Giorgio De Maria - a cult novel, an unholy masterwork of the macabre, more than just a beautifully terrifying ghost story. A writer of uncanny, occult powers, De Maria has crafted an intensely relevant allegory that will take its rightful place alongside the darkest of Saramago and Poe
Giorgio De Maria, The Twenty Days of Turin: A Novel, Trans. by Ramon Glazov, Liveright, 2017) [1970.]
Written during the height of the 1970s Italian domestic terror, a cult novel, with distinct echoes of Lovecraft and Borges, makes its English-language debut.
In the spare wing of a church-run sanatorium, some zealous youths create "the Library," a space where lonely citizens can read one another’s personal diaries and connect with like-minded souls in "dialogues across the ether." But when their scribblings devolve into the ugliest confessions of the macabre, the Library’s users learn too late that a malicious force has consumed their privacy and their sanity. As the city of Turin suffers a twenty-day "phenomenon of collective psychosis" culminating in nightly massacres that hundreds of witnesses cannot explain, the Library is shut down and erased from history. That is, until a lonely salaryman decides to investigate these mysterious events, which the citizenry of Turin fear to mention. Inevitably drawn into the city’s occult netherworld, he unearths the stuff of modern nightmares: what’s shared can never be unshared.
An allegory inspired by the grisly neo-fascist campaigns of its day, The Twenty Days of Turin has enjoyed a fervent cult following in Italy for forty years. Now, in a fretful new age of "lone-wolf" terrorism fueled by social media, we can find uncanny resonances in Giorgio De Maria’s vision of mass fear: a mute, palpitating dread that seeps into every moment of daily existence. With its stunning anticipation of the Internet―and the apocalyptic repercussions of oversharing―this bleak, prescient story is more disturbingly pertinent than ever.
Brilliantly translated into English for the first time by Ramon Glazov, The Twenty Days of Turin establishes De Maria’s place among the literary ranks of Italo Calvino and beside classic horror masters such as Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft. Hauntingly imaginative, with visceral prose that chills to the marrow, the novel is an eerily clairvoyant magnum opus, long overdue but ever timely.
“The Twenty Days of Turin by Giorgio De Maria is a chilling novel that conjures up the creepy claustrophobia of The Tenant and the mind-bending epic horror of House of Leaves—except spread across an entire city. Odd libraries, uncanny monuments, horrific deaths, and terrifying puppet shows…even days later, I’m still flinching at shadows, unable to forget the riveting details of a newly unearthed uncanny classic.” — Jeff Vandermeer, New York Times
“In The Twenty Days of Turin, De Maria predicted contemporary society’s loneliness, cruelty, and voyeurism decades early and with unnerving accuracy—a haunting, eerily prescient novel.” — Carmen Machado
“Almost forgotten to the ash heap of collective literary amnesia, Giorgio De Maria’s masterpiece oozes with unsettling creepiness and despair as strange gods play out their violent fantasies in an Italy gone quietly insane. This one will slip its way into your darkest dreams.” — Christian Kiefer
I read it like a memoir. Like autobiography. Which, ideally, is the way it's supposed to be read, I suppose, but is also a dangerous way to let it into your head. The way it will mess with you most fully and inhabit your dreams. The Twenty Days Of Turin is a novel. There's no truth to it at all. But sometimes it doesn't exactly feel that way.
I read it out of its time and place — on my couch, in a bar, on a train in Philadelphia, December of 2016 — which was not how the book was supposed to be read. And yet, here and now, it was remarkably prescient. There was a disquieting commonality between its intended place and moment and the one we find ourselves in now.
Giorgio De Maria's cult novel was published in Italy in 1977, at a time when the country was wracked by constant terror attacks and consequent police state crackdowns and violence. Neighbors distrusted each other. The social and political fabric was unraveling. They called it the "Years Of Lead" and it was fertile ground for The Twenty Days — a spooky, strange piece of Magical Realism prestidigitation that captures, nearly note-for-note, the turmoil and chaos of a community whose center has shattered but is being held together by a willful, communal rejection of the breakage.
In the beginning, there is The Library — a scruffy, frightening collection of people's journals, diaries, screeds and manifestoes, collected by eerily clean and well-scrubbed young men, and held all together in an empty room of a church-run sanitarium. No manuscripts are allowed. No novels. No literature. Only "true, authentic documents reflecting the real spirit of the people." Anyone who wants can go to The Library and read whatever they like. And for a nominal fee, they will be provided with the contact information of any of the authors, should they want to get in contact and have further communication.
No Gibson, no Sterling, no cyberpunk or spec-fic scribbler of the '80s or '90s ever captured the poisoned zeitgeist of social media better than this: a room full of the violent, disgusting, lonely and broken ramblings of shut-ins and social rejects, all held in the abandoned wing of a former insane asylum. That De Maria's version exists as ink-on-paper missives from lonelyhearts and weirdos makes no difference. That he subtitles his story "A report from the end of the century" is just wordplay. Whether he knew it or not, he was writing science fiction.
The Library is where The Twenty Days begins, with De Maria's narrator, a self-made investigator into the "collective psychosis" of the citizens of Turin following the appearance of The Library and the strange events surrounding it . There was the smell; the vinegary stink that no one could explain. The insomnia which seemed to grip the entire city. The noises — the far-away screaming and the war-cries — that were equally inexplicable.
And then, of course, the murders. Lots of murders. People picked up by the ankles and bashed to pieces against curb stones and the plinths of statues. Bloody, horrific murders, witnessed by blurry-eyed somnambulants whose testimony was too bizarre to believe. The nation heard about it, then the world. Scapegoats were found and imprisoned. The terror seemed to end.
Except ... maybe not. And we follow De Maria's investigator as he talks to some of those witnesses. As he meets with lawyers and survivors, nuns, the mayor and an art critic-cum-parapsychologist who lives like a hermit in the hills above the city, each one of whom is both reluctant to speak — or even think — about the horrors that Turin suffered, but who also just can't stop.
