Nicola Pugliese - a lyrical, caustic and highly fantastical imagining of a Naples beset by a biblical deluge, accompanied by a variety of peculiar phenomenon... dolls speak and pocket money sings

Pugliese MALACQUA _ rgb
Nicola Pugliese, Malacqua, Trans. by Shaun Whiteside, And Other Stories, 2017. [1977.]

After a four-day deluge, Naples is flooded. Buildings collapse, sinkholes appear. Strange events spread across the city: ghostly voices emanate from a medieval castle and five-lire coins begin to play music, but only to ten-year-old children. A melancholy journalist searches for meaning as the narrative takes us into the minds of those who have suffered in the floods.
Despite phenomenal initial success, the novel was withdrawn from publication at the author’s request, and not reissued until after his death in 2012. Now translated into English for the first time, Malacqua remains a timely critique and a richly peopled portrait of a much-mythologised city.

‘This is a book with a meaning and a force and a message.’ - Italo Calvino

‘A marvellous writer!’ - Roberto Saviano

Malacqua, Nicola Pugliese’s only novel, was discovered by Italo Calvino, who said in 1977: ‘This is a book with a meaning and a force and a message.’ Mysteriously, this small masterpiece went out of print and wasn’t reissued until 2013. Published now in Shaun Whiteside’s translation, Malacqua: Four Days of Rain in the City of Naples, Waiting for the Occurrence of an Extraordinary Event is this year’s strangest and most seductive book. - Anna Aslanyan

There are books you can recognize by a single phrase long after you’ve read them. Years from now, “that rain that was coming down and coming down” will still be a kind of synecdoche for Malacqua, so vividly does it capture the spirit and style of this unique work. Published in Italy in 1977, Nicola Pugliese’s novel soon went out of print, and wasn’t reissued until 2013, a year after his death.
This is a chronicle of events – some of them more extraordinary than others – on the streets of Naples over the course of four deluged days: a chasm opens in a road; a building collapses, burying people under the rubble; a doll is found, capable of emitting an “inhuman cry as if of multitudes”; five lire coins play music that only little girls can hear.
The rain is falling “interminably”, punctuated by the thoughts of those surrounded… - Anna Aslanyan

Originally published in 1977 and having since gone out of print, Pugliese’s first and only novel is a kaleidoscopic portrait of a city on the brink of disaster. Four days of rain have left Naples flooded and its residents in various degrees of despair, and as lives begin to be claimed by sinkholes and collapsing buildings, the whole city becomes consumed by a collective sense of dread. Mysterious portents abound—strange yet identical dolls are discovered at the various disaster sites, mournful voices echo through the streets from an abandoned castle above the city, and all five-lire coins begin to play music that can be heard only by little girls—which contribute to a general expectation that an extraordinary event is about to take place. Alternating between the various perspectives of citizens at the edge of personal and spiritual revelation and suffering the effects of the relentless rains, the novel offers a foreboding and unsettling critique of Neapolitan culture. The sweeping conclusion is a beautiful and haunting foray into the search for meaning in a meaningless world. - Publishers Weekly

Here comes the rain again, and a storied Italian city washes away in this brooding novel by a Milanese transplant to southern Italy.
While he worked in publishing, as so many Italian writers do, Italo Calvino discovered and published this slender novel in 1977. It made a mark, then disappeared, reissued only after the author’s death in 2012. Why he withheld it—his only novel—from being reprinted is a mystery. In a theme that nicely complements Max Frisch’s near-contemporaneous Man in the Holocene, the story opens with fogged windows and rain-lashed streets, “with inky streaks and sudden gusts, the wind blowing up Via Marittima on the corner of Piazza del Municipio, and beyond, and beyond….” Transfixed, a weary journalist named Carlo Andreoli collects odd sightings: here a sinkhole opens, swallowing roads and buildings; there spectral voices whisper from ancient castle walls. The scene shifts, now to a police commissioner who is wondering just how he is going to explain those odd sightings: “What answer would he give to Rome, otherwise, if they asked him to explain the voices?” What answer indeed? Pugliese occasionally swings into the satirical, mimicking Moravia here and the Mafia novel there (“That evening so sweetly autumnal, with all that falling rain defining veils of omertà”), peppering the narrative with sharply realized observations from many points of view, as with the barista who worries, “People would stop coming to Susan’s for coffee the day they realized that if they had coffee at Susan's they also risked ruining a pair of trousers with the muddy water from the puddles.” More often he falls into stream-of-consciousness reveries in which sentences and paragraphs flow like rain for pages, to beautiful effect. One comes at the very end, when Andreoli flashes on the happy thought that maybe, just maybe, the rain will stop pouring down and the sun will shine once more.
Pugliese’s dark story serves as an extended metaphor for whatever the reader might wish: climate change, the human capacity for suffering. A memorable work of modern literature. - Kirkus Reviews

