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The Twenty Days of Turin, by Giorgio de Maria - a review

Updated: Feb 21, 2019

Originally published in the 1970s and recently translated into English, Giorgio de Maria’s short novel “The Twenty Days of Turin” is remarkable in the way it mirrors society in the twenty-first century.

There is something about the lyricism of Italian writers that speaks to my soul. Along with Umberto Eco's, de Maria's storytelling and descriptions warm me in ways that run counter to the bleakness of the stories. If I could decide to be reincarnated as an Italian writer I would happily die tomorrow.

Publisher’s summary - “In the spare wing of a church-run sanatorium, some zealous youths create “the Library,” a space where lonely citizens can read one another’s personal diaries and connect with like-minded souls in “dialogues across the ether.” But when their scribblings devolve into the ugliest confessions of the macabre, the Library’s users learn too late that a malicious force has consumed their privacy and their sanity.

As the city of Turin suffers a twenty-day “phenomenon of collective psychosis” culminating in nightly massacres that hundreds of witnesses cannot explain, the Library is shut down and erased from history. That is, until a lonely salaryman decides to investigate these mysterious events, which the citizenry of Turin fear to mention. Inevitably drawn into the city’s occult netherworld, he unearths the stuff of modern nightmares: what’s shared can never be unshared.

It is a dark read, straddling the line between horror and magical realism, that combines religion, isolation, paranoia and monsters both human and ones which might well have inspired the Weeping Angels of Doctor Who.

Within an abandoned wing of a former insane asylum, a library is established unlike any other, allowing in its collection only "true, authentic documents reflecting the real spirit of the people”. Citizens of Turin can deposit their personal diaries and thoughts in the hope that others will read them, understand and connect with the writer, and in so doing cure the writer of their existential loneliness. I doubt I need to comment on the similarities of purpose between this library and Live Journal or Facebook. To those of us who engage in social media, it is probably no shocking revelation that the diaries and their contents become steadily more disturbed and perverted the more people rely on the library’s services, as if desperate to out do each other in terms of honesty and deviance.

“It’s certain that from those media, things passed into a slimy subsoil, a drainage basin where anyone could tip anything they wanted, all the gunk they kept inside themselves. Have you ever seen something spawned from a garbage dump?”

The writers pay a price for baring their souls before their neighbours in this way, for they do not know who has read what they have written, or what those readers might think of them. The writers spiral into paranoia and insomnia, and the feelings of being constantly observed are rife among them.

“Or rather they helped to furnish the illusion of a relationship with the outside world: a dismal cop-out nourished and centralized by a scornful power bent only on keeping people in their state of continuous isolation.”

In addition to the paranoia that succeeds this over-sharing, the writers are left drained. In purging themselves of their darkest secrets they do not make room for something better but are left empty, like dry riverbeds. As the story progresses it seems that something has been nourished by the effluence. Not only are sleepless husks doomed to wander the plazas of Turin by night, haunted by an undefined vinegary smell, but they wake dark forces that use these readily available human bodies as weapons to war with each other over territory.

When the twenty days are over, the city and its more progressive leaders strive to forget, build a better future, and modernise the town, but with an inhuman tenacity, the past is determined to keep drawing them back.

Ten years later, the same clean-cut and overly-positive cultish figures remain at the location of the since closed library, and the narrator perceives a connection between the faux-wholesome figures and the evil powers unleashed before and waiting to be unleashed again. These people seem omnipresent as the narrator wanders the city, investigating the Twenty Days and its connection to the library. A hint of neo-fascism and western esotericism seems to underlie these threatening and watchful figures and the mindless violence the city was subjected to. Perhaps because of Italy’s experiences with terrorism, both from the far right and far left during the period the book was written, referred to as the Years of Lead. If there was a purpose to the violence other than bloodshed, the narrator does not uncover it, and perhaps this is the most unsettling aspect of the book. The violence is mindless, just like the sleepwalkers and the warring statues.

5/5 stars. I loved it.

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