Migrations Gone Awry

By Alina CohenMarch 25, 2016

La Superba by Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer

THE AMPUTATED LEG first appears on the third page of Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba, in a dark alley in Genoa, Italy. The narrator — also a writer, also named Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer — nearly trips over it, though he’s not sure what it is. He returns at daylight and discovers that what tripped him is “unmistakably a woman’s leg,” which he leaves on the street. That evening, after waking in a sweat, he returns for it and brings it home.

This is, by most standards, an odd beginning, and this is a strange, meandering novel. Soon Pfeijffer (the narrator), a writer who recently immigrated to Genoa from the Netherlands, leads us through the labyrinthine city of Genoa and introduces its colorful characters: wealthy society women, attractive female bartenders, a British drunkard, a Moroccan rose seller, a Senegalese immigrant, an old and corrupt Italian family. Pfeijffer is a man about town, struggling to produce a play, sleeping around, and attempting to buy a theater. Yet, somehow, in a surprising circumnavigation, he finally leads us back to the leg and meets the amputee to whom the limb belongs. Their interaction signals a dark new chapter for the narrator and an apt end for the novel. The leg transcends its introduction as a bizarre object and becomes a sinister symbol of the losses that Pfeijffer has suffered and his failure to integrate into his new city. While Pfeijffer hasn’t lost a body part, he has lost money, his sense of self, and the motivation to complete his novel. In some ways, the trajectory recalls Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice: a writer from a more reserved European culture descends into ruin in Italy.

Like his fictional counterpart, the author Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer hails from the Netherlands. A poet, novelist, literary critic, and former scholar of ancient Greece, his previous publications range from scholarly works on the Greek poet Pindar to other novels that, like La Superba, explore characters’ twisted psychologies and sexual predilections. In 2009, Open Letter published his first novel in English, Rupert: A Confession, translated by Michele Hutchison, who also translated La Superba. The prestigious Dutch press De Arbeiderspers published La Superba in 2013 to great acclaim — the novel won the elite Dutch Libris Literatuurprijs in 2014. “La Superba” is a nickname for the city of Genoa; one of Pfeijffer’s characters explains that the word means “superb and reckless, beautiful and proud, alluring and unapproachable.”

While the plot itself wanders, three predominant themes emerge: sexual identity, storytelling, and immigration, each a catalyst for transformation. Pfeijffer, the character, metamorphoses from an enraptured, respected traveler to a down-and-out, ostracized nobody. He watches other immigrants’ circumstances similarly deteriorate. Pfeijffer’s downfall is traced through his sexual interactions, which become gradually more degrading as his sense of his masculinity and sexuality shift and weaken. When he’s not pursuing women, he discusses how he will convert his experiences into a compelling story. Though not in letter form, some chapters adopt an epistolary feel, as Pfeijffer reveals that he’s writing notes home that he plans to use for his novel. At one point he remarks, “I’d taken a break from my pleasurable obligation of keeping you up to date, via these notes […] to mine the crude ore from which I’d win the liquid, red-hot, precious metal that would stream, shine, and scorch as my next novel.” While other transformations may occur naturally, Pfeijffer underscores the challenges inherent in his work. Fiction isn’t just something that happens; it’s an arduous labor, the act of writing fiction a difficult, specialized process. At the end of the novel, the narrator reveals why the transformative project has failed — why the book contains a series of notes for a novel and not a completed manuscript.