A novel that owed its original publication to Italo Calvino became an instant bestseller on its first appearance in 1977 and was then abruptly withdrawn without explanation by its author. It was not reissued in his native Italy until after his death as a virtual recluse in 2012. Nicola Pugliese’s Malacqua: Four Days of Rain in the City of Naples, Waiting for the Occurrence of an Extraordinary Event is a fascinating enigma even before its contents are approached.
It is not hard to see why this short, intensely allusive work of floods and foreboding (the title’s literal translation: “Bad Water”) appealed to a fabulist writer such as Calvino. Pugliese takes a semi-apocalyptic event – sudden, fatal floods and several days of prolonged rain in Naples (an actual occurrence in the autumn of 1970), a city that lives in reality and the imagination as both maritime and volcanic – and uses it, by means of hyper-realist imagery and a polyphonic chorus of assorted Neapolitans, to describe the state of Italy in the late 1970s.
This was the midway point of the so-called Years of Lead – a period of social and political unrest and domestic terrorism spanning the late 1960s to the early 1980s, which culminated in the kidnap and murder of the former prime minister Aldo Moro by the Marxist-Leninist Red Brigade in the spring of 1978 and the bombing of Bologna railway station by a neo-fascist group in the summer of 1980, the biggest mass killing of the period.
Pugliese’s book – rescued from obscurity first by Casa Editrice Pironti in 2013 and now in its first English-language edition by And Other Stories – could, on surface reading and without attention to this backstory, be viewed as a surrealist oddity. Yet Pugliese’s narrative is epic in intent. It is late October in Naples, and the swiftly rising, ever-present seawaters, the backdrop to a newspaper’s loud lunchtime editorial meeting, immediately take on a diabolical character of their own, from a “stinking motionless pond” to “a dark mysterious susurration like that of people plotting, scheming in darkness”. Italy’s instability, its frailty, is mirrored in the chaos that follows. At its centre is the introspective, melancholic anti-hero Carlo Andreoli, a bearded journalist in his mid-thirties (Pugliese was at this time a bearded journalist in his mid-thirties). Carlo is the most consistent figure in a book as crowded as Naples, a hapless bystander in history’s undoing, yet also a relayer of facts. Pugliese combines reportage (the unsparing details of corpses found drowned in their own homes, for example) with nightmarish indications of the insidiousness of the new waterscape (“a harsh and predetermined rancour, an irreversible obstinacy”), absurdism (the banal hierarchies of a bewildered bureaucracy confronted with a disaster it is powerless to control)  and phantasmagoria (identical wailing dolls that appear near the bodies of the dead, five lire coins that whisper only to young girls approaching adolescence).
For some, such as Luisa Sorrentino, a secretary in the police department, the catastrophe is a catalyst for a much-postponed change in her personal life: “that evening so sweetly autumnal, with all the falling rain defining veils of omertà”. For the teenage schoolgirl Giovannella Speranza, the occasion of the funeral of a fellow pupil, killed when the deluge collapses a road, is an excuse to play truant, meet and make love for the first time with her older boyfriend, while “the methodical neurasthenic rain” falls outside. For the elderly porter Salvatore Irace, looking back on his now-grown children and still further back to his own brutal childhood, the rain represents remembrance and regret: “Because to tell the truth life has fled, now, and sometimes if he and his wife are left on their own there’s always that dark presence.” Malacqua is a brooding novel, with flashes of brilliance, yet there is a stodginess to it, a vexing impregnability in its lengthy paragraphs, its repetitive musings. Praise must go to its translator, Shaun Whiteside, who has, with care and patience, worked wonders on a book of differing styles and clamouring voices and rendered it considerably more than an excavated curio. Pugliese, writing of and in his time, captures the tropes of the 1970s. The casual sexism, paralysing trade union activity and factory lockouts, the endless smoking of American cigarettes, the putter of the espresso machine, the obsessive clatter of the typewriter: his entwined stories and desperate soliloquies are swept along as so much wreckage in the force of the floods. - Catherine Taylor

Nicola Pugliese was an Italian journalist born in Milan, but who lived and worked for most of his life in the city of Naples. In 1977 his first and only novel, Malacqua, was published – by literary heavyweight Italo Calvino, no less. It was an immediate hit, selling out in a matter of days, but Pugliese – for reasons apparently unknown – demanded that it wasn’t reprinted, so, despite its initial impressive success, the novel thereafter remained out of print, until Pugliese’s death five years ago in 2012. As such, this new edition, gracefully translated from the Italian by Shaun Whiteside, is the first English language version, introducing new readers to a strikingly elegiac novel that will surely soon be hailed as a lost Italian classic.
A plot precis is somewhat unnecessary since the novel’s own rather lengthy subtitle tells us everything we need to know: “Four days of rain in the city of Naples waiting for the occurrence of an extraordinary event.” At about 3am on October 23 – the year isn’t given, but we assume it’s some time in the ’70s – it starts to rain. It pours from the sky in “violent spates”, thus, as the first light of the day breaks over the city, “a greyish dawn, sometimes violet in tone, resolutely pallid and funereal,” the inhabitants of Naples wake to “a harsh and predetermined rancor, an irreversible obstinacy”.
It doesn’t take long for the city’s infrastructure to start to break down under the deluge. Sinkholes appear, like great mouths yawning open in the ground, swallowing buildings, cars and people. Streetlights are blown and can’t be repaired as long as the water pours down in such quantities. The city sewers begin to swell and overflow, and even the seawater starts to rise, “its pressure mounting, and the waves swelled to smash against the moorings, and you would also have to say that on the second day it became clear, or rather people began to understand: perhaps this wasn’t the rain of other years, other months, perhaps this rain here was coming from a long way away”.
It’s a downpour of nothing less than Biblical proportions. Is the city experiencing a religious apocalypse? “Something major is happening here,” thinks a grocer as he watches buildings subsiding into streets gushing with “raging torrent[s]”.
So too, the narrative slips with a watery fluidity between various of the city’s residents – a journalist, a policeman, a fireman, a woman in the early days of a new romance, one who sells cigarettes for a living, to name but a few – each of them trapped within their own experience, the point of view cascading between the individual and collective with an ease reminiscent of the stream of consciousness technique demonstrated by writers in the early years of the 20th century.
Written when Italy was plagued by intensified political terrorism – that between the late 1960s and the early ’80s, now referred to as Italy’s “Years of Lead” (a reference to how many bullets were fired) – Malacqua can clearly be read as a product of its time, Pugliese using pathetic fallacy to great effect, transforming political unrest into meteorological tumult. Writing in the fabulist tradition, he combines fantastical elements – deep in the cellars of the Maschio Angioino, the old castle that houses the city’s Baronial Hall, a doll that “emits superhuman voices and long heart-rending groans as though of multitudes,” is discovered, its screams sending uneasy shivers down the spines of anyone who hears it; and 10-year-old girls across the city begin to hear music playing from five-lire coins – with the realism of a city and its people that he knew like the back of his own hand.
This isn’t to say, however, that Malacqua is simply a period piece. On the contrary, one could actually argue that its republication couldn’t be timelier. It has reappeared in an era increasingly threatened by a riotous and disordered natural world. It’s only been a couple of months since we watched with horror as the flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston in the United States, while on the other side of the globe South Asia was hit by the worst floods in a century, decimating areas of Bangladesh, India and Nepal . Had it been written today, Malacqua would be read as an indictment of those politicians who refuse to countenance the existence of climate change and the dangers of global warming.
The citizens of Naples watch the destruction of their city waiting for an “extraordinary event” to bring things to a head; this, they suspect is “merely the start of the transformation”. Whether or not their fears come true,
readers can discover for themselves. What’s not in doubt, however, is the extraordinariness of this is haunting, eerie novel. - Lucy Scholes

