“The separateness of lives once joined appalled him, like the sun dipping behind a black cloud …”
How well do we know other people — even when we all belong to a small expat community in a foreign capital? Allan Massie’s edgy and disturbing study of English-speaking alcoholics living in Rome examines this great literary theme — and does much more besides. A knife keeps all bodies at a distance, unless and until …
This is a story of corrupting power (a common theme in Massie’s work), the random nature of violence and indeed most other things, and, of course, the emotional effort that we, and particularly alcoholics, have to put into just surviving. In this, his latest of many novels, the well-known Scottish writer with his own experience of living in Rome in the seventies, uses all his considerable literary skills to examine yet another theme: literature itself. Books circulate in the narrative as do literary pretensions, which have met with varying degrees of failure. The now sober Tom Durward, who achieved a degree of success as a scriptwriter while drowning himself in booze and oblivion, reflects on writing:
“What a sad business … excavation really … He’s a murderer, yes? – a killer, and you’ve invited him here, actually to stay with you in your apartment, and you say you’re not mad. My poor sweet, you’re raving.”
The broken people who inhabit this stark and inventive novel live their intense and meaningful relationships a few steps removed from the noise and bustle of the host community that surrounds them — a sympathetically portrayed backdrop whose “noises off” remind the reader of a steadier, less isolated world beyond the central characters whose obsessions we follow through a vibrant, fast-paced and compelling dialogue. The words and thoughts of these characters in most cases reveal not so much self-interest as the total isolation of the human self, but the author’s acute analysis is mitigated by moments of tenderness and humour.