July 2007

Aysha Somasundaram

fiction

The Worst Intentions by Alessandro Piperno

Alessandro Piperno’s The Worst Intentions, translated from its original Italian, is the critically lauded (winner of the Campiello Prize for first novels in 2005) bestseller dubbed a “dangerous novel” by Italy’s leading daily newspaper, La Repubblica. The novel focuses fixedly upon the perversities and proprieties -- psychological, sexual and socio-economic -- of a Roman Jewish family, the Sonninos. Its narrator, Daniel Sonnino, is the product of a Catholic and Jewish union, as is Piperno, and the subject of his first book, Proust, a work of nonfiction inflammatorily titled: Proust, Anti-Jew.

Posited as a young, Italian Phillip Roth, by his publishers and Italian press alike, Piperno’s writing does plumb the dysfunctional depths of the Sonnino dynasty with dizzyingly brutality and precision but absent one critical element -- a plot that coheres. If the novel offers social commentary about anti-Semitism, social order, class, sexuality and, even, Israel in a post-World War II context, it does so with self-indulgent myopia. Piperno verbally flays virtually every one of its characters from Daniel’s piously controlling Catholic mother to his unscrupulous, vain grandfather, Bepy, the patriarch and textile firm owner whose aberrant sexual appetites include golden showers delivered into his open mouth by an underage lover. Even Daniel hovers as a grotesque, a self-loathing misfit caricature, a doppelganger for Woody Allen.  

Meticulously recorded and dissected, Daniel’s preoccupations -- including his obsessive love for Gaia Cittadini, the granddaughter of Bepy’s former partner and rival -- often ring false. As deftly as Piperno chronicles Daniel’s insecurities and fetishes, the purpose seems singular: shock value. One of the most telling authorial rants in The Worst Intentions beautifully distills both the seductiveness and problem of Piperno’s self-referential transparency:

What’s the point of writing a book entitled All the Anti-Semitic Jews: From Otto Weininger to Phillip Roth, and including yourself implicitly in that rich list, when everyone knows that you are neither Jewish nor anti-Semitic but would like to be both? For the oldest reason in the world: cunning, sustained by the desire to live, to get the most out of the little life has to offer. Make it extreme. Render it attractive to others, at the cost of the deception inflicted on oneself… A half-Jew against the Jews. A half-Jew who accuses Jews of racism and a half-Catholic who accuses Catholics of ecumenism… that essay of yours is merely a grand anti-Semitic manipulation, devised to the detriment of your guiltless relatives, and to your advantage: that sense of pride that infuses you with a masochistic violence mistaken by too many for intellectual honesty.

The foregoing passage is also suggestive of the fact that though wrapped in guise of fiction, The Worst Intentions has a fairly apparent autobiographical dimension. Piperno’s language and narrative are forceful and, on occasion, gripping in their ambivalent, descriptive power. Reading the novel is somehow much like witnessing an act of calculated violence, neighboring on self-mutilation. When The Worst Intentions concludes you are left with some semblance of self-recrimination for not having abandoning it earlier -- unread. 

The Worst Intentions by Alessandro Piperno
Europa Editions
ISBN: 978-1-933372-33-4
320 pages