This deeply eccentric comedy belongs in the company of the best novels about wildly precocious kids.
In the micro-genre of novels about wildly precocious kids who turn your perceptions of the world inside-out, certain classics stand out. “The Tin Drum” by Günter Grass — in which young Oskar Matzerath stops growing at age 3, partly in reaction to the insanity of the Third Reich — is one. Steven Millhauser’s “Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer, 1943-1954, by Jeffrey Cartwright” is another.
Italian writer Fabio Bartolomei’s zanily inventive second novel, “We Are Family,” belongs in this select company. The genius of its narrator, Almerico Santamaria, is established early on: “I spoke my first word at five months, I started reading at age two, and when I was three I was already writing.”
The peculiarities of how his mind works are evident in the book’s first paragraph. “This year here is 1971,” he announces. “In the year called 1971 a whole bunch of things are breaking. A piece of Pakistan called Bangladesh broke off, a friend of Papà called Jim Morrison got broken, and I also hear that a valve broke on the spaceship Soyuz 11. Mamma always says that when one thing breaks, then other things break in chain reaction, that’s what she said just last week when the blender, the washing machine, and the record player broke. So now that the flames are breaking this plastic wastebasket, I blame the washing machine. Or maybe Jim Morrison.”
The pell-mell tumble of Al’s associative logic (deftly translated by Antony Shugaar) makes for delightful reading from start to finish. While recounting events from his life, Al often describes the fallout from the mayhem he creates without directly disclosing what nutty thing he did, or his often laudable reasons for doing it. (Bartolomei likes to keep you guessing.)
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Although the protagonist drives his parents and his older sister, Vittoria, half-crazy (he’s a bit of a pyromaniac, as the novel’s opening obliquely indicates), Al is beloved by them all and cherishes them dearly in return. “In this family we’ve had shameless good luck,” he declares, “because not only do we have the number one mother, but we also happen to have the world’s best Papà.”
Money may be tight, the Santamarias might have landlord troubles, and Papà’s career isn’t all that his son hoped it would be (“Papà is an astronaut first class; just for now he drives buses”), but none of that gets Al down. He’s especially enthusiastic about the family’s Sunday drives to find “the promised home.” And he’s thrilled when, at age 7, he thinks he’s found it while taking the family car out for a spin to find customers for his mother’s delicious chocolate ciambellone.
This dream house is an odd place with no interior walls (it turns out it’s a former tire-repair shop), but it’s home. Once the family has settled in, Papà and Mamma go on a long-delayed honeymoon — procrastinating their return, oddly, first for months, then for years.
In their absence, Al and Vittoria notice a strange tendency of the “promised home” to slip and slide around on its 1,000-square-foot lot. The house also doesn’t appear on any utility company’s map, so brother and sister fend for electricity and other services on their own. Fed up with the inefficiencies of the Italian republic, they declare themselves an independent principality. (“If the system is in crisis,” Al believes, “then all we need to do is live outside of the system.”) They do their best to spiff the place up and make it fiscally sound before their parents get back.
As Bartolomei follows Al from ages 4 through 22, he also takes stock of what’s involved in creating a world of your own when the odds are stacked against you. “We’re running headfirst up against a coalition of powers that seem to have it in for us,” 14-year-old Al remarks, “even though we haven’t done anything wrong, aside from failing to be rich.”
This deeply eccentric comedy about family connection and loss winds up being both a poignant testament to the struggles of the little guy — and a giddily topsy-turvy tour of how youngsters see their world.
“We Are Family” by Fabio Bartolomei, translated by Antony Shugaar, Europa Editions, 309 pp., $17