Slowly, things start going sideways. And you hardly notice it at first, but the weirdness (so gentle at the outset, then building to Lovecraftian levels) infects every page until nothing you see seems safe anymore and every word feels suspect. And while to say anything more would put us in serious spoiler territory (yes, for a book that came out almost 40 years ago, but is now being re-released in its first English edition by W.W. Norton and translator Ramon Glazov, who also writes an excellent introduction), it's important to understand that, though fantastical and discordantly strange, this is a book about terror and the deep roots of violent discontent. Everything is symbolic of something else. Nothing is quite what it seems.
But conceived under fire and born into a world shaking itself to pieces, it captures the chaos and randomness of terrorism and the fear of hidden furies in a way that only something that treads the ragged edge of surrealism can. It was a book written for a different world.
And the most disturbing thing about it is how appropriate it is for ours. - Jason Sheehan
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. - Peter Berard, LA Review of Books
A community that begins anonymously—with members sharing their feelings, fears, and desires—and builds with the opportunity to “become friends” sounds appealing. It also sounds much needed, “considering how hard it’s gotten for people to communicate these days.”
That idea and those lines don’t come from a contemporary brief for the benefits of social media networks, but from the first English-language translation of The Twenty Days of Turin, a 1977 novel by the Italian author Giorgio De Maria. A friend of Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino, De Maria was radically opposed to Italian clericalism (even publishing a short story about the assassination of a fictional pope), but in the late ’70s abruptly re-converted to Catholicism and stopped writing fiction. Finding The Twenty Days of Turin is like discovering a prophetic prose relic containing a fundamental message about being human: we seek to connect.
Long before Facebook and Twitter, there was the “Library,” De Maria’s fictional underground community that arises from the ashes of Turin, whose physical collapse is reflected in a “poverty of the human imagination and lack of initiative.” In words that presage our contemporary moment, De Maria writes “the situation of finding ourselves thrust back almost at once to our indigenous wholesomeness—an event many ‘purebred Turinese’ had even longed for with a sour regionalism—had ended up producing a general sense of loss.” Without the flavor and soul of other backgrounds and voices, Turin dried up and darkened.
The “community centers” the city government initially present as a solution are full of “indescribable, unutterable, tomblike quiet.” People want to connect—but over distance, and through words. Literature won’t do, the young creators of the Library argue, because “there’s too much artifice in literature.” Only diaries and journals contain real words, real emotions. For many, it proves enticing: “the prospect of ‘being read’ quivered in the distance like an enchanting mirage . . . I will give myself to you, you will give yourself to me: on these very human foundations, the future exchange would happen.” Once messages are shared, readers can find those that appeal to their own anxieties and hopes, and for a fee—600 lire to get the author’s name, 3,000 for the whole manuscript, all going to a local convent, the Little House of Divine Providence—they can truly connect. De Maria’s fictional social media is chilling in its prescience. Like our current digital world, it has a range that’s “infinite: it had the variety and at the same time the wretchedness of things that can’t find harmony with Creation, but which still exist, and need someone to observe them, if only to recognize that it was another like himself who’d created them.”
The Library becomes central to the goals of the novel’s unnamed narrator, who has written a few books on “municipal historiography” and works in a “positively unexciting” job. His newest subject, however, is more ominous. Turin, his birthplace, had been swept-up in a “phenomenon of collective psychosis” a decade earlier. Droves of citizens had become insomniacs, drifting out of their bedrooms and into the streets. Screams, “with something dismal and metallic at the heart” of them, rattled windows. Strange earthquakes shook the streets while leaving adjacent buildings or blocks untouched. The Library is essential in his research into the Turin of a decade before, but that research is complicated by his paranoia. He constantly thinks he is being followed, surveilled, documented, and plotted against. De Maria is masterful in creating this world of dark arts, where even a nun, Sister Clotilde of the Little House of Divine Providence, threatens him about poking into the city’s past: “If you, sir, are a Christian, if the waters of baptism didn’t rinse your forehead in vain, why do you insist on searching where human reason could never find anything but shadows?”
The paranoia of The Twenty Days of Turin calls to mind a work of similar portent: Thomas Pynchon’s sclerotic, satirical 1966 novel, The Crying of Lot 49. Pynchon’s novel contains the prototypical modern detective, Oedipa Maas, a suburban housewife who frequents Tupperware parties in Southern California. Oedipa is soon subsumed into a multinational postal conspiracy which, she believes, might also be an elaborate prank by her billionaire ex-boyfriend. The reader isn’t quite sure, but Pynchon makes sure our confusion is the point: paranoia is our most earnest attempt to find structure in a disordered world. Re-reading Pynchon’s comic novel in the age of fake news and a reality-show president is unsettling: if each day brings us a new conspiracy theory, then paranoia is not fringe—it is mainstream, standard operating procedure.
De Maria’s novel is a good complement to Pynchon, and perhaps an even more relevant work for our era, but there are important differences between the two. Pynchon’s novel is campy, a psychotropic romp, while De Maria’s is classic Italian horror: claustrophobic, nightmarish, tinged with perversions of Catholicism. One character says: “In this city, demons lurk under the ashes.” De Maria’s Turin is dark and surreal. It is a city at the end of its world.
Still, it’s De Maria’s arresting vision of social media that commands attention. Among those most drawn to “connecting through distance” is an eschatological group that De Maria calls the “Millenarists.” “Dressed in psychedelic patterns,” they hold demonstrations, chant, and speak to a patron saint. They also distribute pamphlets with dire warnings about “inattentiveness” toward “that which seems invisible around us, but no less worthy of our concern.” Another character, skeptical of the Library, tells the narrator it “helped to furnish the illusion of a relationship with the outside world: a dismal cop-out nourished and centralized by a scornful power bent only on keeping people in their state of continuous isolation.” Turn on, log in, and drop out: In the context of our own social networking age, the irony is hard to miss.
