Adrián N. Bravi - With the skill of a spider, Bravi weaves stories that appear translucent; readers fall into them like flies, finding that there is a fierce, formidable writer at their center. The Combover is a small masterpiece

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Adrián N. Bravi, Dust, Trans. by Patience Haggin, Dalkey Archive Press, 2017.

Dust tells the story of a librarian terrified by the decay of the world around him. With the help of his wife, the librarian wages a futile war against the dust that coats his surroundings until one day Adrian Bravi, or a character very much like the author, arrives on the scene attesting to the very same fears of decay and decline. Drawing on the tradition of magical realism, this novel delves deeply into the nature and meaning of obsession.

The protagonist of this short novel has a phobia of dust. For him decadence manifests itself in that light and insidious pollen that deposits itself on everything without our even noticing. So he passes his time fighting it with doggedness and wisdom, obliging his wife to do the same. But while you can fight dust, you cannot beat it, and the narrator, a librarian by trade, seeks to vent his frustrations in a collection of letters made up of messages that his computer always sends back to him. Until one day Adrián Bravi (it’s really him) turns up at the library and reveals the same obsession. So do soul mates really exist? Someone that understands what terrible trap hides in the dust, or better yet in the dust bunnies, that fuzz that accumulates on objects, that intangible snare that destroys every hope of purity, clarity, maybe of happiness? Now it’s time to look for this Adrián Bravi, who seems to have disappeared without a trace. An original and compelling novel. -

In Dust librarian Anselmo del Vescovo is obsessed with dust, and wages a never-ending (and, of course, futile) battle against it. Dust (and dusting) dominates his domestic routine -- and, though he's only been married for two years, his wife Elena can certainly be said to be long-suffering, and it's not much of a surprise that she turns to solace and relief in vodka.
       Anselmo works dutifully at the Catinari Public Library, while keeping his colleagues at arm's length. He keeps to his routine of cataloging and other duties, and though his interest is piqued occasionally his attention tends to drift when he does immerse himself in a book; the omnipresence of dust certainly doesn't help. He doesn't engage or communicate particularly well with his wife, and among his few attempts at reaching out are e-mails he sends to an old friend he hasn't seen in a while, Paolo -- as he continues to do, even though they all immediately bounce back unread, with the message that there's no such address. But then Anselmo seems to live in an echo-chamber of his own making in practically every respect, barely cognizant of any opinions other than his dusty own.
       Dust dominates his life, and thoughts -- evermore, it seems, even as he tries to keep it at bay. He offers some hints of what's behind obsessive-compulsion, as when he writes to Paolo: 

     What else, if not dust, can show us that ever-present boundary between the visible and invisible, between existence and nothingness ? Anyway, and in conclusion, the more I clean up dust, the further away death seems. 
       Anselmo loses himself in his obsession -- in that imagined cloud, and layers, of dust. He does meet a kindred spirit of sorts -- an Argentine living in Italy by the name of ... Adrián Bravi, who comes to borrow a copy of W.H.Hudson's Green Mansions, in Eugenio Montale's translations (yes, Montale did translate that book). Bravi complains similarly about the prevalence of dust, and of pelusa -- so also the title of the Italian original of the novel --, "a snarl of oily substances and mixed materials, an insidious mix entrusted to the air on its way throughout the world".
       Bravi forgets -- or leaves -- his suitcase at the library, but does not come back to reclaim it, and Anselmo is unable to return it. The Argentine did, however, make quite the impression on him; he even tells his wife that he (not they, but he ...) should visit Argentina:

It seems the Argentines are a very clean people, and simply can't stand dust. They don't even take off their hats for fear of dust. And they're obsessed with classifying everything. It seems like rigor and cleanliness are fundamental priorities for them. 
       Anselmo's own rigor and cleanliness are incompatible with the world around him -- though in his obsession he barely seems to notice or care. Already early on he recognized:
It seemed to him that his own life was a fiction so absurd he couldn't handle it. 
       He certainly seems to lose his grip, and all touch with reality around him -- unresponsive, at the end, to the last efforts to save him from himself (and the dust ...).
       Not all that much seems to happen in Dust, and yet even the relatively minor -- the odd books that are perused, a vacuum cleaner that is bought, a few encounters between the various characters -- adds up nicely (accumulating like dust ... ?). Anselmo's obsession is already well-advanced to begin with, leaving somewhat open the question of how he got there (and why his wife puts up with it as long as she does -- and, indeed, married him in the first place), but it is certainly convincingly presented.
       Bravi impressively immerses the reader in the obsessive's world and madness -- all aswirl -- in this slim novel, with an effective allegorical coating to it too. Quite nicely done. - M.A.Orthofer