Times of political violence and foreboding generate portents: think of Shakespeare, living in a culture obsessed with comets and visitations, writing plays in which no downward adjustment in the political world isn’t heralded by disorders of the air, meteors, or the dead gibbering in the streets. Queered, paranoiac iterations of pathetic fallacy help us to put a name to the uncanny resonances between the collapse of the individual subject and systemic crisis. In times of collective existential risk, there’s a weird comfort in exercising the apocalyptic imagination: not only does it let you submerge your very sensible worries about your own vulnerability in the bizarre ecstasy of fantasies of general dissolution, but it gives pattern, form, and reason to anxiety born of an experience which defies all three. However helpless you are in the face of your historical circumstances—the collapse of the postwar liberal order, say, or climate change, or resurgent fascism—imagined apocalypses let you contemplate catastrophe as something rich in meaning, irony, and even utopian possibility.
Floods are great for this. The image of a shark nosing down a Houston freeway in the wake of Hurricane Harvey may not have been genuine, but its wide circulation testified to the uncanny satisfaction to be found in the radical inversion that floods enact. Fire from above leaves nothing behind and martyrs its victims; water is insidious and implacable, and the destruction it wreaks doesn’t so much destroy as engorge, rearranging human landscapes according to its own bizarre logic, leaving them spongiform and monstrous. And the Anthropocene, of course, makes horribly apparent what the playwright of King Lear knew: that the natural and human worlds are legible indices of each other, and that meteors and storms, floods and earthquakes are political events. As I write this, Houston is still underwater, and the lineaments of a carceral ethno-state that works in conjunction with a warming climate to discipline and punish are becoming ever more apparent: those resonances have escaped from the realm of the fabulist and the uncanny, and become all too material.
Nicola Pugliese’s Malacqua, a strange and visionary novel about an apparently endless rainstorm in Naples, predates this new significance of floods, but the baroque weirdness of its apocalyptic imagination has a lot to tell us nonetheless. It also comes to Anglophone readers as something of an enigma. Pugliese was a journalist who lived and worked most of his life in Naples; he published Malacqua in 1977. It sold out in a couple of days. Pugliese forbade any reprints or reissues, withdrew the whole thing from publication, and died, in 2012, without having published any more fiction. Since his ban on further publication ends with his death, And Other Stories have seized on the book as a more-or-less forgotten classic of melancholy Italian postmodernism. The fact that Malacqua has been effectively buried since its first appearance makes it even more difficult not to read it as an artefact of Italy’s long, ugly crisis of the 1970s, reanimated with impeccable timing for our own widening gyre.
The essential premise of the novel is more or less summed up in the title: an apparently endless rain falls on Naples, undermining streets and storm drains, paralysing infrastructure, making buildings subside and collapse. As the rain continues, stranger visitations begin to occur: a doll, abandoned in the Baronial Hall, begins to emit deafening screams; the change in people’s pockets begins to play music; the sea level shifts. The city’s reaction to these events, as the sewers back up and plaster peels soddenly from walls, makes for a febrile, bathetic comedy of civic manners and popular disorder.
If this kind of fabulism is familiar from the high postmodernism of the period—Italo Calvino acted as Pugliese’s advocate and midwived the book’s publication—it is saved from the risk of winsomeness by a tenacious grounding in the local. Pugliese is clearly writing here about his hometown, with ferocious and unforgiving love. The city’s inhabitants could be Joyce’s Dubliners in their paralysis and frustration, their immovable indifference to what’s happening, and their scarcely articulable longing for whatever’s coming to split it all open. The novel unfolds as a succession of vignettes, recurrent plotlines, and digressions, each one inhabited by a character: a melancholic journalist whose investigations lead him only deeper into a kind of agonized waiting; a lonely schoolgirl who is the first to find that the change in her pocket has started to sing pop music; a young woman newly in love and already learning boredom; a cigarette seller; a switchboard operator; a fireman. In the moment of suspension that the rain brings—everyone slowly abandoning their jobs, dropping out of the daily circuits of obligation and survival, and giving themselves over to inchoate anticipation—Pugliese assembles a portrait of his city as he knows it, a fugitive realist novel under cover of the fantastic. He sustains a curious double vision, in which Naples is both Europe after the Rains and the apparently ordinary world that existed before them: whatever yearning or terror the events arouse in Naples’ inhabitants were there all along, only waiting for the irruption of the weird to throw them into proper relief. Fabulism provides cover for elegiac portraiture, and the real subject of the novel discloses itself not as the sequence of events leading towards some revelation, but as the frustration and yearning that attends its deferral: Pugliese’s Neapolitans wait in agony for it all to make sense, and it never quite does.
That suspension becomes the book’s controlling obsession. Many of Pugliese’s portraits get to speak, turning the novel into a succession of soliloquies which return insistently to the rain, to the sense of waiting for something to happen, to the gentle dissolution of order and time around them, or to the restrained fury of renunciation which the rain externalises. In its most penetrating moments this soliloquy often breaks the bounds of individual portraiture and becomes pure unattributed voice, as if the citizens of Naples were speaking collectively. The novel’s various voices—official reportage, realist narrative, ironic fantasy, soliloquy, collective unconscious—play against each other within the space of a few lines.