The novel’s depictions of gender and sexuality are striking and contradictory, and the narrator issues broad, polarizing generalizations about men and women that might shock the sanitized American reader with their blatant political incorrectness. “There are only two kinds of women,” he says, “those who understand and those who talk.” He prefers women to be voiceless and subservient. Early in the novel, he says, “All of Italy is made like that. It’s the man’s job to make cutting remarks and the woman’s job to take her top off afterward. In any case, the gender roles are clear.” Pfeijffer seems to fall easily into Italian society’s often clear-cut distinctions, commending the fact that men are encouraged to denigrate women, and that a woman’s primary role is that of a sex object. “That’s the way the Church likes it. A man shouldn’t suddenly turn out to be a woman or vice versa.” Yet, as the novel progresses, the distinction between man and woman disintegrates. Pfeijffer encounters transvestites that blur traditional gender boundaries and introduce new options for how one may explore, express, and perform masculinity and femininity. He learns that very little — economic stability, gender, role in society — is static. The ever-changing world and people around him destabilize his confidence about the way things work in Genoa. Pfeijffer’s sharp prose offers a damning perspective on Italy’s sexual mores, or at least how an outsider perceives them. The narrator is brash and vulgar, and so the reader questions his reliability and senses that the reality is more complicated, especially when one considers the city’s underbelly, not just its clergy’s public proclamations. Pfeijffer’s prose shocks and disturbs, and the reader both rejects what he says and yearns to hear more.

Pfeijffer’s language, as a rule, is remarkable. La Superba won the Dutch Tzum Prize for the “most beautiful sentence written in Dutch.” It appears at the bottom of page 73 and merits reproduction here, even in its translated English:

It was the white hour after lunch, the blank page upon which some secret language could be scribbled in pencil, something that should be rubbed out again instantly as soon as the shutters were raised and life started again in black and white with profits, proceeds, and protests.

Part of the book’s intrigue is that such graceful, knowing prose exists alongside sentences of misogynistic and xenophobic cliché. The contrast is appropriate for a tale set in Genoa, Pfeijffer suggests, as a city of beautiful people and idyllic landscape that hides dark, hateful undertones. The writing mirrors Genoa’s contradictions, and those of Europe by extension: “Genoa, La Superba symbolizes Europe as a whole,” he writes.

Perhaps the narrator’s misogyny results from discomfort with his own masculinity. He garners continual comparisons to women. When he pursues an affair with his German translator, a woman named Inge, she says to him, “You’re a very strange girl […] You’re a pregnant transvestite.” There’s little to prompt this curious statement, and the reader wonders where Inge’s getting this idea. Another woman he dates, Monia, goes shopping for a suit with him and says, “We’ll make a man of you, Leonardo, a real Italian man.” Later, when she begins kissing him after promising to help him with a business matter, he says, “I felt like a prostitute letting herself be penetrated for business reasons.” He believes that a nearby waitress averts her eyes in embarrassment. Pfeijffer’s shame increases throughout the novel as both women and men continue to emasculate him. Pfeijffer divulges his first name, Ilja, to a male friend who responds, “That’s a girl’s name […] Would you like to be a girl, Ilja? Can I be the first one to fuck you if you do?”

Pfeijffer undergoes a sexual transformation; the change might be read as situational irony, or perhaps a fulfillment of Pfeijffer’s true desires. There’s some poetic justice as Pfeijffer suffers and becomes powerless as his circumstances deteriorate. In many ways, he gets what he deserves. His sense of superiority as a European, a man, and a writer all erode as he loses money and his sense of self. His illusory immigrant dream has led to his downfall.

Pfeijffer is not alone. Many of the other characters undergo insidious transformations as they leave their home countries for Genoa. Coming from different countries and financial backgrounds, they all end up in the same place: trouble. Here, too, is irony — characters that immigrate for fortune and opportunity never achieve their aims, often falling into situations worse than they left behind in their home countries.

Pfeijffer himself demonstrates a deep interest in the immigrant experience. He sets out to write a novel that will, he says,

focus on the big topical issue of immigration, whereby I will contrast my own successful expat lifestyle with the deplorable fate of all those poor fellows from Morocco and Senegal who got lost in these very same streets in their dreams of a better life and guaranteed wealth in Europe, and whom the authorities, who have declared a state of emergency, are exterminating like rats.