“‘How long will I have to flail about, drowning in the world of the microscopic?’” This is one of the many questions that the narrator, Anselmo, of Antonio Bravi’s novel Dust anxiously asks himself while coping with his total phobia of dust. The depth of his internal interrogation hinges on the word “microscopic”: Anselmo faces not the literal question of clean living, but instead the concept of infinite accumulation and infinite loss—of seconds and minutes, of words and ideas, of skin and hair and other shavings of the physical self.
To read Patience Higgin’s forthcoming English translation of Dust (Dalkey Archive Press, October 2017) is to slowly sink into an ocean of everyday minutiae. The book centers on Anselmo, a librarian living with his wife Elena in the fictional city of Catinari, Italy, and his daily routine of cataloguing books, obsessively dusting surfaces, and frequently writing letters that invariably never reach their destination.
What gives this novel its power is not the literal subject matter of the book, which often threatens to overtake the prose in its tedium, but instead the artful language that invites us to meditate conceptually on the simple life represented. Anselmo, at one point, compares his monotonous work cataloguing books to that of a “simple mortician sorting bodies for burial according to their profession”; at another moment, his wife Elena says that reading newly published books is akin to, “‘studying smoke your whole life when you’ve never seen fire.’” These metaphors broaden a seemingly narrow scope, bringing us closer to fully imagining humanity’s constant and immense decay.
The original title of the work is La pelusa, the Spanish term that Anselmo learns to describe dust. A mysterious Argentine man who shares the author’s name, Antonio Bravi, suggests the word pelusa to the narrator. The real Antonio Bravi (the author, not the character) was born in Buenos Aires but lives in Italy, and this novel navigates Bravi’s personal tie to the two countries, an interesting affinity that many share due to the long history of Italian immigration to Argentina. Bravi often alludes to Italian literature, most notably in his references to the famed poet Leopardi. The very content and structure of Bravi’s prose also carry echoes of Argentine literature. Anselmo’s perpetually lost emails and letters (always addressed to questionably real recipients) reimagine the epistolary novel much along the same lines as Ricardo Piglia’s Artificial Respiration. And the image of a tortured librarian sorting books conjures up the image of Jorge Luis Borges in his later years, blind and unable to read, when he served as the director of the National Library of Buenos Aires.
Bravi’s very conceptual style of writing does occasionally fall flat. Elena, forever inadequate to misogynistic Anselmo, passively accepts her husband’s emotional abuse and falls into alcoholism. The unhealthy relationship carries larger significance: Anselmo’s isolation from his wife parallels his solipsistic letter writing. However, it is Anselmo’s perspective that dominates the narrative, and Bravi thus deprives the female character of a voice—and of agency—in the story of an abusive marriage. Reading the repeated descriptions of Elena’s resigned substance abuse alongside Anselmo’s vitriolic demands for her to clean leads to frustration, not epiphany.
Still, Dust is an extremely worthwhile and attentive portrait of abstract ideas. Higgins’s English translation captures the multiple levels of meaning that resonate throughout the novel, and she maintains Bravi’s careful repetition of words and images. The result is a subtle text, one in which plot might plod forward slowly like titles being catalogued, but meaning settles in endless layers like dust collecting on the surface of an unread library book. Every few pages, a surprising character, a compelling quote, or even a single, unexpected word arrives in a gust, scattering our futile search for orderly understanding. Then, exhilarated, we find ourselves drowning in the infinite microscopic once more. - Lara Norgaard

The Combover pic
Adrián N. Bravi, The Combover, Trans. by Richard Dixon, Frisch & Co., 2013.

Arduino Gherarducci is the latest in the family line of bald men with ornate combovers. Some combed their hair from one side of the head to the other, some weaved the remnants of their hair together in the middle, but Arduino favors the imperial style of Julius Caesar: forwards, with a fringe. Although fiercely proud of his combover, it has some serious drawbacks. A sudden gust of wind, or a malevolent prankster, could ruin it at any moment. When the worst happens, Arduino decides to abandon his comfortable university life, as a professor of bibliographic data exchange formats, and he heads toward freedom: Lapland. But he only makes it as far as a mountaintop in Le Marche, where he sets himself up as a hermit and his life takes an unexpected turn…
A hilariously dark tale in the tradition of César Aira, The Combover confirms Bravi’s unique status among Italian contemporary writers.