During the night of that third day of rain, reliable witnesses state that they saw cars slipping silently on the grey of the tarmac with white lights, with red lights, with blue lights, and without sirens, without breaking the silence, and those cars slipped silently along the streets of the promenade . . . Black darkness, still and silent. One wondered if it would be wise to leave, oh yes, to leave. And why not?, for what specific reason? To gather things together in silence, to close everything up, close it up and lock it up and protect and gauge and assess with a swift glance, and climb inside one’s car, and set it in motion, turn on the lights, reach the motorway . . . Away from the city in the depths of night, as far away as a separation, scorched earth, that’s it, a clean break.
Who is supposed to be speaking here? Who cares? Pugliese interleaves his voices with a formidable complexity, as if daring you to try to read against the novel’s central conceit of entropy and fluid disorganisation. Whether to trust in the existence of a controlling structure, even when you can’t see it, is entirely your own concern. But those portraits of Neapolitan paralysis, sandwiched between the vaulting irony of the over-narrative and the subterranean murmur of a collective unconscious, and buttressed by the local and the domestic, the specific and the grounded, against the forces of disintegration both in the novel’s world and in its text—they persist, after you’ve finished reading, like an after-image on the retina.
That intimacy is, I think, one of the strongest reasons to read Pugliese in 2017, as good medicine for the psychological pressure of living in an atmosphere of constant expectation of ever-more-novel catastrophes. To experience history in an age of twenty-four-hour news makes every waking moment an agony of anticipation; you’re always waiting for some kind of revelation, for a pattern to become apparent, or at the very least for an atrocity or a moment of hope that’ll surprise you. The citizens of Malacqua experience this feeling for only four days, and find it nearly unbearable: the only counterweight is their private lives. Those lives persist obdurately in all their frustration, love, unhappiness, joy, horniness, and befuddlement; and they constitute resistance, of a sort. - Peter Mitchell
Naples, ragamuffin capital of the Italian south, offers a visual education in the grand style. Along the city seafront the Mediterranean appears an unreal Kodachrome green, while in the distance the dromedary-like mound of Vesuvius trails smoke. Tourists have often been put off by the presence of the Camorra — the Neapolitan Mafia — and by the boisterous yelling in its dark, corridor-like streets.Nicola Pugliese was a writer who challenged the clichéd view of Naples as a city of gangsters, mandolins and “O Sole Mio”. Born in Milan in 1944, he worked all his life in Naples as a journalist, reporting on pickpocketing crime and the sweatshop exploitation of children in the Spanish Quarter, where the streets are so cramped that they barely admit the light of day.Pugliese’s first and only novel Malacqua (“Bad water”) was published in Italy in 1977 to great acclaim. It describes the effect on Naples of four days of continuous rain; not a drip-drip rain, but a monsoon-deluge that erodes the city’s volcanic tufa-brick buildings and leaves sinkholes in the roads. Naples, one-time Arcady of Bourbon kings and queens, is transformed by Pugliese into a disaster zone. His prose, a pasticcio of Joycean stream-of-consciousness and Márquez-like supra-realism, stays vivid in the mind: “and the water from Via Roma meets the water coming down from the Quartieri and from Corso Vittorio Emanuele, and the circle closes, a heavy and ineluctable circle, and that water meets in a circle and surges towards the sea . . . ”For all its brilliance, however, Malacqua had a chequered publication history. It was “discovered” in 1976 by Italo Calvino, who worked for the Einaudi publishing house of Turin. Calvino’s imprimatur (“This is a book with a meaning and a force and a message”) counted for much: Einaudi was at the time the most commercially successful publisher in Italy. The novel was an immediate hit. It appeared at the height of the anni di piombo, or “Years of Lead” (bullets), when the Red Brigades and the far right alike terrorised Italy with kidnappings and political assassinations. The novel’s subtle indictment of Camorra-infiltrated public works and its Kafkaesque cast of bureaucrats (the Councillor for Public Thoroughfares, His Excellency the Police Commissioner) reflected a mood of fear and nationwide discontent.But inexplicably, Pugliese refused to allow republication of Malacqua. For almost 40 years, the novel circulated in Naples in photocopied form or as prohibitively expensive first editions. Only with Pugliese’s death in 2012, at the age of 68, was Malacqua finally reprinted, and only now appears in English translation for the first time.The novel opens in the morning of October 23 — Pugliese gives no precise year — as rain comes down hard and in “violent spates” over Naples. Within hours the sewers on Via Tasso have ruptured and a “shitty rain” has engulfed a house and its occupants; cars have fallen into a chasm and sewers have overflowed. The plot slips with watery fluidity between various residents — a policeman, a contraband cigarette seller, a fireman, a telephone operator, a barman and his “strawberry-blonde” English wife, and journalist Carlo Andreoli who is presumably part-based on Pugliese. A Marlboro-smoking depressive, Andreoli watches appalled as factories, banks and offices are forced to close by the meteorological disturbance.Naples had suffered a cholera epidemic in 1973, but the rains are equally frightening, with disturbing events reported everywhere. Spooky identical dolls are discovered at the disaster sites. The dome of the duomo reverberates ominously with thunder. People pray to San Gennaro, the city’s patron saint, but religion, it seems, has left only a translucent veneer like a snail’s trail over the pagan heart of Naples. San Gennaro’s liquified blood is what Naples needs in its hour of need. “Some extraordinary event was bound to occur, somewhere in Naples.” Pugliese’s fiaba vesuviana (Vesuvian fairytale), superbly translated by Shaun Whiteside, is a beautiful and haunting exploration of life at a meteorological extreme. -

