Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Plague Spreader's Tale

The Plague Spreader's Tale originally appeared in Italy in 1981 under the title Diceria dell'untore, it was awarded the Campiello Prize, and published by Harvill Press in 1999 in a translation by Patrick Creagh, who also adds a number of edifying notes to the text at the end of the book. I'd have to admit I'm not sure what drew me to this short novel, I didn't investigate the novel's setting before having it in my hands to read, I was anticipating it being set in the medieval era judging by it's cover, (a detail of the fresco The Triumpth of Death, Palermo - a link here to where the novel is situated). The novel though is set at the end of the Second World War, and is narrated by a young man who is suffering from TB, he sometimes receives treatment to encourage the lips of his wound to join back together, he refers to the sanatorium as La Rocca, during his recollections he describes the other patients, the doctor who he calls the Skinny Wizard, the hospital is divided into different wings, male and female separated, but many of the patients endeavour to hunt out physical contact however weak their bodies are, their desires remain strongly felt. The narrative has the ability to express the narrator's compressed memories, time and memory become sometimes expansively described passages, he recalls a woman whom he had a previous relationship, although she died as the Germans retreated. During a theatrical performance organised by the doctor the narrator encounters Marta, a woman with a suspicious past, although he becomes fascinated with her. Conversations with other patients are recalled, in particular the narrator's talks about faith and disbelief with Father Vittorio, the prose becomes more nuanced with the knowledge of their passings, the conversations take on an etheral tone. The novel is tinged with questions on mortality and with Marta she becomes obsessed that she is spreading her disease. It's difficult to convey the beauty of Bufalino's layered prose, there is a quote on the back by Claudio Marabini -" Bufalino is an extraordinary writer, an exceptionally controlled stylist, he relishes words, their music, their tiniest shades of meaning", you get the impression that he chose every word with extraordinary care, I'm not ashamed to admit that there were many words here that had me reaching for the dictionary, Patrick Creagh's translation captures Bufalino's attention to those tiniest shades of meaning very well. The Harvill Press also published Bufalino's novels - The Keeper of Ruins, Blind Argus and Night's Lies which won the Strega Prize, all translated by Patrick Creagh.

More from the back jacket -

In the last months of World War II, a young man with a fatal disease, straight out of the army, is sent to a TB sanatorium near Palmero. It feels like a leper colony - people arrive, but never leave until they are dead, usually in a matter of months. Even the doctor has the illness in his cells. But the sap of life cannot be stopped from flowing. The men's and women's wings of the sanatorium are strictly segregated, but there are permits to go into town for patients who have passed a screening; there are little boys to run lover's errands; and there is human ingenuity. In the long hot summer of 1946, at an evening of amateur theatricals organised by the doctor, our narrator falls in love with Marta, a young ballerina who has not lost her grace. But what sort of future can be expected of such a romance?.

A favourite passage -

Of all the days of my life that Sunday, August the 18th, is one of the three or four which, whenever I set out to attain the rapture of living over again, I re-enact from start to finish. But perhaps I should explain... My relationship with my past smacks of depravity: I embalm it within myself, I forever caress it, as some caress the corpse of a loved-one. The stratagies I employ to retrieve it are the usual two. First I visit myself as a tourist, at a leisurely pace, pausing before each plaster ornament, each scrap of majestic bric a brac: as a poacher of memories, I dont want to scare the game.


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