There is a book that came out in 2018 and regretfully has not been translated into English yet, though it definitely deserves to be known well beyond Italian national borders. Its title in Italian, Io ho paura (I am scared), is evocative of a popular Italian novel written by Niccolò Ammaniti in 2001, Io non ho paura (I’m not scared) which received international acclaim after it was turned into a film directed by Gabriele Salvatores in 2003. Jonathan Hunt’s English translation of Ammaniti’s novel was published also in 2003.
Whether or not Silvio Perrella, author of Io ho paura (Vicenza: Neri Pozza), intended to establish a link with the Ammaniti’s famous crime-fiction piece, is a question open to debate. If he did, I would argue that his purpose is more polemic than celebratory. Certainly, he does not mean to place his work alongside a certain tradition of Italian literature that for decades has been met with increasing consensus at home and abroad—the crime novel and the mafia and terrorist fiction in their many highbrow, lowbrow and middlebrow variables, featuring masterpieces such as Gadda’s Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana (1957) [That Awful Mess on Via Merulana (1965), translated by William Weaver], Leonardo Sciascia’s Il giorno della civetta (1961) [The Day of the Owl (1963), translated by Archibald Colquhoun], Umberto Eco’s Il nome della rosa (1980) [The Name of the Rose (1983), translated by William Weaver] or even Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano’s narrative and television series, not to mention the unprecedented success achieved by Roberto Saviano’s non-fiction book Gomorra (2006) [Gomorrah (2007) translated by Virginia Jewiss] followed by the homonymous film and television series. In fact, Silvio Perrella appears to challenge that tradition as he interrogates the nature of the main emotional response elicited by it: fear.
A Sicilian writer who moved to Naples during his formative years, Perrella has been an important voice of Italian literary criticism since the late 1990s, when he published his first book on the work of Italo Calvino for a major Italian publisher. From then on, he has kept producing stylistically precious, intriguing, thought-provoking volumes of non-fiction for which he has received multiple well-deserved awards. One of the main features of Perrella’s style is the unique blending of criticism and affective reading of texts and places, illustrated through a personalized commentary that aims to present the critic as a real person, nearly a character of his books. For this reason, his non-fictional texts on the work of other 20th-century Italian and English writers often read like novels.
This also occurs with Io ho paura. Initially, we don’t know what this text is. It seems to defy categories of genre. It blends elements of novel, non-fiction, and memoir, and yet, miraculously, it doesn’t generate displacement even if it throws readers out of their comfort zone. In my view, we don’t feel betrayed by Perrella’s contamination of literary genres because the first-person narrator behaves like an authentic storyteller who manages to weave an enchanting tale made of true and invented stories. Cradled in this fantastic cocoon, readers are transported to a setting so real that it has no name. It is the land of Here (“Qui”).
Firm believers in documentary realism, those for whom a spade is a spade and such should be its name, might be bothered by the use of this generic toponym. Why Here and not Naples, Rome, Palermo or New York? My answer is that in the tradition of literary realism, places are not always easily identified with a precise geographical spot. They might be called by their name, like the Sicily of Elio Vittorini’s Conversazione in Sicilia (1939-40) [Conversations in Sicily (2003), more recently translated by Alane Salierno Mason], a masterpiece of Italian 20th century realism, and yet be so vaguely defined that they resemble imaginary places. Conversely, villages such as Macondo of Marquez’s Cien años de soledad (1967) or Ombrosa of Calvino’s Il barone rampante (1957) [The Baron in the Trees (1959), first translation by Archibald Colquhoun] do not exist in real life and yet, they magically allude to a precise historical setting. If Perrella’s Here may undoubtedly fall in this second category, it is also reminiscent of those evanescent and stylized landscapes hanging in the balance between visible and visionary that Laura Pugno – another author whose work deserves more attention in the Anglosphere – skillfully captured in novels such as La caccia (2012) [The Hunt] and La ragazza selvaggia (2016) [The Wild Girl]: landscapes populated by real people in flesh and blood with a ghostly fairy-tale heart.