The Italian journalist Nicola Pugliese was born in Milan in 1944 and spent most of his career in Naples at the newspaper Roma. When he was in his early 30s he began to write a novel, scribbling with feverish rapidity in snatches of time after the day’s edition had gone to press.
Within two months he had produced “Malacqua,” a lyrical, caustic and highly fantastical imagining of a Naples beset by a biblical deluge accompanied by a variety of peculiar phenomena. In “Malacqua” dolls speak and pocket money sings while the city everywhere collapses as though it were a single, drowning, dying entity. The novel caught the eye of Italo Calvino, then a consulting editor at the distinguished Einaudi Press, and was published to acclaim in 1977, selling out its first printing.
And that was that. Three years later Roma folded and the author ceased writing. He refused to allow the novel to be reprinted in his lifetime. He moved to the countryside, where he lived reclusively until his death, at age 67, in 2012.
Since then, “Malacqua” has experienced something of a rebirth. Republished in Italy in 2013, it now receives a translation into English, courtesy of the London-based polyglot Shaun Whiteside. It is no mean feat to capture the breathless immediacy of Pugliese’s prose, and Mr. Whiteside has done the job admirably.
“Malacqua” is a beguiling portrait of a fractured city, with its jostle of voices and competing desires, soaked in magic realism and absurdism. It begins with a warning about reality’s being “overabundant” and then lays the imagery on thick. The rain is falling “in violent spates,” the sea is rising and Naples is beginning to soften and erode. Streams of water “dug, and cut, and dug, and cut, and now the defences were disappearing, the cement was crumbling, supporting columns sent up desperate cries for someone to support them.” “Christ,” one character exclaims, “the city’s really made of cardboard.”
Sinkholes are opened up and buildings are toppled. Firemen are dispatched and multiple inspections are required. The passive voice is impishly employed. Pugliese is very good—and very funny—on municipal bureaucracy, its rhetoric of obfuscation and evasion. Officials with overblown job titles flail about trying to impose order while the “fat mayor” concludes that “it wasn’t his job” to decide, “other people would decide for him.” But beneath the jolly satire lurks a sinister undercurrent. “It is not appropriate,” we are told, “to have reservations about the state.”
The novel follows, in the words of its baroque subtitle, “four days of rain in the city of Naples, waiting for the occurrence of an extraordinary event.” There is no plot as such, just a succession of episodes and an accretion of foreboding, the gathering expectation of some sort of revelation. It spoils nothing to say that the expected “occurrence” never happens, part of the joke being that “extraordinary events” are happening all the time.
Naples itself may be the novel’s true protagonist, but Pugliese is a gifted portraitist and provides some wonderfully vivid—and at times surprisingly moving—character vignettes. There is the journalist Carlo, a stand-in for the author, trying to report precisely what is going on. There is the put-upon policeman Ferdinando, beset by “his wife’s illnesses, all nervous in origin.” The teenage Giovannella skips a friend’s funeral to lose her virginity, while young Sara must contend with her violent and erratic mother, who hurls her beloved radio out the window. Women don’t come off particularly well in this novel—but, then, neither do men. There is disgust in Pugliese’s description of what a city does to individuals while it “lives its life in a continuous form of multiplication.”
The publishers state that “Malacqua” was “withdrawn from publication at the author’s request” and offer no further explanation. According to the critic and filmmaker Giuseppe Pesce, who made a documentary short about Pugliese not long before his death, the reasons were rooted in the author’s revulsion at society.
“Pugliese did not withdraw the novel, but withdrew himself,” Mr. Pesce told me recently. But there was perhaps a further motivation: In 1980, the year that Roma closed down, Naples and its neighbors suffered a catastrophic earthquake, which left nearly 2,500 dead and 250,000 homeless. The city’s social problems and dirty politics, consequently, went from bad to worse. Maybe “Malacqua” suddenly seemed all-too-prophetic. Or maybe, in the light of this instance of “overabundant” reality, Pugliese thought his book somehow underimagined.
“Naples is the city of many springs—beautiful springs—after which the summer never comes,” Pugliese told Mr. Pesce elliptically. He was content for his novel to have its brief moment in the sun. Now its spring has come again. —Mr. Lichtig

