Serpent's Tale

Send-up central: Manganelli writes 100 'novels' about the writing of hundreds of novels

Though a celebrated contemporary of Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino, Giorgio Manganelli had not been translated into English until 1990, when McPherson and Company published All the Errors. Now McPherson offers a translation of his 1979 Centuria: One Hundred Ouroboric Novels. Reminiscent of Calvino's Invisible Cities, miniature portraits of imaginary places, Cen turia boils the lives of characters down to their most bare and confused elements, each story two pages long. But Manganelli, who died in 1990, distills popular literary clichés as if he's just set the timer on a bomb meant to end the whole sorry business of novels.

McPherson's decision to publish Centuria now must be a story of poor timing, a misplaced sense of irony, or an interest in literature as historical artifact. For these 100 stories are all variations on one (not so contemporary) theme: how an author manipulates his characters in a landscape that seems governed by cliché. But despite a jacket photo of the jowly Manganelli facing down a Pinocchio doll, Centuria is a wonderful read for its endlessly inventive send-ups of narrative conventions. Manganelli's "novels" telescope time so that his characters end where they started, like the ouroborous of the subtitle—an ancient symbol of renewal showing a snake that bites its tail.

Each story inevitably begins with a CV-like assessment of the character: "a man who knows Latin but no longer Greek"; "a youthful-looking gentleman with the air of a person of median cultivation, a movie-goer with a love for film series." (After laughing at the first dozen of these summaries, you'll squirm at the thought of how Manganelli might sum up your life.) The action often turns on an anticipated meeting: a man who waits in a piazza for a woman he fears loves him, another man who's made a rendezvous with a woman he fears he loves, and a group of men waiting at a station for trains known not to arrive. Manganelli's characters always live at a calculated distance from one another. One couple, not in love, thrives on conversation: "They love each other's voices, they love their argumentations, the doubts, the perplexities, the exceptions, the objections, the paradoxes, the syllogisms, the metaphors. With a bizarre, mental desperation, they think about a life that does not include the other's voice. And then, briefly, they fall into silence, since they direly mistrust, and will always mistrust, the vocality of the voice, that vain custodian of the purity of concepts."

Much the same could be said about Manganelli's distrust of words. He claimed Centuria was an attempt to write novels with the air taken out of them. Read in sequence, the stories build on each other, growing increasingly hallucinatory. The men waiting in piazzas for their almost- lovers give way to solitary ghosts who wonder if they'd like company. A being known as the Maleficent Dreamstuff enjoys his job as the embodiment of evil in our dreams. Though he is not as respected as the Nightmares, "he's never short of work and his standard of living is quite respectable."

In his preface, Manganelli writes that for maximum effect, readers should be installed on separate landings of a building and made to read one line while the Supreme Reader, who has flung himself from the roof, passes each floor's window. Manganelli warns, "It is understood that the number of the building's floors must exactly correspond to the number of the lines and that there will be no ambiguity on the second floor and mezzanine, which might cause an embarrassing silence before the impact." Less gory but equally satisfying surprises fill the stories themselves. A "pensiv e and dispirited" man worries because he loves three women at once. "It must be added, however—though strictly speaking he cannot be said to know it—that two of these three women lived one and three centuries before his birth, and that the third will be born two centuries after his death." In story 63, Manganelli's predictions for the novel take a self-conscious turn when an atheist metal caster is asked to make a bell to announce Judgment Day. He's so impressed with his creation that he becomes a believer, certain of the world's end: "He pulled the cord, and the great bell swung and sounded, loud and strong, and, as it had to be, the Heavens opened."

It's not to say that today's fiction is any less self-conscious, but it's not suicidal. The old-fashioned story has survived, albeit tattooed with footnotes and photos. So the obvious, sorry danger: Who will read Centuria as anything more than a record of its time, in which a writer makes a 200-page attempt at self-immolation?

 
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