In the midst of his interviews and research, De Maria’s narrator begins to wonder if he’s being played. A local attorney offers one explanation for why he might be feeling that way: “Perhaps because we’re an isolated city, out of the international time stream, where certain experiments can be carried out without drawing too much attention.” By the end of the book, the narrator has had enough, and decides to flee the city—but not before The Twenty Days of Turin has delivered its chilling prophecy: Our whispers into the distance offer the illusion of communication, but in confessing our secrets to the world, we risk losing our souls. - Nick Ripatrazone, Commonweal
Giorgio De Maria’s The Twenty Days of Turin is more than a book; it is a literary event. For starters, the novel has a track record of decades spent on the mouths of its fans as they excitedly pass around used copies because the novel has been out of print, and that certifies it as a cult classic. Second, the almost palpable paranoia, strange happenings, eerie atmosphere, bizarre elements/characters, and superb writing make comparisons to Jorge Luis Borges and H.P. Lovecraft obligatory. Third, in its pages, this novel offers a perfect prediction of the internet era: loneliness, disconnection, and constant attempts at reaching others in the void. Lastly, between the outstanding introduction and the careful translation, it is obvious that bringing the book to English-speaking readers was a labor of love translator Ramon Glazov took on eagerly and worked on with the care necessary to offer readers a memorable reading experience. It’s still early in the year, but expect to see this one pop up in many best of 2017 lists.
In The Twenty Days of Turin, an anonymous man recounts his researching efforts as he seeks to illuminate the strange happenings that took place in Turin a decade earlier. At the time of the strange event, sinister happenings affected the city for 20 consecutive days. It started with waves of mass insomnia that drove its sufferers out of their houses and forced them to wander the streets at night in mobs that were unsure of what they were looking for or escaping from. This was accompanied by creepy cries that came from various points in town and seemed to be reacting to each other, foul smells that emanated from everywhere and nowhere at once, and, ultimately, hyperviolent public murders that no one really observed. As the man meets with others who have information to share about the events and explores the history of a mysterious place known as the Library where people shared their most personal writings, the past seems to come back. Sinister entities look at the man from the shadows of the streets of Turin, someone knocks violently at his door, and the threats to his life and those of the people talking to him become as undeniable as they are unfathomable.
The Twenty Days of Turin is chilling and wonderfully weird. On one hand, the narrative is a smart allegory for the feelings of tension and terror that abounded in Italy in the 1970s and a predictive text that nails online (non)communication in ways that most cyberpunk novels failed to do. On the other hand, it is also a fun, fast-paced horror story in which the city is the main character, the past and present bleed into each other, and paranoia takes center stage. De Maria’s style is enjoyable and timeless, and it pushes this story forward at all times without giving the reader a chance to stop and breathe for a while. Furthermore, while this narrative stands on its own feet and is aching to be discovered by fans of weird literature now that it’s available in English for the first time, its DNA is full of echoes of other literary giants. For example, the way people are picked up and slammed to death against statues is reminiscent of that public-yet-unexplainable death H.P. Lovecraft gave Abdul Alhazred, author of the Necronomicon.
The dialogue is enjoyable and tensions permeates the story, but what makes this novel special is the way De Maria managed to create a creepy atmosphere almost immediately and then add eerie elements to it until the end, which is a gem I refuse to spoil here. All of it works because the writing itself is admirable. Here’s a small portion of an early passage in which De Maria writes, in a dialogue, about the sounds that could be heard in the city:
The second scream came from the opposite side, from the area around the cottages…Of course, I couldn’t pinpoint where exactly…Then a third scream, much farther away…farther away, and yet even more terrible. It seemed like they were relaying some kind of message. A few seconds went by, then other screams arose from the most disparate directions…From this neighborhood, and then from lower down, lower down toward the city center, like echoes…And there was always something gray and metallic deep behind it…I repeat: they had the intonation of war cries, not only bold as I said, but virulent and hostile.
One of the most important elements in any novel, one that can make or break a literary work, is the ending. When an author doesn’t land the ending, everything that preceded it becomes tainted. In The Twenty Days of Turin, the opposite is true: any previous shortcomings are immediately forgotten by the dark, surreal, unforgettable ending. This is a novel constructed with a lot of seemingly disparate elements: the mysterious nature of the events, the scary implications and descriptions, the Library and what it meant, how it came to be, and its disappearance/morphosis into something different, religious undertones, dark streets and characters, and Lovecraftian prose (“The physical executors of its crimes are entities much too far beyond suspicion, since once cannot even mention them without feeling reason crumbling.”). However, when taken together, it works perfectly. There is a reason this novel stayed alive despite not being in print, and my hope is that, now that it’s appearing in English for the first time, it gets the attention it deserves from a new generation of readers on this side of the globe. -
At the end of 1977, something extraordinary happened in Italy: the musician and writer Giorgio De Maria (1924–2009) published a horror novel called The Twenty Days of Turin, a Poe-esque fever dream that anticipated and described, with chilling precision, the birth of the internet and the many ways it would warp us. De Maria was a classically trained pianist and avant-garde musician, an anticlerical leftist before a bout of spiritual trauma in the 1980s turned him into a traditional Catholic. He never earned the renown of his exalted contemporaries—Eco, Calvino, Levi—but he and The Twenty Days of Turin, his fourth and final work, achieved a potent underground status. It is only now, after four decades, making its English-language debut, expertly translated and introduced by Ramon Glazov.
The novel’s plot is straightforward enough: an unnamed Turinese man begins investigating an affliction of mass insomnia that struck the city a decade earlier, an affliction that lasted twenty days and during which several people were slaughtered in public places, in full view of the insomniacs who had gathered there, and yet no one could name the killer or explain how the murders happened. His investigation uncovers ominous truths about his city and fellow Turinese before it leads to his own awful end.
At the hub of this mystery lies a church-sponsored outfit called “the Library,” a massive depository that housed the anonymous, depraved confessions and pleas of Turin’s citizens, located in a wing of the city’s insane asylum, tellingly called the Little House of Divine Providence. Anyone could enter the Library to donate or read the journals, diaries, and fragmented memoirs that revealed a bottomless grotesquerie and desperation to express, to connect, to be heard. If a reader wished to learn the identity of a certain confessor, he could submit a fee and the Library would put him in touch. The Library is central to understanding the mass insomnia and subsequent murders, though the narrator can’t work out exactly how, and he gets little help from his fellow Turinese. He need only mention the Twenty Days and they are frightened into a numbed hush.
