Translators on Books that Should be Translated: “Indigo” by Roberto Carretta and Renato Viola

by Stiliana Milkova


The reclusive clockmaker Anton Ivanovic has disappeared from his apartment in Turin. His only friend, the erudite professor of mythology Joshua Momigliano, receives a letter which sends him on a quest to find out what happened to Anton. As Joshua asks in the opening pages, “Anton Ivanovic was a reserved, impenetrable man whose days followed one after the other with the precision of a theorem – but what demon was hiding inside him, behind the screen of a simple and possibly despondent existence?” (my translation, 12). In his investigation Joshua is joined by his friend Brian Crain, a British diplomat and, like Joshua, a connoisseur of music and the visual arts. As Joe and Brian delve deeper into the mystery, they face a series of riddles to solve, a secret alphabet to decode, and an attractive woman who seems to be searching for them. Their investigation leads them to dangerous encounters and shocking discoveries about Anton’s disappearance. These are the plot coordinates of Roberto Carretta and Renato Viola’s novel Indigo, published in Italy in 2011.

Indigo is an intellectual mystery and a topographic enigma; it is a meditation on genius and an unmasking of invisible but pervasive globalized crime; and it is also an exquisite intertextual tribute to literature, painting, and music. A thoroughly-researched yet captivating narrative, it joins the ranks of novels by Umberto Eco and Carlos Ruiz Zafón. The plot is grounded in a cartographic urban reality – Turin’s rectilinear, chessboard-like map, its long portico-covered streets, its museums, parks, monuments, and public squares – and in what lurks behind the city’s polished facades. The protagonists, Joe and Brian, win you over with their witty dialogue, their refined taste, and their all-too-human foibles.

Joe is an introverted scholar still reeling from a painful relationship with a woman he calls “the unnamable.” He stays up all night smoking and listening to Bach, relishes rare books and good wines, and is terrified of flying or remembering his past. Brian is a charming aesthete, womanizer, and gourmand – the perfect complement to Joe’s asceticism. Both characters are developed through their fast-paced brilliant exchanges of opinions and stories, and the chapters likewise alternate between their two narrating voices. Their investigation moves hectically forward through their nocturnal walks and explorations of a city they love. “Cities are complex, constantly evolving organisms – delimiting the field of vision allows the gaze to zoom in on the details, ” muses Joe as he and Brian enter the portico-lined Via Po (my translation, 74). They are flâneurs turned detectives, acutely aware of their surroundings and the way the city frames urban – and in this case, illegal – activity. Plot and map are intertwined so that Turin itself constitutes the key to the success of the investigation.

As Joe and Brian become entangled in Anton’s disappearance and the shadows hidden behind it begin to emerge, they are drawn into a nightmarish world of large-scale Big Pharma corruption. Will they escape unscathed? Or will their encounters with horrifying suffering affect their existence forever? If Indigo begins with a mystery to be solved almost as a sort of entertainment by two inquisitive friends, it evolves into a dead-serious representation of a frightfully realistic scenario. Nonetheless, the book offers a delightfully reverential portrayal of unified Italy’s first capital, an elegant city of palaces, and a center of scientific research and artistic creativity. Turin has much to offer to the novel’s cultured protagonists, and readers are invited along to indulge in its pleasures and discover for themselves this gem of a city.

The collaborative product of Roberto Carretta and Renato Viola, a philosopher of art and a political scientist respectively, Indigo relies on a glocal imaginary, rooted at once in the exigencies of a specific Italian topography and in a universally relevant, globally urgent socio-political landscape. Its thematic scope exceeds its original language and place of publication while its narrative style recalls the border-crossing storytelling of Jorge Luis Borges and Joseph Roth. The book’s descriptive moments – many of them dwelling on paintings or cityscapes that resemble paintings – derive their ekphrastic energy from the works of André Derain, Paul Delvaux, and Giorgio de Chirico. Facades, porticoes, arches, diagonal and straight lines merge in a sensuously accurate image of the city’s distinctive architecture, and at the same time provide the clue to unlocking Anton’s secret.

Although Indigo is an intellectually thrilling novel, it should not be taken lightly. It is a book that belongs to here and now, especially in today’s global political climate. Its translation would be timely, its rewards lasting.

Carretta, Roberto and Renato Viola. IndigoNino Aragno Editore, 2011.

Roberto Carretta (b. 1963) is an Italian writer, philosopher of art, and translator from Turin. CarrettaHe is the author of the monographs Lo scenario conquistato: Gli scacchi e l’origine del loro simbolismo (2001), La cucina delle fiabe (2002), I labirinti del tempo: Storia di un’imperfetta armonia (2004) and In taverna con Shakespeare (2005). He has translated into Italian Aldous Huxley’s La condizione umana (2005), Guy de Pourtalèsbiography Nietzsche in Italia, and with Renato Viola, Robert Darnton’s book Il Mesmerismo e la fine dell’Illuminismo in Francia (2005). Besides Indigo (2011), Carretta has collaborated with Renato Viola on Tavole d’autore. Storie d’arte e di cucina (2011). 

Renato Viola (b. 1964) is an Italian political scientist, writer, and translator. RVHe has translated works on social politics and economics, including the volume Capitalismo cognitivo (2006). He has served as editor of the journal for jazz music Blue Note. Besides co-authoring Indigo (2011), Viola has collaborated with Roberto Carretta on the translation of Robert Darnton’s Il Mesmerismo e la fine dell’Illuminismo in Francia (2005) and on the volume Tavole d’autore. Storie d’arte e di cucina (2011). He lives and works in Turin. 


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