This rediscovered classic has a back-story almost as uncanny as its mood. A journalist in Naples, Nicola Pugliese, published Malacqua, his only novel, in 1977, as the violence, strife and corruption of Italy’s “years of lead” threw a grey blanket of dread over daily life. “Malacqua” sold fast and won praise, but then Pugliese mysteriously withdrew the book from circulation. It reappeared after his death in 2012 and has only now been translated. It describes a four-day deluge in late October that floods the streets of Naples and swamps people with fears and doubts. A dank air of foreboding wraps the city as the rain opens sinkholes and collapses houses. It feels “as if a siege had its grip on Naples”.
Inexplicable phenomena trouble the citizens. Hidden dolls scream in the council chamber; five-lire coins begin to sing. These supernatural touches aside, Pugliese follows ordinary Neapolitans – a journalist, a bar-owner, a watchman, a schoolgirl, a secretary – as the unremitting downpour prompts an “obscure apocalyptic question” and a “presentiment of misfortune” darkens their sodden days. The skies clear, but the mystery lingers in this clammily unsettling tale. - BT

There are nods to dark masters in Malacqua — undercurrents of Kafka, a drumbeat of Beckett — but Nicola Pugliese’s novel has its own compelling voice, filled with the sound of water rushing, gushing, flowing, hammering on rooftops, falling in threads from the sky.
Naples is drowning, disintegrating, battered by relentless rain. Buildings collapse; huge sinkholes swallow cars and people. Ghostly and unsettling events are reported all over the city: mysterious visions, hidden dolls howling in anguish, coins that emit music audible only to small children. Signs and portents. Naples is an urban nightmare, the saturated ground itself a treacherous element. With a sense of mounting dread the inhabitants are witnessing the liquefaction of their city.
Pugliese, a Neapolitan journalist, published Malacqua in 1977 with the support of Italo Calvino. It was an instant best-seller in Italy, but the author inexplicably refused to permit a reprint, and only now after his death has it been reissued, evocatively translated by Shaun Whiteside.
Glimpsed through the deluge over four days in October of an unnamed year, we get vignettes of the local people: the café owner and his blue-eyed English wife; the local poet poised to give a public reading; the fruit and veg shopkeeper; a marshal of the carabinieri with a nervy wife; and (a startling foretaste of this year’s sleaze-fest) the sexually exploited secretary to a successful lawyer. There are others, and their voices blend in a stream of soliloquies —heartaches; sex, both passionate and dutiful; secrets; everyday pleasures; marital bitterness and failed chances.
The central figure (and occasional narrator) is a despairing, world-weary journalist gripped by the existential question: what if? What if the rain never stops? And in the final pages, granted an epiphany in his shaving mirror worthy of Proust, finding a flicker of hope in a hopeless world.
Many years ago, arriving at Naples central railway station, I needed a local street map. The man at the tourist desk handed me one, adding confidingly: ‘Be aware that Naples is not like other places: it is a theoretical city, una città teorica. Naples is a state of mind.’ The true protagonist of Malacqua is Naples, every street and piazza memorialised.
Beneath its dazzling postmodernist surface lies anger at what has been done to this city, not by the violence of nature but by bureaucratic inertia, neglect, buck-passing and corruption. Pugliese has captured with force and beauty the state of mind of a city that is both ‘theoretical’ and real. -

Nicola Pugliese’s unusual Malacqua was first published in 1977 by Italo Calvino. Never reprinted until after Pugliese’s death, it appears for the first time in English translation by Shaun Whiteside.
This meticulous literary experiment presents a tidal wave of catalogs, overheard intimacies, emergencies, monologues, and breathless moods over the course of a few days in October. Against the backdrop of torrential rain, a sharp sense for the boundary between public and private thought reveals all the urgency of a documentary.
The multistranded, expansive narrative features Carlo Andreoli—a newspaperman who loosely threads the work—as well as men and women who experience the rain’s progression from natural phenomena to nuisance, warning, mysterious force, and psychological intrusion.
One section, which features a doll that produces strange noises, embodies the unsettling quality of the storm. Accidents combine with eerie events that highlight the bureaucratic nature of a city coping with the unexpected. As serpentine paragraphs rake over mundane and philosophical details, councilors wrestle over whether or not the accidents were due to negligence. Despite the characters’ frustration, there’s little trace of cynicism.
Pugliese captures the resignation of a people who quickly adapt to circumstance. The work becomes as much a twentieth-century portrait of endurance as it is a challenge to conventional storytelling. Winding, ecstatic, with full knowledge that rain must eventually cease, the work barrels forward in a surprisingly moving consideration of ordinary experiences. Subtler side stories prove fascinating.
Loves, deaths, the hopes of parents, illicit affairs, pivotal memories, grief, and everyday concerns gather with increasing pressure, then rapidly fade. Characters enter and leave with minimal fanfare. Their intense, internal wanderings mark their crossing.
The result is a city of voices existing in suspended drama. Carlo Andreoli’s lengthy interlude, which splices the act of shaving with reflection, exemplifies the book’s extreme approach to time, which stretches thin, appears to pause, then resumes. When the end finally arrives, Pugliese deftly turns the dark clouds of imagination into a life-affirming ode. -  Karen Rigby