Like the internet, the Library was “presented as a good cause, created in the hope of encouraging people to be more open with one another.” What kind of person would deposit his unchecked expressions for anybody to read? “The typical patron of the Library was a shy individual, ready to explore the limits of his own loneliness and weigh others down with it. This only helped to seal him further in a vicious cycle of fear and suspicion.” Some confessions read like personal ads that would fit cozily among the adulterous zest of Ashley Madison: one confessor “asked to be called ‘Evelina’ and insisted that she was still an attractive woman, even in her forties.... She was seeking an understanding individual who could assist her, since her husband didn’t want any part in satisfying her.” Other confessions matched the self-obsession and ardently pointless minutia of so many blogs and social-media posts: “Page after page told of her torments and her need for liberation. One whole chapter was devoted to her bathroom reading.”
The Library’s mysterious founders sound precisely like the enthusiastic, pre-libidinous Zuckerbergs of Silicon Valley: “little more than boys,” they were “perky, smiling youngsters…without a trace of facial hair” who “looked designed to win people’s trust” and “came calling at your door, inviting you to chat.” Here’s their eager pitch to citizens:
We’re not interested in printed paper or books. There’s too much artifice in literature, even when it’s said to be spontaneous. We’re looking for true, authentic documents reflecting the real spirit of the people, the kinds of things we could rightly call popular subjects…. Is it possible that you’ve never written a diary, a memoir, a confession of some problem that worries you?... There’s definitely someone who’ll read it and take an interest in your problems. We’ll make sure to put them in touch with you and you’ll become friends; you’ll both feel liberated. It’s an important thing we do, considering how hard it’s gotten for people to communicate these days.
You’ll become friends: how vacuous that sounds now that so much friendship, like so much of everything else, has been downgraded into a glowing phantasm, a swiping, clicking chimera. Once these Turinese began expressing and confessing and confiding, the narrator says, “it was hard to stop! The prospect of ‘being read’ quivered in the distance like an enchanting mirage…. I will give myself to you, you will give yourself to me: on these very human foundations, the future exchange would happen.” Sound familiar?
If it often seems that the internet was invented for sex, the Library was no different: one seventy-year-old lecher wrote of his lust for an eighteen-year-old virgin: “My dear, my delectable little girl, I’m still keen and equipped.... Come hither, little girl.” Another confessor had an “inexplicable need to fill thousands of sheets of foolscap paper with seemingly meaningless words.” It’s not for nothing that the Library was housed in a hospital for aberrations, “rumored to harbor the pitiably deformed,” those manifold rejects “with no desire at all” for “regular human communication.” If that doesn’t perfectly describe the legions of sallow outcasts who pass their lives online, I’m not sure what does. De Maria also anticipated the dreaded troll, those sadists with keyboards and nothing else to do: their contributions to the Library “were conceived in the spirit of pure malice: pages and pages to indicate, to a poor elderly woman without children or a husband, that her skin was the color of a lemon and her spine was warping.” The Library, like the internet, didn’t create sadism, only revealed it, only permitted the ideal platform for it to thrive.
The Library was supposed to “break that cycle of loneliness in which our citizens were confined,” but of course the balm was an illusion, “the illusion of a relationship with the outside world: a dismal cop-out nourished and centralized by a scornful power bent on keeping people in their state of continuous isolation.” Google, Amazon, Facebook: they want to keep you shackled right where you are, up all night in your illuminated cell, clicking yourself catatonic. The mayor of Turin offers the narrator a hint to how the Library might have been linked to the insomnia: “If I’d left any of my confessions in that place, I’d probably have lost sleep too.” Think of all the recent articles that make clear how our gadgets of distraction are rattling our rest, or how many times you’ve been pestered by sleeplessness because of impulsive typing. De Maria’s foreseeing of our online dystopia, our all-around plugged-in anomie and the misfits who make it happen, is so accurate it seems outright wizardly. The mayor tells the narrator: “Do you think human beings are really like bottomless wells? That we can drain ourselves endlessly without sooner or later finding our souls depleted?” Those questions contain their own answers. Such depletion, the mayor says, occasioned “the most extreme consequences.”
He means the demons that wafted into the city, nebulous, murderous entities that defied eyewitness and emitted “a terrible war cry, with something dismal and metallic at the heart of it.” Enormous ghouls, they clutched their sleepwalking victims by the ankles, held them like cudgels, and battered them against trees, against monuments. The zombified insomniacs seemed to welcome them, as if they understood that they deserved such battering. To some, the murders during the Twenty Days were “a phenomenon of collective psychosis,” to others they were “part of a providential design, a dire warning signal from on high addressed to humanity.” One of the narrator’s interviewees, a lawyer named Segre, says that the entities “were expressing a hatred alien to our feelings, but somehow, within the being of that hatred, we could recognize ourselves.”
DE MARIA'S REALITY in The Twenty Days of Turin is necessarily askance; even when he’s giving you what appears a natural bit of realism, something is skewed, something sinister, something other. An acrid vinegar scent fouls the air. Statues have switched places. Strangers stand strangely on street corners. At one point, the narrator admits: “I felt a touch out of place…. I didn’t know enough to say what my rightful condition could be.” He has misplaced his aims, forgotten his own terms of selfhood, and as the novel proceeds it becomes more and more forgetful, more fabulist. De Maria is suggesting a connection between insomnia and amnesia. If you’ve ever gone several days without sleep, you know that your memory is the first casualty. Insomnia and amnesia, both intensely personal, individual, have become communal, collective, as if to punish a people, to exact a revenge for crimes they can’t recall. Theirs is a diseased society that whips up and releases irrational forces determined to destroy at random.
Segre employs the terms “evil” and “absolute evil” to describe whatever killed his fellow Turinese a decade ago: “the evil is too deep-rooted,” and “absolute evil couldn’t have taken a more unassailable form.” Hannah Arendt remarked in 1945 that “the problem of evil will be the fundamental problem of postwar intellectual life in Europe”—it is the fundamental problem of this novel, too. De Maria makes the important distinction between evil and sin: they are not different degrees of wrong but different categories of wrong. As in the razing of Sodom and Gomorrah, sin often prepares the conditions for evil. De Maria would no doubt assent to the prophet Amos, who asked: “Shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord hath not done it?” The sister of the first victim of the Twenty Days says to the narrator: “How could we—poor mortals—fathom the Lord’s inscrutable designs!” Whatever sins the Turinese committed to bring on those deadly designs, they were Old Testament sins, not just Original Sin but those Levitical transgressions against code: disobedience, deformity, deviation. They are the sins of corrupted souls, indifference and malaise en masse.
