One morning the teenager Angela has an accident on her scooter while driving through the streets of the city of Rome. She is rushed to the hospital and is in critical condition. The line between life and death has never been so thin. The hospital Angela is taken to just so happens to be the same hospital her father, Timoteo, works for as a surgeon, although all his years of training don’t serve him at all – he is to wait, like any other grieving parent, in the waiting room as his colleagues work on Angela and try to save her life. Angela’s accident causes Timoteo to run through his mind to the events that led to the birth of his daughter, and begins to have a monologue directed at his unconscious daughter that is both a narration and a confession.
On one afternoon early in his marriage to Angela’s mother, Timoteo has car issues in a desolate area of the Roman periphery. Luckily, a mechanic is close by, who takes the car and begins to work on it. Timoteo walks into a bar only to discover no working telephone in the quiet and muggy place. There is however a disheveled and awkwardly dressed woman in the bar who offers some assistance. Timoteo follow her to her home, stating it is for the usage of her telephone, but when directed to where it is in her apartment, the man instead proceeds to rape the woman and then leave some bills on a table on his way out.
This violent act and crime consume the narrator’s thoughts, but not for the reasons one would expect. He doesn’t think about the woman and what his actions must have done to her, most adjectives and descriptions he uses for her are animalistic, and therefore prove how far he has gone to dehumanize her. Instead, he worries what this says about him and about his self perception. What follows are several more visits to the woman’s apartment and more inflictions of the violent act upon her, each time Timoteo becoming more brazen and sure of himself, justifying his actions and blaming the woman for any wrongdoing.
After one of these violent and criminal encounters the woman, whose name is Italia, offers to make her attacker a plate of pasta. Here the ‘relationship’ takes a turn and gains some intimacy. The dynamics change, and a coupledom begins to be born. As readers, we must always be vividly aware that it is the man who is telling the story and it is completely filtered through his own words, thoughts, and point of view – this is important to not trust completely all that he says, he is inherently unreliable for this is his justification, his manifesto, and thus also his exculpation.
The more Timoteo is enraptured with feelings of love for Italia, the more he feels tied to his home life with his wife. The two lives mirror each other in grotesque patterns of opposites and yet also reflect each other in identical ways. Timoteo is torn, a man separated and falling apart. Mazzantini is masterful in identifying his voice and staying true to it throughout, even when he himself cannot figure out who he is or what he wants anymore. The novel is infuriating and at times downright disgusting, because it has to be. It may be one of the only works that truly understands the role of the abuser, of the perpetrator of crimes, of the family man who does horrific things. It is not an easy read, thematically, but it is very well written and worth it, if only to gain more insights into issues that must be understood and addressed and not ignored. The book is alarming and frightening in its topics and discussions of some of the most brutal actions humans are capable of committing.
P.S. I try my best to never do this, but I had actually seen the film version of this book before reading it, mostly because at the time I wasn’t aware of the existence of the book. The movie stars Penelope Cruz, who is incredible in the role of Italia. Interestingly, the filmmakers (the screenwriter was Mazzantini herself and the director her husband) chose to make the woman Albanian, in order to add to her otherness, I assume. And while the movie is very good, it is not as successful as the novel merely because so much of what happens in the book hinges on Timoteo’s perception of all events and we have to take his subjective word on it all. Movies are intrinsically more objective and therefore reductive of the power and point of the novel itself.