If the descriptions “feverish” and “encroaching on the hallucinatory” applied by Anna Maria Ortese to her own writing in Neapolitan Chronicles can also be said to mark an aspect of Neapolitan writing more generally, one would be hard-pressed to find a greater embodiment of this style than Nicola Pugliese’s Malacqua: Four Days of Rain in the City of Naples Waiting for the Occurrence of an Extraordinary Event. This curious little work, Pugliese’s only novel, became an overnight sensation when published in 1977. Almost as quickly, it sank beneath the waters after the author forbade its republication following the sold-out first print run. Only after Pugliese’s death in 2012 did the book reappear in Italy, and now, thanks to crowd-funding publisher And Other Stories, it is available in an English translation by Shaun Whiteside.
In most respects, Malacqua and Neapolitan Chronicles would seem to have little in common. Relatively speaking, Pugliese lacks Ortese’s high-minded gravity and sense of fierce determination to right wrongs, and the sheer velocity of his writing and ability to shift on a ten-lira coin from story to story sets him light years apart from Ortese’s journalistic prose. Aside from the book’s division into four chapters, each representing one of the four days of rain referenced in the title, there is scarcely room in the torrential narrative for the reader to gasp for air: one scene gushes into the next, the cascade of pages seldom checked by so much as a paragraph break. Thematically, however, the two writers grasp a common Neapolitan subject: the seeming intractability of the Naples’ problems and its rootedness in an inertia and acquiescence regarding the state of things. Notably, both writers’ scathing critiques of this facet of Neapolitan life are matched by an underlying fascination with and fondness for the place - “a love of the city, a love of Naples, which is the truly unique characteristic of the sons of Queen Parthenope,” as Pugliese puts it - perhaps inadvertently omitting the daughters of the Queen, whom Ortese would surely have included had the line been her own.
Pugliese delivers exactly what his lengthy title promises. Four solid days of rain flood Naples’ streets, undermine roads, cause buildings to collapse, provoke the book’s main character to exclaim, “Christ, was this city built on a void?” and mobilize the authorities to rush about in an almost comical attempt to do something. At the same time a growing anticipation of some consequent “extraordinary event” begins to take hold among the citizenry. Odd and disturbing phenomena accompany the deluge in this city where the surreal seems part of “the natural order of things.” Most significantly, amorphous voices wail and then go silent, prompting an urgent search throughout the medieval Maschio Angioino - the Castel Nuovo - from which they seem to originate. The perplexing discovery of several identical dolls at sites where people have died as a result of the downpour’s ravages offers a clue for investigators, but the absence of further such finds shuts that avenue of inquiry. Pop songs, suddenly emanating from five-lira coins and audible only to the city’s ten-year-old girls, amplify the intimation of something extraordinary to arrive.
Even with these distinctly surrealistic elements, however, Pugliese treads less in the footsteps of Anna Maria Ortese than in those of the late 19th century Neapolitan writer Matilde Serao. Like Serao, Pugliese takes an interest both intimate and wide-ranging in Neapolitans of all stripes. The vignettes that flow one to the next in his rushing narrative accumulate, as in Serao’s more slowly-paced work, into a panoramic, polyphonic portrait of Neapolitan society: shopkeepers, police officers, young lovers, porters, office workers, worried mothers, postal employees, city councilors, baristas, emergency personnel. Pugliese catches his swiftly sketched figures in melancholy and feverish moments of waiting, of contemplation, of pondering their predicaments and the unrelenting rain.
Coming and going throughout the novel is a more or less central figure trying to make sense of it all, the newspaper reporter Carlo Andreoli. Pugliese sets Andreoli apart from his fellow citizens only in the degree to which he is able to articulate the “distorted anxiety that climbs, and pants, and groans,” his recognition of this angst as a more or less constant presence raining down upon the city. The anxiousness – and the waiting for something “extraordinary” to result from such periodic disturbances of normalcy as a heavy rainstorm – fuse into an atmosphere described variously as a “grueling, progressive disease;” “a harsh and predetermined rancour,” an “irreversible obstinacy,” “the provisionality of an inconclusive gloomy and unbreakable presentiment which still drags glowing decorations down into the mud of anxiety.” The rain becomes a symbol of the usualness of the city’s afflictions: “Upon these things and upon these thoughts and upon these people there fell a rain which was the previous day’s rain and which might also be the next day’s rain, and the rain of other days to come.” Forming an unholy trinity with the sense of constant affliction is both an atmosphere of interminable waiting “as draining as an animal’s agony, as alive and dense as an interminable outpouring of blood” and a passive anticipation that something may come of it all:
…it was if during those hours an incomplete and distorted question had arisen over the silent city, just a hypothesis, the idea of a question. A question that refused to emerge, that refused to emerge at all, which everyone sensed deep in the tissue between rib and rib. As they breathed, they became aware of its concrete presence in the diaphragm. Over the city that dark presence, and with it fear, and foreboding as well: now perhaps the perspective on life would change, oh yes, be changed and disrupted forever.
Pugliese turns these entwined thematic elements into a literary effect that drums as steadily as the rain; the reader may be forgiven for feeling so redundantly assailed as to begin to attend the same discomfiting anticipation as Pugliese’s cast of Neapolitan characters.
Neapolitan life goes on, its minor deviations from the quotidian conjuring vexation about bigger ones to come, perhaps the threat of catastrophe – a deluge, an earthquake, Camorrist violence, even the perpetual promise of nearby Vesuvius to bury the city as it did Pompei and Heculaneum: a palpable and insistent tension between the routine threatening events that fray the city’s nerves and edges and some ultimate destruction - or salvation. Not all is gloom and doom. The “sunny fatalism” described by Pugliese’s fellow Neapolitan writer (and obvious literary influence) Raffaele La Capria in A Mortal Wound seems to have infected the city. The variations in the day to day offer diversion, alarm, stimulation, a frisson of fear, but deep down the population accepts that “it would start to feel like a siege, if we didn’t all know In the end it isn’t the first time it has rained like this. No, Naples has endured other rains, rains that were still more violent, yes sir. Which lasted longer. It pays its kickback, the city does, and it survives.”
Some readers might read that as optimism.