The Italian critic Pier Massimo Prosio likened The Twenty Days of Turin to the breed of horror practiced by Edgar Allan Poe, and not only because Poe remains the go-to mind for anyone wanting to place a writer in a certain horror camp. In Poe the horror is normally ejections from a cramped mind, a turbulent self making nightmares at noontime, and that certainly applies to Twenty Days. But Glazov quotes De Maria as saying that “it was reading Kafka, reading The Trial, that forever converted me to literature: an epiphany, pure and simple”—and there the suggestion becomes more tantalizing. The Twenty Days of Turin is the novel you get when you cross the demonical complexities of Poe with the malignant banalities of Kafka, and yet De Maria has added his own ingredient, the national-historical ingredient that aids in making this novel so unforgettably menacing.
Except in the most oblique ways, Poe’s tales are never about America, and Kafka’s might as well be taking place not in Prague but in some claustrophobic purgatorio, but Twenty Days is a thoroughly Italian story: Italy is infused in the novel’s genome, in its primal understanding of itself. The entities, overheard on radio waves, speak not some garbled ghost tongue, but Italian, and as an occultist tells the narrator, “that ought to be a sign that we were the ones who spawned these things; that it was our social—and I’ll risk saying it, urban—environment that gave rise to them.” Glazov quotes Prosio as saying that De Maria’s work is in keeping with “a rather peculiar and exotic tradition of Italian fiction, a writing that lies at the juncture of real and surreal.”
Pondering the out-of-reach status of whoever committed the murders, Segre says: “Those who are beyond suspicion…and yet soaked in blood…have always found ideal living conditions and absolute safety in our country.” Italian police thought that the Twenty Days might be ideological, “politically charged,” which is De Maria’s unambiguous reference to the Years of Lead, a time, writes Glazov, “when Italy was tormented almost daily by terror attacks and police-state crackdowns,” when it had “roughly a dozen militant political organizations, from Marxist ‘armed cells’ to clandestine neofascist networks.” The Years of Lead killed hundreds, wounded thousands. The most destructive attack happened at the Bologna rail station in 1980, a bombing that killed eighty-five people. Gore Vidal, writing just a year after the publication of Twenty Days, asserted that “since World War II, Italy has managed, with characteristic artistry, to create a society that combines a number of the least appealing aspects of socialism with practically all the vices of capitalism.” Italy, he wrote, is “a land where ideology has always tended to take the place of ideas,” and “for most Italians, a political party is never a specific program, it is a flag, a liturgy, the sound of a trombone practicing in the night.” De Maria comprehends ideology, whether political or religious, as having its own special stamp of evil.
De Sade, writing in 1800 about the debauched Gothic novel The Monk, called it “the necessary fruit of the revolutionary tremors felt by the whole of Europe.” Every terrorist is a revolutionary in that he wants to topple the existing order and supplant it with his own ideology, and so De Sade conceived of horror in fiction as the artistic result of terror in life, which is partly what De Maria is up to in Twenty Days. As terrorists do, the murdering sprites hurl their fury in those public places “deeply rooted in Turinese tradition,” exactly where the sleepwalkers assemble, and there De Maria jabs at knee-jerk adherence to tradition, groupthink, an uncritical fealty to the past. Glazov believes that the neofascist terror cells are the most obvious Italian model for De Maria’s murderous demons: “forever untouchable, hiding in plain sight while authorities round up desperate, ill-fitting scapegoats.” But Glazov also makes the point that in De Maria’s vision, “the Cosmos itself has become terroristic.”
Aside from its being De Maria’s home, and its recent history of political bloodshed, why should Turin be the location for this unleashing of supernatural horror? Turin is a city that melds dichotomies: not just the real and surreal but the secular and sacral, the past and present, the occult and quotidian. It’s also a city of sanguine appearances: its forced smile, its compulsory good cheer, masks a base underbelly. As Clive James once put it: “Turin is a tight-lipped town”—and the tight-lipped have something to hide. In a personal correspondence with me, Glazov relates Turin to Japan or Thailand, “where it’s a big faux pas to look unhappy or aggrieved, even in front of your worst enemy. The Turinese place huge importance on being diplomatic, treating everything with a smile, and acting amiable and warm.” Such aggressive sunniness casts weighted shadows, and in those shadows dwell the Satanic, the esoteric, the damned. “In De Maria’s universe,” Glazov told me, “evil is always friendly and approachable. Charm always goes with brutality. It’s the Turinese style of evil.” The attorney Segre tells the narrator: “In this city, demons lurk under the ashes.”
In La Stampa in 1978, De Maria had this to say: “Turin is not a neutral city. Even if you don’t outwardly know anyone and no one knows you, you always get the impression you’re being watched.” As Glazov reminds us in his introduction, Turin is nicknamed “the City of Black Magic” and “has a long reputation for everything disquieting and spooky.” The city also has a bloodily martial past: Hannibal destroyed it in 218 BC on his way to bludgeon Rome; the Gauls, the Goths, the Lombards, Charlemagne, the Savoys, Napoleon—all had a piece of it at one time or another. It’s startling to recall those luminous minds that suffered melancholy or madness in Turin, as if the city itself was the final siphoning factor on their vitality: from Tasso to Rousseau to Nietzsche to Levi. Let’s remember, too, that Turin is the nest of the most popular relic in Christendom: the shroud that many Christians believe was the burial cloth of Christ.
AFTER HIS OWN spiritual trouble in the 1980s, De Maria embraced the traditional Catholicism of his youth, but at the time of Twenty Days he was still a prickly unbeliever hostile to the church (Glazov told me that he considers De Maria’s anticlericalism more “dystheistic than atheistic”). When the narrator visits a church in Turin, he thinks: “I was investigating mysteries, and yet the ‘mystery’ that sustains a large part of our national life seemed to me, right then, unworthy of my recognition. I was annoyed simply by its clingy bombasticism.” There are faintly pagan strains in De Maria’s storytelling sensibility, and perhaps that’s no surprise when you consider the pagan remnants that pulse in Roman Catholicism, how both paganism and Catholicism are sure that the corporeal world is infiltrated by the netherworld.
