid

[vi] Ibid

[vii] Ibid

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