FEBRUARY 7, 2017
LONG-BANISHED FORCES from the past come back to haunt us. Layers of history, real and idealized, collide and combine to raise up specters that civilized people thought they had long since dispelled. And while all of it takes place too fast (or simply with too much momentum) to stop, it’s not so fast we don’t have plenty of time to see it coming. Investigation might unearth the story of the catastrophe, but it will do you precious little good.
This could easily be taken as an impressionistic portrait of the era of Trump, Brexit, ISIS, Modi, et cetera. Instead, it’s a capsule description of Giorgio De Maria’s 1975 novel The Twenty Days of Turin. Giorgio De Maria has long been a cult favorite among Italian weird fiction fans, and The Twenty Days, which many consider to be his best work, is now available for the first time in English in an admirable translation by Australian critic and translator Ramon Glazov. The Twenty Days of Turin is uncanny both in terms of its subject matter and in the way it prefigures the emotional reality of our own period. This is a book written in 1975 and featuring no technology more advanced than high-end analog audio recordings, yet it grasps the implications of social media in ways cyberpunk never did. It’s a book steeped in the idiosyncratic culture of Turin that speaks to psychic elements of crises now gripping much of the world. The Twenty Days of Turin depicts how the past overflows the feeble efforts of the present to make its own future; in that, it may be the novel that foreshadows our moment more accurately than any number of speculative fictions.
The structure of The Twenty Days of Turin will be familiar to readers of Jorge Luis Borges and H. P. Lovecraft. An anonymous man narrates his efforts to illuminate strange and foreboding happenings. Ten years prior to his investigation, the titular 20 days saw a variety of sinister happenings in Turin: a wave of mass insomnia that drove its sufferers to wander the streets at night in shambolic mobs; eerie cries and foul smells emanating out of nowhere; and violent public bludgeonings by unknown suspects.
Tied up with all of this, with the obscure but solid certainty of dream logic, is the rise to prominence of a strange social experiment: a library where patrons can deposit any sort of writing they wish, to be read by other patrons, who (for a fee) could then direct messages to the writers. Prefiguring the culture of internet fora and social media by some 30 years, this Library of Turin — located in an old sanitarium and run by sinisterly chipper young people with occluded motives — becomes the hub for lonely and alienated denizens of all social classes: it “had proven a lure to people with no desire at all for ‘regular human communication.’” Examples of the texts deposited and consumed by Library patrons include missed connections, failed attempts at literature, litanies of scornful remarks about someone’s neighbors: “the range was infinite: it had the variety and at the same time the wretchedness of things that can’t find harmony with Creation.” De Maria foresaw the way the internet — especially the portion of it defined by the pathologies of isolation — makes its users into consumers and creators simultaneously, fostering a paradoxical community of isolates mirroring their solipsisms at each other. Patrons of the library were heavily represented among the wandering insomnia sufferers and victims of violence of the 20 days, and the Library itself was shut down soon after, becoming a shameful memory that the narrator’s sources are loath to discuss.
It’s uncertain, beyond vague references to a writing project, what De Maria’s narrator’s goals are; the most we see of his personal life is a passion for playing the recorder. As with Lovecraft’s investigators, his curiosity can be read as a sign of morbidity and decadence, the impulse of a man lacking the inner resources to do something wholesome. And like Lovecraft’s characters, the narrator receives plenty of ominous hints from locals regarding the dangers of prying into a past that’s both (supposedly) gone for good and a lingering threat. De Maria exploits Turin’s reputation as a polite, urbane, but emotionally chilly city (not unlike Lovecraft’s home of Providence) to good effect — do the Turinese rebuff the narrator’s questions because they’re hiding something or simply because they’re private people?
Indeed, Turin is arguably the most fleshed-out character in the novel. Not only is The Twenty Days of Turin full of depictions of sections of the city, but the true horror of this novel is the city’s past — its hold on its people, which few directly acknowledge. It was written in the midst of the Years of Lead, when Italy was rocked by scores of radical leftist and rightist terrorist actions; this wave began in the late 1960s and petered out more than a decade later, only a few years before the Sicilian Mafia declared its own war on the Italian state. While the Red Brigades gained much of the attention (not unlike their similarly over-analyzed peers across the Atlantic, the Weather Underground), arguably the most consequential terrorists of the Years of Lead were the far-right groups. There was no single leading neofascist guerrilla group at this time. The far right was more of a subculture of groupuscules, many of them tied to the state through the police, the military, or social groups like the P2 Masonic lodge. It was one such terrorist cell, the Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari, that undertook the deadliest attack of the Years of Lead, the Bologna bombing of 1980, which killed 85 people. This attack was part of the so-called “strategy of tension,” an effort to sow fear and raise calls for a law-and-order dictatorship; to this day no one is sure of the extent to which neofascists and the Italian deep state collaborated, with conspiracy theories muddying already dim historical waters.