De Maria’s employment of religious horror was his way of animating the spiritual at a moment when individuals didn’t seem to have much practical use for it, despite the papacy’s ubiquitous sway in Italy. You see the cord from religion to supernatural horror: many holy books contain their own breed of horror fiction, and both essentially concern themselves with the struggle of good against evil and with the reality of an afterlife. At its spine, all supernatural horror is about belief, about the God question. In De Maria’s conception of the heretical and unholy, sola fide will not save you. The darkling elements care nothing for your faith.
What we typically call “horror” the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries called “terror”: a beguiling awareness of the supernatural, the possibility that we somehow survive our deaths, and the continuity between this life and the next one. Remember Freud’s famous definition of the uncanny: “that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar.” Ghosts must be about the past, must be from the past: there are no ghosts from the future. They might be concerned with contemporary strife—indeed they would not be present unless something was wrong, something off, in the now—but their presence is the expression of historical realities: they are a renovating of ancient myths to address current terrors. The ghosts of literature are not bored invigilators pointlessly spooking the living: they are entities with wishes, and for the writer they are at once practical and metaphorical, presence and absence.
It’s the uncommon ghoul who preys upon the guiltless. For Jung, ghosts were the embodiments of psychic states—madness made manifest—and in that way you can see how the collective psyche of a city could bring such forces into being. De Maria both adopts and does away with the familiar psychoanalytical grasp of the ghostly as the projection of inner devils, as a haunting that happens in the psyche. His ghosts might have been stirred up by the defiled psyche of a city and nation, but they are very much out there. We have the ruined bodies to prove it. And so he has it both ways: with Poe and the psychoanalysts he’s externalizing a shaky interiority while also establishing an actual physical, historical threat.
Without revealing too much about the novel’s Dantean conclusion, or hinting at who or what the murderous entities are, I’ll note that near the end of his investigation the narrator suspects that a fresh “hidden power” once more stalks the city, that the Library is beginning to be resurrected, insomnia resurging. I’ll note too that the ending offers no tying up of loose ends, no pat attempt to edify or explicate. The best horror stories complicate our attempts to pin them down, to achieve the satisfaction of understanding, since existence itself sternly resists our reductions, our packaging of tidy comforts. Considering supernatural stories, Virginia Woolf wrote of “the strange human craving for the pleasure of feeling afraid,” and added that “it is pleasant to be afraid when we are conscious that we are in no kind of danger.” But if you buy into De Maria’s worldview in this novel, we are in danger: the danger of an unstanchable evil conjured by our own sins, by a broken covenant, followed by the danger of an afterlife more demonic than divine. The Twenty Days of Turin is a much-needed homage to the liberating darknesses of intelligent horror, to those confusions that recall us to the extraordinary. - William Giraldi, Commonweal
The Twenty Days of Turin — Giorgio De Maria’s brilliant and eerily prescient 1977 horror novel, available in a new, vivid translation from Ramon Glazov — has a chipper vein of humor running erratically through its miasma of black dread. The effusions of “the stranger,” a batty anonymous letter writer who sends long, plaintive communiqués to the novel’s unnamed narrator, perfectly express this disturbing tone of dark comedy.
In one letter, the stranger describes his apartment building as a tall cylindrical tower with a demolished stairwell that necessitates he climb the walls to reach his living quarters.
But the physical exertion isn’t the part that bothers him:
What leaves me baffled is that the Administration has begun to use the stairwell shaft as a garbage dump. At first I didn’t take much notice: it was old furniture, books, papers, kitchen scraps. But later, the nature of the waste started to become — how to put this? — somewhat more challenging and personal. One would find — if you’ll permit me the term — human excrement, which fell from above in ever increasing amounts.
This nightmare vision can hardly even be seen as symbolic, it’s so directly familiar to us as a variation on the class-based shit-storm we navigate and rationalize every day. It’s like a solid-waste version of “trickle-down theory”:
Over several years, the level has risen to the point that it now reaches the first floor units, where mercifully only the working families live. And all of this has happened without a word of explanation! More than that, the fear of even stricter sanctions is so great that the other tenants are silent, as if being covered in s*** by the powers of the gerontocracy (up above, they’re all old) was perfectly normal! Now, Dear Sir, I ask you . . . Does all of that seem reasonable? Does it seem fair?
The stranger’s pathetic appeal for a “fair” explanation that would show him the rationality behind his monstrous situation is never answered. But soon he works out its logic to his own satisfaction.
A follow-up letter explains that, thanks to the rising tide of feces, the stranger must face the fact that he will soon be under permanent “house arrest,” entombed in excrement. However, he’s not too discouraged:
. . . [H]e had begun to consider the possibility of surviving on human excrement — and that, while the tenants on the ninth floor (very old, but as eternal as the whole Administration) were uncorking champagne bottles and munching caviar! The fact didn’t seem quite as unfair to him as it had once been: it was rather in harmony with the laws of Creation.
People mucking around in shit, garbage, and human detritus are among The Twenty Days of Turin’s most defining images, and they can’t help but gall us with reminders of our current crap-filled lives. Glazov notes De Maria’s shocking foresightedness in his introduction, especially the way the author anticipated the generally cruddy experience of social media.
The novel describes the sinister public enterprise known as “the Library,” a pre-Internet experiment in social discourse run by creepy, clean-cut young men with bright ideas and even brighter smiles. Designed to serve legions of lonely, isolated people who had “no desire at all for regular human communication,” the Library becomes a trash mountain of pornographic confessionals and splenetic hate-filled rants until it is shut down abruptly in mysterious circumstances.
The narrator is preoccupied by investigating the relationship between “the Library” and the twenty nights of mass insomnia and murder that took place in Turin ten years earlier. His attempts to elicit witness testimony are continually thwarted by a resolutely amnesiac citizenry. Even the relatives of those who died in the unexplained massacres have developed elaborate forms of denial. One victim’s sister has found that religious fanaticism distracts nicely from uncomfortable speculation:
How could we — poor mortals! — fathom the Lord’s inscrutable designs! We have sinned too much in pride, sinned with our hearts, with our senses, forgetting that spirituality . . .