"With the skill of a spider, Bravi weaves stories that appear translucent; readers fall into them like flies, finding that there is a fierce, formidable writer at their center. The Combover is a small masterpiece." —Alberto Manguel

Adrián Bravi insists you look over your shoulder and squint until your eyes bleed. His most recent novel, The Combover, originally published in Italian as Il riporto (2011), is a swamp—its narrative at once as rich, as eldritch, as pedestrian and unspectacular—whose subtle, insidious suck will have you half-metabolized before you recognize it for what it is. Its gutters, its digressions, are quick, bright black, flaring, and, like a mix of flies and charading fireflies clustering over a corpse, if not easily missed, then perhaps too easily dis-missed: They are the crux of this work’s mesmerism, mechanism and generosity.
In The Combover, a compromised hairdo is enough to catalyze damnation. The work is ironic, hyperbolic, and asymptotic in its reach for the absurd. In fact, several of Bravi’s protagonists have a knack for fixating on minutiae, for blowing what most would consider inconsequential out of proportion, for getting hung up, in fact, emotionally strung up, on bagatelles. In La Pelusa (2007), a librarian’s unremitting perseveration on the dust that accosts his library lays the ground—or the patina—for all-out psychic chaos; in Restituiscimi il cappotto (2004), a would-be suicide begrudgingly defers his departure because someone—how audacious?—has borrowed his coat, thereby spoiling everything. Arduino Gherarducci, The Combover’s bitter, neurotic anti-hero, exhibits a logic that is sometimes equally difficult to sympathize with and understand.
In the character of Arduino, Bravi mobilizes a psychic world premised on complicated forms of hostility, dissatisfaction, loneliness, and pent-up rage, a world which, for all that, remains fixed on hair: on ‘lack of hair’ and ‘styles of lacking hair’ as moral categories, and on the fact that Arduino’s preferred style of lacking hair, a comb-over, has been skewed: One of Arduino’s side-burned-yet-serious students approaches him inexplicably one day during a lecture (Arduino is an expert on bibliographic data-exchange formats), and, with a gesture exuding both grace and necessity, exposes his pate. A prank? Or perhaps—as Arduino thinks, toting about Spinoza’s Ethics, pursuing his own half-baked, deliriously caustic line of reasoning—this student came into being for the exclusive purpose of bringing him to shame. The text leaves the imagined impetus for the act as ambiguous and incomprehensible as Arduino’s response to it: fugue. He quits civilization. Intending to make it to Lapland, he finds himself instead in northern Italy, dwelling in a cave.
Though he believes he is removing himself from a world of potential hair-rufflers, Arduino is in fact only exchanging one set of hair rufflers for another, for the wilderness, with its winds, rains and branches, is itself an antagonist, and, beyond this, its woods are teeming with ‘the sick and infirm’: a band of elderly and other aspiring convalescents who flock to the anchorite Arduino, much to his snowballing chagrin and horror. They bring jams and lasagna, tribute in the form of munitions; they perform, as Arduino cowers, cornered, a paradoxical form of apotheosis, executing ritual violations (stroking his head from back to front) so as to better exploit his comb-over, which, is (treacherously, he thinks) curative.
Arduino’s exploitation reaches nearly corporate extremes: he is buffeted about like an inadvertent pop-sensation: The old, cloyingly virtuous, formerly ailing Giuseppina takes it upon herself to manage his client-base and make his schedule, all the while in the vexing, metaphysical thick of Bravi’s wilderness, home of the red roe-buck, entwined snakes, locus of apparitions, staged evasions and disembodiments, Arduino cedes to the idea that he might learn to live “without getting too fucked up about [his] hair and those [data] formats.” That or else, spurred by his burgeoning hatred for the sick and infirm, might end up adding circles to a Dante-esque hell.
There are many caves in this story: wells imbued with spectral, melancholy voices, empty, naked centers, glabrous, or glabrating heads. It is clear that, within Arduino’s male-centric reality, baldness is a state laden with significance: it is a wound, a void: “every man in the world has a bald patch hidden within him”; it is, like the more explicit skull, a memento mori: bald men “reconstruct on [their] scalps the landscape which all men, sooner or later, will see snatched from them.” Arduino casts his combover with an additional moral valence as well: it is a way of being honest, a way of emphasizing by concealing baldness and thus implies that he is far more virtuous than the deplorable ‘shorn head,’ Costantino Toldini, who, by shaving his scalp conceals the fact of what it lacks naturally. Arduino’s comb-over is, additionally, a way of situating himself with respect to his paternal line, a homage to his deceased father (his best friend and the subsequent hub the novel’s nostalgic lucubrations), and a defiant, even proud recapitulation of his father’s suffering: he, too, was tormented because bald.
The father’s suffering is only alluded to, and, like Arduino’s suffering, which, in the game of show versus tell, is stated more than textured, lends itself to allegorical reading. Perhaps because of the seemingly trifling nature of its purported source (baldness), and because of the strange mesh Bravi has managed to confect with the text, using strands of humour which are variously light, ironic, wicked and dark, it becomes possible to reconfigure baldness and whatever social ridicule is directed towards it as viable stand-ins for deeper sources of anxiety, or for alienation itself. The various meanings with which Arduino invests baldness and comb-overs put him at odds with the social world: The text’s ‘barber’, its ‘janitor,’ its ‘barroom habitué,’ each of these characters is simply a version of the Joe Schmo who would insist, over and against Arduino, that he would look good shaved.
