I first became aware of Italian author Alessandro Piperno through his debut novel “The Worst Intentions”, which was talked about here. I was truly impressed with his high literary style and subject matter, which mostly explored issues of Italian Jewry, class, contemporary life in Italy. “Persecution”, his second novel (and part one of a diptych called “The Friendly Fire of Memories”), follows where his debut novel left off. Not in subject matter, although issues of Italian Jewry is ever present in this disturbing but enjoyable novel, but in style and approach.
In brief, “Persecution” is about the life of a well respected child oncologist Leo Pontecorvo and his family, beginning on the day when a seemingly innocuous news broadcast startles the family at dinner when it is announced that Leo has been accused of molesting a 12 year old girl. And not just any girl. She is the girlfriend of his own son. We follow the story, via the voice of a mysterious, omnipotent narrator (a voice that sounds like someone who was connected to the family in some way) as Leo Pontecorvo’s privileged life comes apart at the seams. Disturbing questions are raised throughout. Why doesn’t he defend himself? Why does he cut himself off from his family? Why does his family simply abandon him? It is assumed that Leo is innocent throughout as we watch as the charges pile on and become more and more serious. As Leo is struggling to deal with this horrible accusation, we are taken on a trip through his life and we learn more about who he is, his politics, his sense of persecution due to him being Jewish, his status, his family, his marriage, his children; all interweaving within the narrative about his alleged crime. There is something very Proustian about the narrative (as well as Philip Roth) as we follow Leo’s life from his childhood in Switzerland (where his family managed to escape Nazi persecution), through his adolescence, his college years in Paris, and his rise to success as an oncologist in Rome, complete with his own newspaper column in a large Italian daily. We follow him through his dependence on his mother and how this reflects the same dependence on his wife and soon we start to put the pieces together that perhaps Leo isn’t the most mentally and emotionally healthy individual. However, Leo is - presumed - innocent of these crimes and only his inability to confront, his very trusting nature, and his bad judgment digs a hole that sees him sinking deeper and deeper into a nightmare.
This is a very disturbing story that offers one a lot to think about. Is this a commentary on the perceived heroics of victimhood? Is it a commentary on how his own politics (socialist - as he always lovingly admired Italy’s socialist prime minister Bettino Craxi) comes back to haunt him - the “masses” seeking revenge on the well to do? Is it a commentary on how words can not only hurt but literally kill? Or perhaps there is some linkage here to what one of his childhood friends said to him regarding the Holocaust and his feeling how the Jews allowed themselves to be persecuted by not fighting back (controversial, indeed yet it seems to reflect Leo’s inability to stand up for himself). Perhaps it is all these things. This is a novel that will get you thinking and have you discussing these issues and returning to it again and again to unravel the clues and find what’s written between the lines. Piperno has written a masterful work of fiction here and I cannot wait until the second part is translated. A highly recommended read.