The narrator has already informed us that spirituality is the woman’s favorite word, and, in keeping with the novel’s motif of constant, disgusting contact with human excretions in all their forms, every time she says it she sprays him with spit. “Never did such a gentle mist of saliva cleanse my face as during those declarations of faith in the spirit!”
As the narrator slowly pieces together the events of those ghastly twenty days, he begins to suspect that “the Library” has begun functioning again in a more diffuse way. The clean-cut young men are out and about once more, and people are seen hunting through street debris and rifling through garbage bins:
And so it struck me that not everyone was using those bins to get rid of wastepaper they didn’t need; some of them were putting their hands in to take things out, then hiding whatever they’d taken deep within their pockets. . . . Hence I too started rummaging around in these receptacles, collecting balls of scrunched up paper seeded throughout the streets.
The narrator also suspects that he is being followed, watched, and threatened by persons — or at any rate, entities — unknown. Immense and violent supernatural beings seem to rise out of the physical world’s abject gunk; their grating screams, sounding “like a terrible war-cry, with something dismal and metallic at the heart of it,” blared through the city on the first night of the massacres.
Glazov points out that the novel was “written during the late 1970s, when Italy was tormented almost daily by terror attacks and police-state crackdowns.” The novel bursts with metaphorical references to De Maria’s own terrible era that uncannily evokes our own.
People’s maddening refusal to acknowledge what is going on, for example, is taken to surreal heights: the statues in Turin are moving, but no one will admit it. The narrator has a grimly comical argument with a recalcitrant barber about two statues in the square outside the shop that have mysteriously switched places. The debate descends into darkly ironic commentary about how statues are presumably no more happily placed than most people. The increasingly nervous narrator tries to placate the barber, babbling that if people tried to change places with those who are better off, “they would have to carry out so much bloodshed that . . . it’s better to leave everything as it is.”
Unmollified, the barber “accidentally” cuts the side of the narrator’s face with the razor. It’s a clear warning of greater punishments to come for noticing what’s actually happening in the world, let alone trying to understand and explain it.
Fair warning from Giorgio De Maria in 1977 to us in 2017! - Eileen Jones
The Twenty Days of Turin is many things: a mystery, a cosmic horror story, and an allegory for domestic terrorism in 1970s Italy. It is also a prescient vision of the interconnected oversharing of the internet age, and, for this reader, perfectly illustrates how being inundated with a constant barrage of well-meaning but impotent opinions can desensitize the masses, allowing for the objects of their activism to run amok, unabated. A neat trick for a book originally published forty years ago. The only thing it didn't predict was a Trump presidency, and who could have predicted that? Okay, the Simpsons did, but come on! That was supposed to be a joke!
Some of the allegorical meaning might be lost on those unfamiliar with Turin's history, but for anyone with a computer living in the 21st Century, it is rife with eerily accurate commentary on our current situation. And that ending... god damn, the ending is creepy as hell. Hopefully the outlook of our own future is a little brighter and a lot less figuratively bludgeon-y. - Joshua Chaplinsky
Intertwining the present and the past, Giorgio De Maria's cult novel of societal breakdown, The Twenty Days of Turin, appears in English for the first time, smartly translated by Australian writer Ramon Glazov. A nameless office worker is obsessed with events of a decade earlier, when a mysterious collective created a secret and ultimately dangerous library. Ominous messages and suspicious activity convince the narrator that the same forces are regrouping. "A business we believed was over and done with is coming back into motion with a coldness, a clarity, which would have been unthinkable in the time of the Twenty Days...."
Ten years prior, this group amassed diaries and journals from willing citizens who allowed others to read their offerings: "The prospect of being read quivered in the distance like an enchanting mirage." Unsettling events occurred. Mass insomnia overtook the citizens of Turin. A deep feeling of unease and dissatisfaction infiltrated society. This culminated in a terrifying 20 days, when hundreds of people were randomly and horrifically murdered. After that, the library was supposedly destroyed--but was it?
Italian novelist and playwright De Maria wrote this during the 1970s, when terrorism and corruption reigned. He presciently describes a society where human connections are decreasing, where spilling personal information becomes addictive, and where "browsing the thoughts of others" brings voyeuristic pleasure as well as unknown risks. De Maria gives mundane events menacing undercurrents, bringing to mind H.P. Lovecraft and Shirley Jackson. Readers will recognize the contemporary social media landscape portrayed in this cautionary, relevant novel. --Cindy Pauldine
The nameless protagonist of Giorgio De Maria’s disturbing, utterly fascinating novel The Twenty Days of Turin (originally published in Italian in 1977; first translated into English by Ramon Glazov in this 2017 edition) plans to write a book about the bizarre phenomenon referred to in the book’s title, “neither a war nor a revolution, but, as it’s claimed, ‘a phenomenon of collective psychosis’—with much of that definition implying an epidemic?” Many were killed during this strange outbreak, and the novel’s episodic chapters chronicle our would-be writer’s various research attempts, as he interviews survivors, relatives of the deceased, witnesses and in general anyone who might be willing to discuss what really happened.
By the end of the first chapter we’ve learned that the investigation will not proceed along habitual lines: “I sensed that she pitied me—pitied that I was still searching for truth with the limited means of the mind, when the way to reach it was so very different!” We’ve entered a labyrinthine, metaphysical realm where ratiocination may hinder more than help, and this “case,” like certain inquiries by the characters of H. P. Lovecraft, Samuel Beckett, Alain Robbe-Grillet and China Miéville, will ultimately lead not so much to “objective” answers as to chilling personal revelations.
