Sunday, November 10, 2019

"A game of light: elusive, vague and improbable" - Piero Chiara's The Bishop's Bedroom

Vllla Castelli, Lago Maggiore, thought to be the model for Villa Cleofe in The Bishop's Bedroom

My third outing with Piero Chiara (1913-1986) dropped into my lap via an unsolicited advance copy from New Vessel Press, which arrived just as I'd been bemoaning the scarcity of English translations of this exceptional Italian writer. While Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed may forever remain the great novel of the Italian lake country, Chiara has, in The Bishop’s Bedroom (La Stanza del vescovo, 1976), almost certainly produced the great novel specific to Lake Maggiore, on the shores of which the author grew up. 

The year is 1946. Amid the ripples of recently concluded war, an unnamed narrator, home after spending two years in a Swiss labor camp, idles about the lake on a small sea-going yacht, putting into port for food, drink and girlfriends. A chance meeting draws him into the world of one Signor Orimbelli, himself back from ten years passed chiefly amid the tatters of Italy’s failed Ethiopia campaign. The pull for the narrator is a certain fascination for this pudgy, well-dressed, 40-ish gentleman, who, despite a glibness with personal history, remains impenetrably opaque. Partially in exchange for allowing Orimbelli to accompany him on his journeys around the lake, the narrator is provided lodging in the villa owned by Orimbelli’s wife, Signora Cleofe, specifically in the “bishop’s bedroom,” a kind of ecclesiastical cabinet of curiosities once inhabited by the signora’s deceased uncle, a papal bishop. Also living in the villa is the attractive young Matilde, left essentially widowed by the disappearance of her husband, Signora Cleofe’s brother, in Ethiopia 10 years before.  

As might be evident already, Chiara’s novel features a lot of lost time and lengthy distances between his characters, setting the stage for vacuums to be filled. As Orimbelli draws the narrator closer during their dinners at the villa and trips around the lake, primarily to pick up women, the narrator begins to piece together bits of his host’s story. But the pace is as leisurely as the boat’s tours about the lake, providing no clear notion of where the situation might be heading. 

In fact,  Chiara might have contentedly sailed his away around his entire novel and still left us a pleasing and intensely atmospheric travelogue of Lake Maggiore, its shoreline towns and islands and inlets, natural and human history, tales of its shipwrecks, abandoned castles and churches “perhaps full of skeletons,” details of the customs controls in the lake’s small Swiss arm, of markets selling discards from the departed American military. Featuring prominently are the many winds that blow across the waters: the TramontanaInvernaMontina, the rare Munscendrin, as well as “those mysterious breezes that come from who knows where, sudden small flurries that dimple a short stretch of the lake and then disappear, only to reappear a little later from another direction, like sprites or jesters,” which the skilled narrator catches by tying small strips of gauze and birds’ feathers to the rigging with silk string. The Bishop’s Bedroom might well have stood on its own as a terrific work about sailing,

Still from Dino Risi's 1977 film adaptation of La Stanza del vescovo

But three-quarters of the way through the work, Chiara goes giallo. Subtle, careful touches - the frequent presence of shadow and shade whenever the narrator finds himself with Orimbelli and frissons of local rumor about the latter’s louche past - have built up a malignant tension which suddenly gives way in dramatic fashion: Signora Cleofe is found drowned in front of the villa. A ruling of suicide clears a too convenient path for Orimbelli to marry the young Matilde, recently free to remarry given that her husband’s disappearance has, during the course of the narrator’s stay, attained the ten-year statute of limitations required under law.

It may seem as though I’m about to give away the whole cannoli here. But Chiara gives the impression of having sailed into the mystery realm almost on a whim, tying elements of the genre onto his narrative rigging to catch whatever light puffs might aid his story’s propulsion. His concern for plot seems relegated to the simple importance of making sure its well-structured frame functions to hold his other interests, which include the depiction of psychological tension, family relations and their perturbation by outsiders, the subtle dynamics of power, the games of shadow and light that go on between strangers who meet.

More specifically, Chiara depicts the fraught territory of such encounters following the devastations of war, the psychological geography of the immediate post-war period:  “That long, unbroken rest discharged soldiers seemed to long for as balm for their hidden injuries – a welcome daze, within which to conceal themselves for the rest of the lives.” In the microcosm of relations between these two men, one finds echoes of the macrocosm of reconciliation (or its absence) between those perhaps on opposite sides of the conflict, or more accurately, of divergent moral sense and sensibility. The jockeying for position that goes on between the two thrusts the narrator into a furtive dialectic with Orimbelli’s hidden motives that forces a questioning of the aimlessness and torpor into which the war has deposited so many. Where will the world go after the terrible convulsions it’s just gone through? What has this cataclysm done to social relations? How will people reconstruct their lives, much less a society? The entwining of mistrust and curiosity forces the narrator to measure the ways in which he himself has been changed:

I knew it wasn’t easy for him – or me, for that matter – to be any other way , or to be better. In recent years we’d seen the world overturned. Between combat and prison, escapes and rescues, it had changed in our hands, without giving us time to understand the simple truth, which was that, having been present at these events and taken part in them - sometimes against our will - we had been enriched rather than damaged. We were convinced, instead, that we’d been robbed of our best years, and when the war was over we wanted to reinvent our youth.

I’ll not spoil where these ruminations lead, or the direction this gem of late 20thcentury Italian literature takes following the signora’s death, but suffice to say that the past returns like a ghost to upend the present, alter the future and impact “an adolescence not even the war had managed to cast off.” Taking an indirect approach to the thriller genre, Chiara has created a softly seductive narrative filled with nearly as many subtle mysteries as a gothic novel: the true nature of Orimbelli, of the relationships going on at Villa Cleofe, of the events that may have transpired in Ethiopia, of the bizarre “bishop’s bedroom” with its locked trunk bearing Orimbelli's initials, and of course of the narrator’s own dissipation and inertia. 

I’ll also note that while Chiara keeps a weather eye open to larger existential questions as well as to his country’s failings, the underlying seriousness of these concerns benefits from a gentle touch; in between the novel’s several literal and figurative squalls, the tone turns as light as some of the lake’s breezes. The narrative also sparkles with a bemused, ironic and piquant humor not unlike that of Chiara’s Lombard compatriot Giovannino Guareschi, author of the satirical Don Camillo stories, and which is most often directed at the small-minded, the corrupt and the pompous. If Signora Cleofe’s family name, Berlusconi, raises an eyebrow for the reader, it may well be more than coincidental, even given that Silvio Berlusconi had not yet entered politics at the time the book was written. But the young Berlusconi’s crass reshaping of Milan’s real estate landscape would surely have caught Chiara’s attention given his time spent in Milan. That Chiara identifies one member of his fictional Berlusconi family as “one of Milan’s most eligible bachelors” and represents him as physically emasculated seems precisely the kind of prankish nose-thumbing displayed in each of the works I’ve read by the author, as well as, apparently, beyond his writing. While employed as a clerk in the Special Fascist Tribunal in Varese in 1943, Chiara had been forced to flee, like his narrator in The Bishop’s Bedroom, into exile in Switzerland until the war’s end. His terrible crime? Sticking a plaster bust of Mussolini into a box of case files awaiting prosecution. 

The Bishop’s Bedroom, translated by Jill Foulston, is published by New Vessel Press.  

 Piero Chiara