These characters place him in the same position as any person consciously practicing a ‘style’ (construed broadly) against the norms of the day: Arduino sees the outside world as “a constant series of traps”; he feels that he has spent a lifetime locked in a fight against those who would invalidate his enterprise, a lifetime like his father, sheltering his comb-over, dueling with metaphorical winds. These winds, in turn: the barber, the janitor, even Arduino’s wife, encounter him with blank bemusement: they cannot digest him. Arduino has clearly, though, to some extent internalized the social pressures that afflict him: he feels real shame when his comb-over is lifted, despite the fact that he is proud it emphasizes his baldness by concealing it, and despite the fact that a lifted comb-over would presumably be even more effective in accomplishing this emphasis.
Arduino’s obsession with his hair floats on the rest of his conscious experience like a cataract, shifting around, sometimes allowing a reality beyond what we are given access to (despite the fact that the work is written in the first person) to come into sight, though more often occluding it. His seizures, his nightmares, his depressed wife, his marital troubles, a lingering memory of a father warped by filial brutality (by Arduino’s brother, the bully), these are never dwelt on as extensively as the comb-over issue, unless they are auxiliary to it; instead they pepper his ruminations as a series of asides. As a result, the book has a kind of writhing unconscious, a peripheral vision that sees in colour as Arduino’s mind strays to his past (distant and recent), often alighting on its most violent or lugubrious details:
We lived in a first floor apartment close to the main square in Recanati. Below it was a take-away shop that gave out a terrible stink of grilled meat. The owner was a man who smoked a cigar that he always kept in one corner of his mouth. He roasted pork by the shovelful, and as time passed, he began to develop pig-like features, as if the spirit of the pig had left its body just as he was putting its flesh on the grill and had gone and attached itself to the first bastard it happened to come across…I couldn’t open the window without breathing in a stink of putrefaction.
These digressions lend an emotional depth to the novel that would otherwise be lacking. If Arduino’s physical and other outbursts at times seem mysterious, or seem insufficiently motivated, it is at least possible to suspect that there are valid causes for his rage strewn about the novel’s obstructed depths. After a seemingly benign phone call devolves into a cruel attack on his wife—really just a misdirected attack on his mother-in-law, who has, apparently outrageously, borrowed a book—Arduino states: “I don’t know what she said in reply. Once I’d put the phone down I felt much relieved. There was not much else I could say. If she couldn’t understand, it was hardly her fault.” The cataract hovering over the text as Arduino streamlines his vision toward matters of hair places a reader of his overreactions in essentially the same position as his wife. For some readers at least, desire (wanting to know the ‘why’ of an outburst) and pleasure (wanting an answer to exist, but not wanting it: in truth wanting only the sense of textual depth that is its insinuated existence) might issue from the confusion.
Arduino’s escape from civilization, combined with his repeated insistence that one cause leads to another, that his student could have done nothing other than humiliate him, and that escaping civilization is his only viable response to humiliation, makes The Combover a variation on themes in Bravi’s earlier work, namely ‘displacement’ and ‘determinism’ as nested concerns. ‘Displacement’—specifically in the form of expatriation—has a privileged place in Bravi’s imaginary, perhaps because the native Argentinian has opted to base himself in Italy, and perhaps because he is one of those writers who chooses to move, always with incomplete comfort, between linguistic bases as well (he works in Spanish and Italian). ‘Determinism,’ in his work, lurks forever behind the will, a nag that assumes various narrative forms in order to better harass it:
In Río Sauce, Bravi’s protagonist abandons his birthplace because it is besieged by flood-waters, an act that is both impelled and willed: the fact of the flood impels it, but some of his relatives remain behind, carrying on with their lives as much as possible (the need to leave, then, was never absolute). In The Combover, alternately, as Arduino makes his way north, he becomes increasingly callous, in spite of several moments that smack of redemption, that nearly insinuate he has a choice in the matter of his own becoming.
Redemption, in this book, is a tease. Cruelty is reality, and Arduino’s trajectory—the line that connects early Arduino, the hostile, but merely petulant melancholic, to Arduino, the crazed assaulter of later pages (oh yes, the mother-in-law gets it, but only because Arduino would like to prove himself a healer)—seems, perhaps because it is too baffling, too absurd to admit of alternative explanations, fated, inexorable.
It is difficult to put your finger on just what The Combover is. The work has one foot in what is not quite the banal and another in what is not quite the metaphysical. Some of its tropes seem drawn from a twisted fairy-tale, as when Arduino severs his pigtail-like comb-over with a hunting knife. It is funny. It is not slapstick. It seems to vacillate between darkness and a lightness which some readers might equate with superficiality and which still other readers might simply insist is aesthetically valid entertainment (‘Why should it all be grim and heartbreaking?’).
Bravi’s book is quizzical in the best sense of the word; its intrigue as a novel lies in its un-decidability: it is both light and grim. Its sheer neuroticism and darkness are sometimes masked by its humour, but if they are behind trees on your first read, they will surely trail you out of it, loop back, snarl, and stalk you brazenly in the second. Natalie Helberg

