“Distinctly unusual” – Valse Triste by Marcello Fois (trans. Richard Dixon)

While earlier novels, such as Bloodlines (2014) or The Time in Between (2018) are easily defined as historical fiction, publishers and book promoters of Marcello Fois must have a hard time trying to categorise Valse Triste, the author’s most recent offering. Literary fiction, thriller, mystery, crime? It is all of these things by turn. As in all his work, in this novel, also, Fois is concerned with relationships and how these form and twist the identity of individuals.

At the heart of Valse Triste is a mystery or alleged crime, but the author’s focus on his characters’ psychological make-up, behaviours and inner turmoil makes the investigations almost of secondary importance. So don’t expect a page-turner that will leave you sitting up in bed reading until four o’clock in the morning. Instead, you may wish to take it slowly and leave yourself time to absorb the narrative and for it to preoccupy you subconsciously for a while after you’ve finished reading.

Fois structures his novel in four metaphysical sections, Earth, Fire, Water, Air, which feel strangely at odds with its contemporary setting of time and place, and though it doesn’t appear to bear any particular relevance to the story told, it doesn’t detract from it either.

Following a family meal out, Michelangelo Ludovisi, an eleven-year-old highly-functioning autistic boy, goes missing when they stop near a wood for a brief comfort break. Don Giuseppe, first on the scene, claiming he just happened to be passing, tries to assist the boy’s distraught parents by telephoning the police.

The town is in shock:

“How can a child of eleven go missing? He can’t. Of course not. This, according to the local papers, was the event that put Bolzano on the list of cities that are ‘no longer safe’. The local TV stations were filled with testimonies by those who remembered when no one felt they had to lock their front doors. That was before youngsters got drunk, before people stole from shops and before children went missing.”

Commissario Sergio Striggio, in charge of investigations to find Michelangelo, has a series of personal issues to preoccupy him. His relationship with his partner, Leo, is complicated and fraught with the emotional ups and downs, jealousies and insecurities which beset any couple. For the sake of appearances and professional respectability – Sergio a Detective Inspector and Leo a school teacher – they still keep separate apartments even after four years together.

Sergio is anxious about his father’s forthcoming visit since he doesn’t know that his son is gay. He makes Leo remove all his belongings from his apartment until he has managed to tell Pietro, his father, that he lives with a man. While he waits, filled with anxiety, at the station for the train bearing his father to arrive, Sergio contemplates rather poetically:

“In that detestable twilight hour of transition, neither light nor dark, humanity held its breath as its heart began to pump out of control and its throat felt a harsh, acrid taste of anticipation. The air turned deep amber, as happens when it is time to recognise that a day is coming to an end.”

His thoughts don’t merely reflect the onset of evening, but are a metaphor for what may happen following his revelations to his father.

Instead of the difficult discussion he anticipates, the old man has come to inform his son that he has a brain tumour and is dying. During their first meal together Pietro collapses and Sergio’s visits to see him in hospital trigger uncomfortable memories of when his mother lay dying in the same hospital some years earlier.

Michelangelo’s parents, Gaia and Nicolò have a horribly twisted and entangled relationship and their interactions swing from tense discourses to passionate (merging on violent) sex and back again. As the story unfolds we learn precisely how twisted their kinship really is and which other characters in the novel play a significant part. As they have sex one afternoon, Gaia muses:

“He was that machine that she had adored him for, the exact sensation that Nature wanted to display in every detail. She knew that while she would hate him, she would never stop desiring him. He was lodged in that part of her brain that conceived perfection.”

Except that their liaison is anything, but perfect. The language Fois uses here throws a light on just how unhealthy their union is. To say more would spoil the rest of the plot for anyone intrigued enough to pick up this novel.

Chief Inspector Elisabetta Menetti, Sergio’s second-in-command, has a crush on her superior and besides the fact that she lives alone we don’t glean much else about her or the rest of her life. Neither does Fois give a very rounded picture of the handful of other staff who work with them in the Investigations Department of the Bolzano Police. Although it would have been interesting to gain a deeper insight into these characters, the vividness with which the main protagonists, mentioned above, are depicted makes this shortcoming acceptable. Even though they are named, they essentially only have ‘walk-on’ parts in the novel.

For this reader at least, the final reveal of the perpetrator’s identity came as no surprise. It was clear to me from the character’s first appearance. Fois writes with great sensitivity and thought. In the light of this the novel’s conclusion and plot resolution are surprisingly weak.

Finally, Richard Dixon should be commended for his excellent translation of the Italian original. The English text feels authentic and believable and reads without awkwardness.

Any Cop?: A mystery / thriller that is distinctly unusual in its focus and execution. Worth reading for those reasons alone. It makes other crime fiction seem even more formulaic than usual.

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