Io ho paura is the account of a month-long full immersion in the natural environment of Here, amidst the waves of a sea which the narrator’s body methodically cuts through, as he swims freestyle on his way offshore and backstroke on his return to the coast, when the self “capsizes” allowing him to look at the world upside down, from a different perspective. The beauty of this book is precisely in its swift change of focus as the narrator directs his gaze onto the nature of Here and sees a line of real and fictional characters emerge from the woods, from the nooks behind the rocks and the ramshackle houses. In fact, all characters, even the fictional ones, are real. One wonders if Perrella has collected the legacy of Italo Calvino, one of his favourite writers, and put it to good use. “Folk tales are real,” Calvino wrote. “They are the database of men and women’s potential destinies […] beginning with birth […] the departure from home, through the trials of growing up, the attainment of maturity and the confirmation of oneself as a human being” (I. Calvino, Fiabe Italiane, Turin: Einaudi, 1956, vol. 1, xviii, my translation).
Thus, in the woods of Here, it is possible to find Hansel and Gretel alongside local mythical characters such as the madwoman Nina or the legendary Bella, a beautiful lady who died in the sea many years prior to the narrator’s trip. Then we have a crowd of fishermen, some swimming mates, random strangers met by chance as well as a few fictional characters that populate the short stories on the theme of fear which the narrator reads in the middle of the night, weaving together real life and fiction, with casual enchantment.
Why are we scared, Perrella seems to ask his audience, and what is the object of our fears? What is the difference between the “natural” fears embedded in our environment which pose real threats to us (the fear of drowning in the ocean or getting lost in the woods, for instance), and those “industrial” fears increasingly widespread in our society: terror, “fascism”, AIDS, ISIS? According to Perrella, the latter are pervasive and terrifying precisely because they have no object; they originate in an abstract, faceless, intangible source which any of us can represent as they please. Inevitably, industrial fears are transfigured by most of us into the horrid face of Medusa whose petrifying gaze has a paralyzing effect on our ability to change the status quo and act in society. Furthermore, Perrella seems to hit the nail on the head when he refers to the relational nature of human beings. Individuals are not born in a vacuum, he seems to say, but exist in connection with other individuals; “me” is always dependent on “you,” be it a human, or a nonhuman entity: a pet, a house, a tree, a stuffed doll, a book, an Internet profile, a mobile phone.
Industrial fears, argues Perrella, are not the product of a real relationship and therefore undermine the ability of humans to interact with one another, an ability on which the human consortium is grounded.
If I say HIV, AIDS, Ebola, Mad Cow disease, ISIS, Guantanamo Bay, Migrants, I name something that has no real name. It is usually a tag, an acronym or a metaphor; I don’t really get its flavour once it reaches the tip of my tongue. I say without saying. The fabricated fears, the industrial fears […] more often than not have no precise object. They are like the anxiety mentioned by Heidegger. Something vibrating in the air which terrifies us; something preventing any one-to-one relationship. […] Don’t do this, don’t do that, confine yourself within the square centimetre of your breathing space, don’t let yourself be drawn to sudden impulses, withdraw into yourself, crouch inside and underneath the big blanket of fear. (Io ho paura, 85-86, my translation)
In other words, industrial fears isolate us and push us into a corner making us feel lonely. They prevent us from building an effective, combative, committed “we” because our fight does not stem from a real dialogue or a real relationship. We avoid the issue, Perrella seems to say, when we take to the street and protest against a hidden enemy whom we keep fearing even if we pretend not to. A possible solution, then, would be “acknowledging our ignorance, sharing what we don’t know and attempting to build a common awareness” (88). In order to achieve that, first we must admit to be weak and vulnerable: to be scared.
Perrella, Silvio. Io ho paura. Neri Pozza, 2018.
Silvio Perrella (b. 1959) is an Italian writer and literary critic from Palermo who lives in Naples. His literary criticism includes books on Italo Calvino, Raffaele La Capria, Goffredo Parise, and Vincenzo Consolo, as well as collections of essays such as Addii, fischi nel buio, cenni (2016) and Insperati incontri (2017). He also writes about Naples and its urban reality, blending walking and narrative, cityscape and emotional landscape, mapping the city’s cultural and topographic history. Walking in Perrella’s urban poetics becomes a way of seeing and of knowing as manifested in Giùnapoli (2006), L’aleph di Napoli (2013), L’alfabeto del mare (2014), Le ombre della Gaiola (2015), Doppioscatto (2015), Da qui a lì. Ponti, scorci, preludi (2018), and others. Perrella has also co-written a book with Raffaele La Capria, Di terra e mare (2018). His latest book is Io ho paura (2018). He collaborates with Italian newspapers and magazines.