The Combover is one of the funniest, strangest, most uncategorisable novels I’ve read in quite a while. No small thing in a year where I’m reading DeWitt, Aira and Casares. I noted enough quotes that I could write a two-page review using nothing else (don’t worry, I won’t). I had to stop myself from noting more.Arduino Gherarducci is a middle-aged professor specialising in bibliographic data exchange formats. Baldness runs in his family and Arduino maintains a proud family tradition of sporting a combover – in his case he grows his hair long in back and combs it forward over his bald patch.
He is well aware that times have changed and that the combover has become a thing of ridicule. He is urged by friends, strangers, barbers, his wife, just to shave his head and wear his baldness openly and without shame. What they don’t understand is that he feels no shame in being bald. He is proud of his combover. As he reflects:
No one gets upset if they see a woman with fake blond hair and black reappearing at the roots, or with silicon lips, but they get upset about a combover . . . Arduino’s wife doesn’t understand the importance to him of his absurd hairstyle. She doesn’t get why he goes to such lengths to maintain it and to protect it against random gusts of wind or sudden rain. She thinks he would look rather handsome without it.
They have no children. Their cat, Cosino, is more his than hers. Arduino is the narrator so we don’t see much of his wife’s life but it doesn’t seem much fun. He’s a fussy man obsessed with matters which are hard for others to relate to and he seems to be engaged in a petty cold-war with his wife’s mother. Still, he’s comfortable enough in his slightly arid world until, one day, something extraordinary happens:
As I was describing a mark used by Valerio Dorico—a Pegasus striking a rock with its hoof making a spring gush forth—I remember noticing the Argentinian student, whose thesis I was supervising and who came to all my lectures, getting up without saying a word and coming toward my desk. I followed him with my eyes, to understand what he was doing there at the front. I thought he wanted to ask me a question or to help me turn a page of the great catalogue of printers’ marks I was leafing through in front of the class. But no. While I was holding this great book, he pushed back my combover with a gesture that was deliberate but not aggressive—indeed it was almost elegant—exposing my baldness to the whole class. For a few seconds the students sat there looking at me, astonished, without understanding the insult. Then, predictably, they all began to laugh. Arduino makes it through the rest of the lecture, but he doesn’t know how to process this. He doesn’t know what comes next. So he runs away. Armed only with a copy of Spinoza’s Ethics to read on his journey and a backpack-full of essentials he decides to make a new life in Lapland.
He doesn’t get very far. Instead he ends up in a nearby village that he used to visit with his father as a child and where he hopes to find an old well that was said to be magical. He was told about the well by a priest who was a friend of Arduino’s father and he remembers the two men leaning towards each other so deep in conversation that their combovers almost touched and became one.
What Arduino is really looking for is a safe haven: a place where a man can live in peace and where his hair will be left unruffled. Lapland might serve, but how much more secure is the refuge of childhood memory?
The priest of course is long dead and the well forgotten. You can’t reach the past by bus. So with a logic that seems somehow inevitable Arduino takes refuge in a cave on the hill where he becomes a hermit. He hopes to live off the land, avoid people and to get to grips with Spinoza:
I pulled out the Ethics and read proposition thirty-six of the second part (which talks about confused ideas that are nevertheless necessary) and then the demonstration that refers to proposition fifteen of the first part, with its demonstration which, in turn, refers to proposition fourteen, once again in the first part, and to definition three and so forth. In short, I began to think, like Spinoza, that all things are necessary, like the Argentinian’s hair-ruffle: “Was even this necessary, damn it?” I asked myself. “Did he really have to get up from his seat and ruffle my hair in front of everyone?” In the Ethics, definition seven says:
That thing is called free, which exists solely by the necessity of its own nature, and of which the action is determined by itself alone. On the other hand, that thing is necessary, or rather constrained, which is determined by something external to itself to a fixed and definite method of existence or action.
Which means? That that blockhead couldn’t do anything other than ruffle my hair because he was already a hair-ruffler by nature, or does it mean that he did it because he had been driven by an external cause and he, poor sod, couldn’t prevent himself because he was constrained to do it?
I’ve read absolutely no Spinoza myself and I don’t particularly intend to start now. It doesn’t matter. You don’t need a degree in philosophy to see that we’ve got issues here of exercising free will in a contingent world. Arduino just wants to explore bibliographic data exchange formats and to have his chosen hairstyle be respected. But how can you live freely in a world populaced by wives and mothers-in-law and rogue Argentinian students? Only his cat makes no real demands on him.
If there is an answer it’s not to move to a cave on a mountain in central Italy. I won’t say what happens, but before too long the hermit in the hills is getting a steady stream of visitors. People aren’t that easily put off. Not only that, but where once his hair was at the mercy of distracted barbers and barbarous Argentinians now it’s at risk from the elements. True freedom is impossible. Personally I don’t even think it’s desirable.
All of this makes The Combover sound rather dense, but it’s nothing of the sort. It’s a rather wonderful nonsense which follows an utterly farcical chain of events all tipped into motion by the Argentinian tipping Arduino’s hair. All that and an exploration of free will versus necessity as reflected through a man’s dedication to protecting his combover.
By this point in this review I’ve described well under half the book and I’ve intentionally avoided most of the plot. Beyond the set-up – Arduino has his hair mussed and becomes a hermit – I had no idea where this was going and it’s a lot of fun that way. It would easily bear rereading, but on a first read I think it’s good to set off like Arduino without any real understanding of your destination.
The Combover comes it at just over a 100 pages and, like Family Heirlooms which I also read relatively recently, was published by Frisch & Co. as part of their series of contemporary literature in translation. It’s available in ebook form only, which as with Family Heirlooms is a shame as it’s an absolute gem. -