Within Italian literature, an author whose work would appear to have bearing on De Maria’s is Leonardo Sciascia, something I surmise based on The Cambridge History of Italian Literature: “The detective may be read as an alter ego of the first-person researcher who appears in other works, in which, on the basis of scanty and often incomplete documents, and of usually not more than circumstantial evidence, Sciascia seeks to put together again a long-neglected historical event or chain of events. . . .” That’s a pretty apt description of the work at hand. Other possible influences are Italo Calvino (who spent much time in Turin), Cesare Pavese (who committed suicide in Turin in 1950) and the crime authors Carlo Fruttero and Franco Lucentini, whose well-known novel La Donna Della Domenica (1972; translated into English as The Sunday Woman in 1973) deals with a Turinese murder investigation.
Throughout the course of the novel we learn only basic information about our protagonist, such as the fact that he plays the recorder but has recently lost the ability to be moved by the music of Vivaldi and Albinoni he once loved. Emphasis is given instead to the various parts of Turin he visits and the often eccentric people with whom he interacts. “In this city,” we’re told in Chapter 2, “demons lurk under the ashes,” and indeed, one of De Maria’s strengths is to render the city intimately alive. Peter Berard opines that “Turin is arguably the most fleshed-out character in the novel.” Besides Turin’s literary heritage, we should recall too its prominent place in Italian cinema. Dario Argento, for example, directed seven films in Turin, one of which was the splashy Profondo Rosso (1975), and De Maria was working in the wake of such dark expressions.
A proxy, or perhaps channel, for the city’s “deep imbalances” are its secretive and paranoid inhabitants, and one of the novel’s brilliant imaginative strokes is a library in which participants are “not interested in printed paper or books. There’s too much artifice in literature, even when it’s said to be spontaneous. We’re looking for true, authentic documents reflecting the real spirit of the people, the kinds of things we could rightly call popular subjects. . . . Is it possible that you’ve never written a diary, a memoir, a confession of some problem that really worries you?” Several reviewers, and the novel’s translator, have astutely pointed out how this fictional construct anticipates the Internet and contemporary social media. Another dimension I think worth examining is the Catholic interpretation of this intensely confessional activity. De Maria was not religious in his youth but became fervently Catholic in later life, and the Library may anticipate, in fictional form, some of the urges leading to such a conversion.
Ramon Glazov’s translation is a pleasure to read, and he provides a thoughtful Introduction, though I recommend reading it after the novel, as he undertakes a fair amount of detailed analysis. This book also contains a short story and essay by De Maria, bringing further insight to his creative inclinations. The psychic tension of De Maria’s novel gives way to a kind of cosmic horror that justifies invoking Thomas Ligotti and T. E. D. Kline, in addition to the writers mentioned earlier.
Though De Maria was far from prolific, we can take solace in this new translation bringing about a wider awareness of his work. And ambitious weird fiction, in broader terms, is alive and well today. Some unusual and inspired novels, like Paolo Giordano’s La Solitudine Dei Numeri Primi (The Solitude of Prime Numbers, 2008), continue to be set in Turin. It is a shame that this was De Maria’s last novel, but given its ending, perhaps silence was inevitable after this particular statement. Where else was there for him to go? - Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
The Twenty Days of Turin is narrated by an unnamed protagonist a decade after the twenty days of the title from a terrible Turin July happened. The narrator is looking into the events, planning on writing a book about them, and tries to collect information about what really happened.
The exact nature of events remains a bit vague. It's introduced as:
neither a war nor a revolution, but, as it's claimed, "a phenomenon of collective psychosis" -- with much of that definition implying an epidemic
There were victims, killed -- and in first describing one of these the narrator doesn't ascribe the murder to a specific person, but rather speaks of how: "the horrible thing arrived which slaughtered him". From the beginning, the sense is of something other -- with something beyond human involved here. The behavior of those under the spell of whatever happened -- transformed into what seems like an almost zombie-like state -- reïnforces the idea -- as do the sounds that presaged and accompanied what happened, where typically:
I had no words to describe the kind of scream I heard ... Bestial ? Inhuman ? Yes, if anything, but that's still being rather nonspecific.
De Maria of course trades in full horror-mode -- suggestive but ... nonspecific. The reader is meant to imagine the horror that the people faced .....
A clever idea introduced by De Maria is the existence of an institution called 'the Library' back in those times -- and: "There's nobody anxious to remember the Library, except perhaps its creators". It grew quickly in popularity -- and then, ten years ago, a few months after the 'twenty days' it was apparently dismantled. People contributed diaries -- personal confessions and revelations -- to the Library; the volumes only had a reference number, but patrons could purchase the name and address of the authors. The idea for the Library was originally pitched as a way of facilitating communication, in an age where people found it hard to connect: people could write about their problems, and others would take an interest in them: "We'll make sure to put them in touch with you and you'll become friends; you'll both feel liberated". (It is this premise that has led to The Twenty Days of Turin being promoted as having predicted (aspects of) the internet and, specifically, contemporary social media.)
As someone sums up to the narrator, the Library's shared holdings:
helped to furnish the illusion of a relationship with the outside world: a dismal cop-out nourished and centralized by a scornful power bent only on keeping people in their state of continuous isolation. The inventors of the Library knew their trade well !
The effects were pernicious -- and, as the narrator continues looking into those times he finds also that maybe the Library lingers on, "in new shapes and guises", a once-again subtly present danger ..... And odd sounds, past and present, resound, too, and he finds he is being followed and "under scrutiny" ..... Clearly, there are still forces out there, concerned about what may be uncovered as they seek to reassert themselves.
De Maria ratchets up the sense of menace as the story advances, with descriptions of progressively more disturbing things from both present and past. Unsigned letters seeking to engage the narrator arrive, and the mysterious forces that affected so many a decade earlier seem to be back in play. And eventually he's had enough, abandoning his project, and even ready to abandon the city. But by then the range of of the powers that be already extend very far .....
It's a solid, haunting horror tale, nicely presented and quite effective.
Two short pieces are, rather distractingly, appended to the novel in the English translation -- to pad the volume ? 'The Death at Missolonghi' is presented as an 1879 account written by and for Church authorities 'concerning an alleged episode in the life of Lord Byron', while 'Phenomenology of the Screamer' is an essay on a contemporary Italian music fad. They're of some interest, but their inclusion here seems somewhat pointless -- and, even with some tenuous connections to the novel proper, anti-climactic. - M.A.Orthofer www.complete-review.com/reviews/italia/demariag.htm