Here, as Pfeijffer (the character) establishes the theme of his work, Pfeijffer (the author) raises some of the major questions in the novel: What divides immigrants from different classes and background, and what unites them? What are the common threads throughout the immigrant experience? How do distinctions such as race and class alter after crossing borders?

As Pfeijffer’s fortunes take a downturn, the line he’s drawn between himself and poorer immigrants fragments. He becomes just one more foreign body lost in the labyrinth of a hostile environment. He hasn’t been able to weather this rigid society of tradition and prejudice any better than two of his counterparts, Rashid and Djiby, who immigrated from Morocco and Senegal and come from backgrounds of far less privilege. Pfeijffer ultimately succumbs to his own “deplorable fate.” His initial literary project begins to seem arrogant and shortsighted, an attempt to express his own place in society as above others.

The narrator relates the story of Don, a British immigrant who becomes beloved in Genoa for his storytelling. A fixture in the local bars, he regales the city with tales of his days as a British secret service agent and an English professor. The narrator states that Don “was the most popular immigrant, the most successful foreigner in the whole of Genoa because he never assimilated, never fit in, and always stayed himself.” His respect for Don may also spring from his own discomfort with his own individuality. It takes a while for the narrator’s character to come into focus, and even then, it’s shifty at best. Perhaps, through celebrating Don, he laments his own inability to retain a strong sense of identity in his new city.

For someone so “successful,” Don’s life is especially dark. He dies a drunkard, and Pfeijffer (the character) and other friends discover that all his stories have been lies. He is estranged from his family and disgraced. It’s a bleak view of the possibilities available for immigrants. The best they can expect, Pfeijffer suggests, is a life of lies and a crowd at their funerals.

Pfeijffer (the author) isn’t scorning the act of immigration, of course, but the European countries’ hostility toward outsiders. He portrays Genoa as an unwelcoming community that strips immigrants of their identities, sometimes forcing them into criminality. The traditions, the deeply embedded prejudices, and the powerful old families all prevent positive change.

The narrator often discusses how truth is stranger than fiction and believes that it’s a writer’s job to soften truth’s edges so readers will believe the tale. “The thing I sometimes worry about,” he says, “is that some of the situations I get myself tangled up in here, and many of the people I really have actually met in this foreign decor, are so colorful, not to say grotesque, that they run the risk of being barely believable as fiction.” Of course, this language intends to make the reader believe more in the story — this is the real truth, not the author’s pared-down version. The reader feels a voyeuristic satisfaction as Pfeijffer lets her in on his secrets. He reveals his writing process and the details never intended to reach a larger audience. By giving the main character his own name, Pfeijffer (the author) heightens the reader’s sense that the story relates to actual circumstances, that the juicy tidbits are that much juicier because they must be real. The reader begins to question the line between reality and fiction, what distinguishes experience from fantasy from art.

A friend asks Pfeijffer, the character, “If you’re writing a story about thirst, you’re not interested in whether it makes your readers thirsty, too, are you?” He replies, “Actually I am, Djiby. To be honest, that’s the only thing that interests me.” A master of creating tension, suspense, and intrigue through strange situations and well-drawn characters, Pfeijffer (the author) continues to ensnare the reader in his labyrinthine novel while his character loses himself in the contradictions of Genoan society. The author wants to leave the reader wanting more, and he does.

After weaving the reader through a jumble of characters and plot lines, the author finally returns us to the image of an amputated leg. Throughout the narrative, the leg itself has transformed in the reader’s imagination, as have Genoa and the narrator himself. The book asks readers to reconsider the fragility of their own lives and identities and how easily they can be tested by mere relocation. It’s a sympathetic approach to the hidden struggles that immigrants of all backgrounds in Europe face, and a call to be more open and receptive to those on the outskirts of society — after all, it could easily be you.


Alina Cohen is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Style Magazine, Travel + Leisure, The Rumpus, and The Millions, among other publications.

LARB Contributor

Alina Cohen is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Style Magazine, Travel + Leisure, The Rumpus, and The Millions, among other publications.


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