Frisch & Co, a German publisher specialising in e-books in English translation, has an eye for quirky novelists writing in languages that anglophones rarely explore. I read two of their Italian offerings, The Combover by Adrian N Bravi, and I Stole the Rain, by Elisa Ruotolo. They’re good books; well-written, nicely translated, absorbing, and also very short. But as e-books they had a lot of work to do to claim my attention.
I have to read e-books for work when no print edition exists, or is ridiculously expensive, but this is an ordeal for me: reading this way is sore on the eyes, too heavy on the wrists or lap with the weight of the Device, and deeply frustrating. So reading e-books for pleasure is the biggest oxymoron in my life. After I received a very nice Nexus for my birthday, I gave e-reading another try, but it hasn’t improved. Perhaps I chose the wrong apps: the Kindle app is adequate as an interface between me and a novel, but is still rather hit and miss. Moon Reader Pro is just awful, I cannot believe how much irritation and frustration it generates in the simple act of (failing in) finding the last chapter read, or seeing how many pages are left. And that is just in the simple act of reading: there is a great deal more in the reading experience of a printed book that an e-book cannot offer. I get really annoyed when the battery runs out: no book has this problem, not does it take 8 hours to recharge! I miss the softness, lightness and tangibility of paper. I miss the simplicity and ease of moving through the book rapidly and in full control, looking at two or more pages at once, flipping back and forth at will. I miss the information on the copyright page, the extra bits about illustrations or maps, the advertising about forthcoming books, the info about the author and their previous works, the back page blurb, even the cover artwork, because all this imprints the story, and the emotional and intellectual impact of the words and their narration, in my memory. An e-book simply imprints frustration, and a burning desire to never read this way again.
So, Bravi and Ruotolo were working against a considerable amount of negative energy when I began to read their stories. Bravi’s The Combover (translated by Richard Dixon) is very very short: I was taken by surprise at its ending, when it seemed to be just getting into its stride. It’s the story of Arduino, a university lecturer who cherishes his father’s proud tradition of the sculpted combover, and finds his life going off the rails when an Argentinian student approaches the podium one day in mid-lecture, and detroys the professor’s lacquered coiffure by flipping it down into his eyes. Naturally the professor flees, back to his home village, and escapes into the woods to live as a hermit, contemplating the nature of free will, and how he will find his way to Lapland, where he has decided that he will find spiritual freedom. Naturally his arrival in the district attracts attention, and before the week is out Arduino and his carefully maintained combover are attracting devotees who wait patiently for their faith healing properties.
This is very visual fiction of the absurd by a screenwriter and a comedian. Bravi makes the reader adopt the world view of Arduino by offering no alternative point of view. It’s hard work to remember that the off-kilter rural Italian setting is possibly alive and well, and above all normal, right now in the heart of Italy, since they seem as bizarre as the rest of the plot. It felt cruel to laugh at Arduino’s obsessions, and it was appalling to read his meltdown at home, and the treatment of his wife. This is a strange, haunting oddity, with nagging questions about why we choose the hairstyle we do.
 - Kate