The Twenty Days of Turin turns the state of tension that neofascist terror attempted to create into a metaphysical condition, a supernatural threat summoning forces no one can control. Neofascists or other groups from the Years of Lead don’t appear in the book, nor do their tactics — bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, et cetera. But obscure actors driven by hateful motives create miasmas of fear, rage, and death over the city, encouraging the already phlegmatic Turinese to turn further inward. The narrator can never prove it, but the same people — cheerily nihilistic, featureless, clean-cut youngsters (the contemporary reader will unavoidably imagine the undercuts favored by contemporary neofascists) glibly spewing bullshit — appear to be behind both the inscrutable Library and the killings of insomnia sufferers. Inevitably, these people start following him around — ever polite, ever smiling — during his investigation.
Lovecraft’s experience writing for the pulps taught him to leave breadcrumb trails between his starting points and the cosmic horrors at the end. De Maria, on the other hand, is persistently indirect, allusive, in keeping with the courteous but reserved Turinese atmosphere. The reader never knows the precise connection between all of the fell occurrences and signs during the 20 days, but we learn that at around the time people began falling into the world of the Library and suffering insomnia, the statues of Turin — the old seat of Italy’s unifying dynasty has plenty of them — took on a spiteful kind of life. They become “foul, small-minded deities,” bent on cruelty and dominance. High-end recording equipment catches their hateful, inhuman gripes and arguments with each other, their boasts of their own power, and their challenges to the other statue-monsters. It becomes clear to the narrator that the wounds on many of the dead insomniacs are the result of the statues wielding them as clubs against each other. The civic authorities are able to pull the plug on the 20 days by closing down the Library, but the psychic rot — the isolation, the spite, the malaise of modern Italian life — cannot be staunched, despite the social-democratic mayor’s best efforts. Civil society, as it exists, does not have the solution to the kind of hate that generated the 20 days. Drawn to the scent like buzzards and perhaps summoned by the narrator’s investigations, the spirits of the city’s past return to vengeful life at the novel’s end.
The Twenty Days of Turin bears comparison to other weird fictions written by those who bore witness to (or participated in) the ideological violence of the 20th century, such as the Austrian novelist Leo Perutz or the German Ernst Jünger. Perutz’s Saint Peter’s Snow (1933) depicts the aftermath of a similar panic: convinced that the loyalty of medieval peasants was generated by exposure to ergot-rye, Central European royalists attempt to drug laborers into supporting a pretender to the Habsburg throne, only to have their victims launch a red revolution instead. Jünger’s The Glass Bees (1957) and Eumeswil (1977) juxtapose the past and present, the ideological and the weird in similar ways, prefiguring cyberpunk. De Maria’s work has some similarities to these weird tales steeped in the bloodlettings of Europe’s 20th century, especially their uncertainty, their dreamlike atmospherics, the chilly distance of their narrators from the events they recount. As in Lovecraft’s stories, these weird-ideology tales revolve around efforts to escape and bear witness, rather than defeat the terrible forces threatening the world.
But unlike any earlier weird-ideology tale I’ve read, The Twenty Days of Turin has a viciousness and caprice to its horror that feels very current. The reader isn’t given the satisfaction of learning the plan behind the 20 days, or even if there was any plan. If the clean-cut nihilists had somehow channeled the Library’s baleful energy into the statues of old kings, senators, and civic engineers, siccing them on a sleepless populace — what were they trying to achieve? Perutz’s royalists or Jünger’s autocrats would sniff contemptuously at this feckless havoc. But behind De Maria’s novel hovers Italy’s Years of Lead and the “strategy of tension.” Now, in 2017, those little fascist groups that made big, pointless, bloody splashes are beginning to look less like an anomaly of Italian politics.
If the Library resembles social media, the slaughter of the Library’s patrons reads like the accounts of spree killings we now encounter with depressing regularity. Like the Italian neofascists, today’s spree killers are less interested in any concrete vision of society than in sheer chaos. The fact that many of them kill in the name of an imagined past should not fool us. The reactionaries who kill don’t honor the supposed order of the past; they crave the violence of its hierarchy. As the translator Ramon Glazov puts it in his helpful introduction, “whether he worships Breivik or al-Baghdadi, the lone wolf terrorist is a figure in Plato’s cave, called to violence by the currently trending shadows of other lone wolves.” Because violence and chaos make up most of their vision for the future, they don’t need a plan beyond spreading as much mayhem as possible. This is the element of the present that Giorgio De Maria saw clearly, in a way that few of his peers did.
De Maria doesn’t give us much hope. The accumulated bile of the past comes to smash his narrator, even though he follows the advice that generations of horror fans have screamed at the screen and gets the hell out of town. All the same, naming our terrors is undoubtedly preferable to letting them curdle. De Maria’s prescient vision is a welcome and timely addition to the weird fiction of distinctly earthly terrors.