It begins with the sea. Out the windows, down the alleys, on the perpetual edge of the city’s consciousness. In Nicola Pugliese’s Naples, the sea is everywhere. “From the street,” he writes, “loneliness falls gracefully away to the sea.”
A few years before the main events of Malaqua transpire the government and police of Naples decide to block access to the beach on a beautiful summer day. For a while, the children stare angrily at the line of police along the shore. Eventually the children slink back into the shade and despair of their homes and courtyards. But the sea, not one to be defeated by local government, begins to rise. It rises until it reaches the first row of houses, then moves farther into the city, leaking into basements, waterlogging wooden boards, wetting socks and shoes and the hems of dresses and pants. The police come to realize they cannot guard the sea, and so they leave.
“This had in all likelihood been an alert, a warning significant in its way,” the narrator informs us. The alert is for the events of October 23rd through 26th, the four days over which the novel takes place. The four days of rain.
Anyone who picks up And Other Stories’ edition of Malacqua, the first English translation of Nicola Pugliese’s Italian novel from 1977, will be immediately alerted to the strange weather which serves as the novel’s catalyst. Emblazoned across the book’s cover is Malacqua’s unofficial subtitle: Four Days of Rain in the City of Naples, Waiting for the Occurrence of an Extraordinary Event. Before even opening the book, the reader is clued into Pugliese’s supreme fascinations: water and Naples. And of course, the collision of the two.
The deluge brings chaos to the streets of Naples. Giant sinkholes open up and rescue workers swear they hear voices coming from the pits. Unearthly screams are heard throughout the whole city, seeming to emanate from the 13th century Maschio Angioino (also ironically known as the Castel Nuovo). Later, five lira coins will begin to play music that only children can hear.
The novel is divided into four parts, one for each day of rain, and loosely follows the perspective of Carlo Andreoli who, like Pugliese, is a journalist covering politics and local events in Naples. Pugliese was born in Milan but spent most of his life in Naples as a reporter. Malacqua, his only work in another genre, was published at the insistence of Italo Calvino by Italian literary powerhouse Einaudi, who also worked with Calvino and other luminaries including Natalia Ginzburg, Cesare Pavese, and Antonio Gramsci. But after quickly selling out its first print run, Pugliese decided to pull the plug on the project. No more copies were printed until after his death in 2012. This translation, by Shaun Whiteside, which comes 40 years after the original, is the first English version.
Pugliese is a playful writer, and many of the novel’s most enjoyable moments come from his quirks of language. He describes a mirror as “returning” a face to its owner. Waiting for the rain to stop is a “gruelling, progressive illness.” The weight of silence becomes “an airborne jellyfish, a transparent dream.” Not all of his experiments in language are as pleasing and strange, however, and at times his style can feel a bit forced, almost like a missed attempt at Thomas Pynchon.
Nicola Pugliese

And there are other aspects of Pugliese’s writing that disappoint. Even a Republican Senator would have a hard time denying the author’s misogyny. Men are often visually assessing women, and in various interior monologues from the viewpoint of Neapolitan women Pugliese justifies sexual harassment, office affairs, ogling. “Ultimately a hand on your backside,” Pugliese writes, “is always an act of homage, a gesture of esteem.” The way that Pugliese not only allows but encourages his male characters to harass women, and then uses his omniscient narratorial powers to have women apologize for and accept this treatment as not just okay but almost desirable, is sickening at times. It says much about Italian culture (and literary culture in general) of the 1970s that sentences like the one above were not outside of the norm.
Experiencing something so outdated and uncomfortable in the novel, however, made me more surprised to find a theme in the first two chapters that seemed downright contemporary: what appeared to be an attempt to grapple with climate change in fiction. Or at the very least, horrific weather and climatic events, and humans inability to do anything about them.
Pugliese writes, “With all that water coming down and coming down, and when you were about to say: there, it’s stopping now, you didn’t have time to open your mouth before the water violently returned, a harsh and predetermined rancour, an irreversible obstinacy.” The final words, “a harsh and predetermined rancour, an irreversible obstinacy,” could very well be used to describe the horrible repercussions of the changes we have wrought on our planet. Is he answering the call of recent writers such as Amitav Ghosh and Margaret Atwood to include and incorporate climate change in fiction?
Pugliese does not use the words “climate change,” and nor is it likely that was he thinking in those terms when he wrote the novel in the 1970s (the advancing water feels akin to Calvino’s warning, in Invisible Cities, of the “inferno” of inhuman urban sprawl). However, despite any direct link, many of the themes and tropes that contemporary writers find important in integrating climate change in their fiction, in “climate fiction,” or any other genre, are present in the early pages of Malacqua. Weather, catastrophic events outside of human control, play a stronger role in the plot than the actions of any one person. And Pugliese is deeply attuned to the ways that the rain is simultaneously terrifying to the Neapolitans and, like climate change for many in the twenty-first century, quotidian. Malacqua is not a tale of apocalypse, but a tale of how humans adapt and survive in the face of bizarre and catastrophic climate events. The deaths of seven Neapolitans during the rains is described in chilling terms by local members of government and the police. “A mournful event, certainly, a tragic event, but also predictable, in some respects, from the ancient perspective of a city that lives its life in a continuous form of multiplication.”
Later in the novel, however, it becomes clear that Pugliese’s use of these non-human devices is more metaphorical than political. The story (almost a parable) of the sea rising above the shore and entering Naples to seek out children barred from swimming, should’ve been a sign. Not just to the inhabitants of Naples, but also to me. This is not a book about climate change. It’s just a novel with a touch of magical realism.
About this point in the novel, Pugliese’s narrative begins to drag. His strengths lie, like many good journalists’ do, in deftly stitching together narratives and quickly limning characters and situations. The novel glows when it is discussing the mood of crowds at the beach, people on the street, a group of police and government officials searching a building. When the rain overflows open sewers in part of the city, Pugliese writes, “Also gritting his teeth and muttering fuck off was Biagio Di Sepe, 45, from Avellino, who was determined not to give a toss and had put on his rubber boots.” Pugliese’s Naples is a fractured place, more town than city, still recovering from the war. But despite its bleakness, there is something like love in his descriptions of Naples and its inhabitants, shot through with a touch of symbolism and literary finesse. Neapolitans look out across the sea at night towards Capri, “outstretched and remembering, as alien to the city as an undeciphered tower, close, yes, so close, and far away, too.” Neapolitans who may not have much still have their city, their dialect, which one character calls, “not a literary invention, an artificial construction made by experts and linguistic experimenters, but the most authentic, the most genuine and the most felt expression of an entire people.”
But when he turns his focus away from the city to dip further into the lives and minds of a smaller handful of Neapolitans, he becomes moralistic, even preachy. In these sections, the writing loses a bit of its luster, and the novel begins to feel a bit overly “artistic.” (The final 51 pages of the book take place in the protagonist’s thoughts while he is shaving. I am not against this experimentation, but the decision does not seem to add to the novel. It does not enrich the sense of the character’s emotions or the tableau of Naples. It feels, rather, like a good writer trying hard to seem clever.) Instead of these interwoven stories giving a sense of Naples as a whole, it makes the book feel more curtailed, insular. Each character seems to be living inside her own reality, her own space, which no one else can enter. Perhaps in its way that is Pugliese’s point. That not even a semi-apocalyptic event can make people communicate, break down the barriers of tradition, gender, and class. By the novel’s end, I too felt like the Neapolitans driven inside by the rain: claustrophobic and melancholy, craving a breath of air, a hint of blue sky. - Robert Sorrell