If you watch any American television, you may well have noticed that it features a lot of bald or balding men: Tony Soprano (The Sopranos), Louie (Louie), Pete Campbell (Mad Men), Homer Simpson (The Simpsons), Larry David, (Curb Your Enthusiasm), Walter White (Breaking Bad). These are characters in TV shows that often deal with the fading power of the American male, what A.O. Scott has called “the end of male authority”.
It is not coincidental that they are balding.
Going bald is something that no man, no matter how powerful, has any control over. It happens, as far as we can tell, actually because of maleness. And, even worse for our poor middle-aged men, it will be noticeable, and often the cause of societal judgement and public shame. Baldness is a visible signifier of decay, of loss of virility, of loss of relevance, of loss of cool, of loss of power. It’s a reminder, every time a balding, tufty skull is glimpsed in a mirror, of a whole range of male anxieties. (There are exceptions of course, often in film: Vin Diesel, for instance, has a head as hairless and shiny as the rims of any of the sports cars he drives out of skyscrapers, and he never seems particularly anxious about his masculinity.)
I think of all these bald patriarchs as I read The Combover, a novella written by the Argentine-Italian author Adrián N. Bravi and translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon. It was published in English by Frisch & Co in 2013 and, as the title suggests, is about a bald man, in this case a professor called Arduino Gherarducci. Gherarducci has developed an elaborate philosophy of baldness. He asserts that it is a mark of pride: “We bald people want to show off our baldness, the humble condition to which we are reduced”. This showing off is a game of concealment, and, just as baldness is a lack of hair, Gherarducci’s pride in his baldness shows from his lack of bald patch, kept out of sight beneath a stylised combover. The combover is a means of giving his appearance “dignity and elegance”, but with honesty. Revealing the bald patch is pathetic, thinks Gherarducci, while shaving the head is disdainful:
I’m proud to belong to a family of combover men, none of whom have ever fallen into the reprehensible trap, so common in our impulsive modern world, of shaving his head to mask his healthy and inevitable baldness. How much shame there is in this new century! How can we fail to see that this change from the combover to the shorn head is a sign of our declining society? To attempt to conceal the baldness with hair is honest because it is doomed to failure: the combover will always betray itself, and will never pass as ‘natural’ hair. Indeed, throughout the novella characters comment on just how unconvincing Gherarducci’s combover is, unsurprising given his method of “letting the hair grow at the back of the scalp and then training it forward for the necessary amount of time” before combing it forward, like an inverted eighties popstar. The failed artifice of the bald man’s combover, like the holy man’s stigmata or the ascetic’s hairshirt, is a mark of purity and holiness, of submission to a higher power.
This is just the philosophy; in practice, having a combover has far fewer advantages, and frequently results in embarrassment. But the philosophy is what Gherarducci clings to as a means of retaining his sense of importance and self-worth, which is challenged on many fronts by insolent barbers and hirsute students and mothers-in-law who borrow books without asking and never return them. Gherarducci feels anger at these affronts, but he does not direct this, for the most part, at the transgressors, or at the society that, decadently, has stopped appreciating the artistry of the combover. Rather, it is turned against his fellow bald men—against those who suffer the indignity of baldness, but hide it with plugs or hats, or, worst of all, shaven heads, as if their baldness were a choice. Gherarducci finds it difficult to express his anger at others’ failure to follow the code as strictly as he does himself. He is angry at the world’s inability to realign itself to his philosophy.
One of the inevitable consequences of this focus on an unwritten code, and this over-interpretation of minor details in relation to it, is a kind of paranoia. It is this paranoia that bursts forth from Gherarducci at The Combover’s moment of crisis. A student, “a boy with sideburns and long hair” who is “the son of an Argentinian consul” humiliates Gherarducci while he is giving a lecture:
…he pushed back my combover with a gesture that was deliberate but not aggressive—indeed it was almost elegant—exposing my baldness to the whole class. For a few seconds the students sat there looking at me, astonished, without understanding the insult. Then, predictably, they all began to laugh. The students cannot understand the insult, because they do not understand Gherarducci’s philosophy. However, they understand his shame, so they laugh. Not heartily, in truth; they do not really seem to care. Gherarducci does not know how to react. He continues the lecture. Afterwards, he lets the students leave, staying in the class in an attempt to hide his humiliation (a kind of dishonesty he would not allow himself with his hair). Then he decides to flee, ending up in a town in north-central Italy called Cingoli. As he travels there, “Every passerby had become a potential hair ruffler”. His acute attention to an anxiety about his combover overflows into paranoia.
Gherarducci’s time in Cingoli is spent as a brief and unsuccessful hermit. He walks from the town into the mountains. He asks, “…how could I apply my knowledge of bibliographic data exchange formats up here in the mountains?” He does not find a satisfactory answer. He is discovered by some local children who start a rumour that his combover, if rubbed in the right way, can bring good luck and heal the sick. Soon his cave is filled with pilgrims, eager to stroke his increasingly greasy hair. Gherarducci is unconvinced of the healing efficacy of his combover, but he goes along with it, perhaps because he is glad it is finally getting the kind of reverent treatment he had always hoped it would. Eventually, though, enough is enough, and he flees again: “My combover was created for another purpose, and I couldn’t allow it to become a healing instrument for a band of lepers.”
At the end of the novella, Gherarducci seems to feel rejuvenated and powerful, but we have seen him so often that we are incredulous. During his time on the mountain Gherarducci tries to gain authenticity and balance, to become self-reliant, to find, perhaps, a semblance of old-fashioned masculinity in the rhythms of a pre-modern life. His failure is farcical. He cannot survive on his own, and lives parasitically off his purchases in the town and off the lasagne the combover-stroking pilgrims bring as gifts. His encounters with nature—with deer and storms and a cave he briefly contemplates whitewashing—like his encounters with humanity, end in humiliation. Gherarducci’s masculinity, then, even at its most triumphant, is a posture of deliberate failure. Gherarducci himself seems unaware of this, but he should not be, for the nature of his masculinity’s failure is the same as that of his combover: his masculinity is a pose that reveals its own disappointments, just as his combover proudly emphasises his baldness through failed concealment. It is an absurd construction, an artifice of self-contradiction, and absurdity runs through The Combover, albeit muted by Bravi’s style, which deploys flat irony throughout. This flatness muffles the effect, and The Combover never develops the comic exuberance of, say, ‘The Nose’ by Nikolai Gogol, another story that uses an errant body part as a metonym for male insecurities. Masculinity is examined yet again, and comes out lacking. Like Gheraducci’s combover, the novella itself is an artifice of self-contradiction. It lavishes attention on a topic by now so threadbare that nothing can protect its modesty.
Gherarducci persists with his combover, even though it continues to fail, even though it continues to bring him unhappiness, even though his combover is a promise of elegance that can never be obtained and his masculinity is a promise of power that is looking more and more like an anachronism. As Gherarducci, so Tony Soprano, so Walter White: if only these men could realise their masculinity makes them look as old and absurd as their baldness.
Tim Kennett

