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Centuria: 100 Ouroboric Novels by Giorgio Manganelli

Centuria: 100 Ouroboric Novels
by Giorgio Manganelli. Translated by Henry Martin.
McPherson & Company, 214 pp.
CLR [rating:5]

The Solitude of One’s Own Being

Giorgio Manganelli (d.1990) is that rara avis: a genius of Imagination. His work’s published in ten European languages and appears now neatly Englished by Henry Martin, who earlier gave us his All the Errors. Centuria: 100 Ouroboric Novels offers quasi-stories reminiscent of themes to be found in popular fiction — with a difference: refracted through the prism of Manganelli’s very Italian intelligence, they are concentrated into essences.

Born in 1922, Manganelli lived in Rome during the Fascist period, through WW II and the decades of its chaotic aftermath. No stranger to ruin, he distills that terrible half-century, revealing the facets of its soul, quasi-incarnate in amorphous lucidly-cogitant characters. His “gentleman,” his “lady,” his “young man” materialize in an opening sentence or two, when we find them in whatever hour of a commonplace, eventless life, hopeful as our own, if endured in quiet despair. Could we gaze into the mirror through Manganelli’s eyes, we’d see them, nameless and solitary, longing for what might or could or should be an event — perhaps the event of our lives.

Americans in this therapy-mad epoch tend to take, rather mistake, an “experience” for that fateful “event.” Perusing Centuria, we may come to understand that the myriad catastrophes blazoned in newspapers and splashed over our screens — love, celebrity, athletic prowess, failure or fame, marriage, illness, crisis, smashup — do not concern the soul; nor can they illuminate whatever meaning life might propose. Whereas what happens in Manganelli’s stories dooms like destiny, and separates one both from “before,” a time that no longer exists, and “after,” time that is not yet …a time that may never be, leaving one suspended in a vanishing “present” of consciousness.

Having defined the novel merely as “forty lines plus two cubic meters of air,” and having “settled for simply the forty lines,” Manganelli writes a hundred of them inhabited by characters whose inner life is excruciated for us. If that life resembles an epitaph, one would be grateful to have it — instead of a name and two numbers: year born, year deceased. By turns satiric, sardonic, whimsical, arbitrary, melancholic, fantastical, grim, humorous, this author locates and reveals the absolute essential, from which neither evasion nor escape is possible.

In one charming “novel,” an absent-minded Fairy takes a day trip, boards the wrong train and finds herself lost in a city she doesn’t recognize; worse, she’s forgotten how she got there. Confused and anxious, she lights on a mature “gentleman,” and to ask for directions makes herself visible. Happy to help, he escorts her to the terminal, routing her way home and advising where to transfer, when to get down. Naturally, he’s exhilarated by his good deed and her promise to pay him another visit. Being absent-minded, she just as naturally forgets him. And of course her sweet memory, vivid in a now forever-pedestrian world, leads him to commence his vain quest, hopefully riding trains hither and yon, as if that unexpected hour of poignant delight could be his once more.

Like the best poets of the 20th Century, Manganelli’s genius spares no one. Wherever we come upon one of his people walking about a park, standing in a city square, or inhabiting a vacant building in a vacant city, we understand what his persons do not or cannot perceive: the solitude of one’s own being cannot be overcome. When they glimpse some saving grace, they choke it in the embrace of self-doubt.

Subtle wisdom permeates Centuria. Its 100 “novels” provoke one to laughter and exaltation, and also dismay, sadness, terror, for they suggest that what happens or could happen doesn’t; what’s probable is not; what is possible cannot be so. Consider the opening of “novel” Sixty-Two: “Exiting a shop into which he had entered to purchase an aftershave lotion, a middle-aged gentleman, well-mannered and serious, saw that they had robbed him of the Universe.” What next? one wonders in curiosity and dread. His is indeed a ruthless imagination.

This book ought not to be read at one sitting; rereading will open a hundred windows upon vistas of the soul. Manganelli’s advice: “…Read it in the outer shadows, better if at absolute zero, in a capsule lost in space.”

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