We're in Naples, in recent history, and it's raining. It will in fact rain for four days solid – and seeing as it's October everyone's dressed for all seasons and expecting a bit of grey, but this is taking the proverbial. It's also making the city rather dangerous – when people report a huge sink-hole appearing in one street it's soon found that a pair of cars went into it, and two people have died, and more passed on with a whole building collapsing. What's more, some strange noises are coming from an abandoned civic palace. Is the city being told something by these strange events, or can a journalist find a logic behind the circumstances?
I liked this book from the get-go, for it seemed to be a modernist read with an actual plot, and actual strange events to match the unusual approach. If you don't know the style, what I dress as modernist is that twentieth-century literature that features endlessly long paragraphs, multiple-clause sentences that can stretch for pages at a time, and so on. This seems to have that, although not to such extremes, AND it has the most unusual – troupes of people forced to investigate what makes the noises emanating from the derelict building, and so on.
But I cheated there – I should say I liked this book at the get-go, for before the end it had long fallen out of favour. I wanted the intrigue about the city to be sustained, and for the bizarre things to escalate, or at least to receive a standard narrative. I wanted there to be fewer branches off to other characters that would pop their heads up above the parapets, only to do their thing and disappear with no consequences. And by the end, the modernist worst has hit us, as a man spends about fifty pages having a shave.
There's another thing that the book is not, and if you know the cinema of Pasolini you'll get the reference. This is certainly not one of his scathing Italian reports on how awful Italy is. The city here certainly seems to be giving humans a rum time, but there's no moral here as to how or why. The cover quote, from Calvino – this is a book with a meaning and a force and a message didn't ring true for me. Yes, there is yet another oddity about the place here that made me think of Calvino's Invisible Cities, but there's no comparison. And with the added modernism, with the style getting stronger and stronger, and without Pasolini's sacrilegious dismissal of all that makes Italy great, the book both spoke too much to the original local audience and didn't give me as strong a picture of the place as I expected. Added to all that, the author got instant reward from this book being a huge success in the 1970s, only to demand it be withdrawn from print, and it has stayed out of the public eye since. That suggests something acerbic or embarrassing, neither of which this is. I have to declare this an initially intriguing misfire, and assume that either it spoke only to the Neapolitan, or has had its cutting edge washed away over the decades. - John Lloyd

“Violent spates” of rain pelt the night-time streets of Naples at the start of Nicola Pugliese’s novel, ahead of a “resolutely pallid and funereal dawn”.  It’s an opening burst that signals a four-day inundation of the city’s physical and psychological infrastructure.
Within hours street lights across the city blow. Emergency teams admit their helplessness in the face of rain that displays an “irreversible obstinacy”. A road sinks into an “inert mass”. Two cars plunge into the chasm killing two passengers. A house collapses in seeming slow motion. Five people perish in their sleep as a result.
Pugliese is acutely aware of the sights, sounds and smells of Naples. This intimate knowledge, garnered through decades working as a journalist in the city, informs his rendering of life on the battered streetscape. But his scope reaches far beyond quotidian accounts of a local reporter’s ambulance-chasing routine.
As the unremitting four-day deluge seeps ever deeper into the Neapolitan psyche, surreal, absurdist and Gothic events come to the fore. Indeterminate moaning sounds echo in the city but an “anxious and imperceptible state of siege” seems to veil the source.
Two “explorations” are needed by “all the senior authorities” to pinpoint it. Vincenzo Mirasciotto, a “simple city policeman” has the job of laying the mystery to rest inside the “crenellated bastions” of the Maschio Angioino, the medieval keep, where the local municipality holds its meetings in the baronial hall.
By the third rain-sodden day a collective auditory hallucination appears to take an even stronger hold within the city when a 10-year-old schoolgirl is reported to be the first of many youngsters able to hear her favourite songs repeated in her ear by a five-lira coin.
Pugliese’s characters seldom interact with one another. What he describes — with a mixture of lugubriousness and world-weary sympathy — are ordinary people atomised by seemingly malevolent overarching forces, both meteorological and municipal. Most of his pomposity-pricking cynicism is reserved for the creaking branches of the bureaucracy as they seek to protect their hierarchical status rather than assure the safety of the city’s inhabitants.
Among the mysteries uncovered and resolved in the novel one remains to this day: why did Nicola Pugliese throttle his own creation Immediately after its first print run? - John Munch