I am often drawn to quirky or artistically unusual literature, pieces that bring the unfashionable or typically less noteworthy aspects of, or characters in, society to the foreground.  The Combover by Adrian N Bravi does just that.
The philosophy of the Gheraducci family (or most of them) was that the respectable approach was to hide a deficiency using one’s own resources, without resorting to hairpieces, wigs, transplants, or whatever else, nor resorting to such vulgarities as shaving.
Arduino Gherarducci is a black sheep. At first one feels empathy for this misunderstood character, relentlessly teased about his choice in hairstyle. These interactions with his tormentors and in particular his trip to the barber introduce light comedic notes to the tale. But one quickly learns there is a much darker side to Arduino’s obsession with his hair – it is a means by which he justifies his disconnection with the people around him.
It is this darker side of obsession and emotional dislocation that Bravi explores in The Combover where the very darkest of humour arises.
I have never concealed my dislike for the human race — a dislike I have cultivated not only by reading certain history books and certain philosophical and theosophical theories but also through sleeping in the same room as my brother.
An opinionated and curmudgeonly soul, Arduino sets off on a quest of sorts to find a place where he feels at peace. But much to his disgust he finds wherever he goes he cannot get away from other people and their expectations of him. Emotionally stunted and erratic, his attempts at understanding and being understood meet with varying degrees of success/failure.
Adrian Bravi’s prose is original and engaging, and full credit goes to translator Richard Dixon because the often tell-tale signs that a piece has been translated were nowhere to be seen.
The Combover by Adrian Bravi contains more depth and darkness than one might expect from its title. I would recommend it to those who find intrigue in the unusual. -