A Beginner's Guide To Edoardo Albinati
Edoardo Albinati (Rome, 1956) is the author of some fifteen works of fiction and poetry. Still by profession a teacher of Italian to inmates in the capital’s main prison, Rebibbia, he has also written screenplays for Matteo Garrone (Tale of Tales) and Marco Bellocchio (Sweet Dreams) and has translated the work of foreign writers such as Vladimir Nabokov and Robert Louis Stevenson.
His latest book, La scuola cattolica – literally “The Catholic School” – is the result of a project which took him over twenty years and covers an entire lifetime. The novel, which runs to over 1200 pages, features both private life (his high school years) and true crime (the infamous Circeo Murder, when two girls were raped, tortured and beaten, to the point where one died of her injuries, by two young men from Rome’s prosperous middle class). Published in March 2016, the book won that year’s Strega Prize and created a literary sensation. Albinati conceived it as a laboratory in which historical reconstruction, first person fragments, literary documents, poetry and songs are blended in a single stream.
While the content may range from politics and biography to investigative journalism, from sport to social and anthropological analysis, the background for the vast fresco painted by Edoardo Albinati in his novel La scuola cattolica is school and education. Surely this is no coincidence. School is the first community with which we must interact, and it is where for the first time we experience the encounter with the other: not the soulmate that romantically approaches us, nor the antagonist that allows us to define who we are, but the being that we find it equally difficult to fit in with or distance ourselves from. At school we meet and clash with the multiplicity of rules (and exceptions). It’s where the safety of “my desk” immediately becomes an island refuge in a stormy sea. Even more than the word (to be learned), what counts are gesture, tone, expression: school is the practice ground for our first efforts at developing the acting skills which will be in the adult’s baggage later in life.
Oddly enough, for an art form whose language is based on the discontinuity of editing, film has represented school as a “continuum”, a space supported by an unshakable unity, often personified by the community of schoolchildren. That view underscores the authoritarian power intrinsic to the institution, seen as an extension of the family and as the first social sphere; on the contrary, in La scuola cattolica Albinati invents a prose style capable of recreating the fragmentary nature which has been typical of the institution since the 1960s at the least – in other words, since the crisis that overwhelmed the role of society and of social classes. School is not a space of cohesion, but instead the place where the cracks that the family was already struggling to hide can be seen for what they are, ready to burst apart in the transition to working life. As described by Albinati, school is the place where the ego is built up, not in opposition to the other or as part of a “we”, but in the relational vacuum which is the underlying tragedy of the modern era. That vacuum translates into a silence which weighs heavily. A silent distance insinuates itself between parents and children, teachers and pupils, classmates. Without this apparently banal psychological landscape, to which the author dedicates many a long and detailed description, it would be impossible to comprehend the explosion that characterized that time, leaving its mark on generations to come. The terrible crime committed at the holiday home on Monte Circeo – on which the novel’s plot is centered – is no more than the most tragically blatant example of that explosion.
The crisis of a model of education – which fortunately can still come up with worthy figures of parents and teachers (Albinati dedicates a heartfelt and original tribute to one such teacher) – is the constant pulse beating beneath both the novel’s tragic plot and the magma of characters and subplots flowing through its 1300 pages. The open-ended structure of this overflowing, highly personal author’s notebook reflects a particular social and historical analysis. Despite a narrative voice established very early on, the story soon abandons any pretence of unitary progression. The digression is a narrative expedient which not only keeps the tension alive but also mirrors the chaos in which a collective psyche is wandering. La scuola cattolica is a world in a book, a book whose ambition is to set out an X-ray of a generation. A novel thought out according to the rules of film editing, updated to the Internet era. Albinati uses the first person as a glue to stick together differing styles and materials (poetic, reflective, journalistic, discursive), in the manner of the narrative voice over in American film noir – but without the happy ending which restored some semblance of order. In the novel, order has gone. Only a faint echo of it can still be heard, a tremor felt in the locked drawers of fathers’ desks. While the fathers are an imposing shadow in the study, the mothers are more enigmatic figures. The other boys’ mothers: icons of seduction and mystery that have been accurately portrayed on film in both the comedic and the dramatic register; they are figures treading along a very narrow ridge, as if close to an explosion so comprehensive and resounding that it would upset the established system. An unexpected and irrevocable flare-up, like the blasphemous outburst of Signora Rummo, a laceration of truth and pain, tragedy and comedy, part of a micro-narrative that is set like a little jewel in the great flood of the novel.
The use of an inflated, omnipresent and occasionally rather annoying first person could bring to mind Nanni Moretti in film terms, since he also adopts it as character and narrator, but for Albinati the final objective is not so much self-portraiture as the depiction of an interior with figures. His position is contaminated by a social vision derived from acquaintance with another Italian filmmaker whose universe he is fully cognizant of, Marco Bellocchio. Moretti plays out his own vision of the family and his obsessions about school in comedic terms and so, for all his criticisms, never disowns them. Albinati on the other hand takes the two institutions in deadly earnest, eventually bringing out into the open the state of profound crisis afflicting both. His book is not a diary but a treatise – a kind of funeral oration for a class, the bourgeoisie, on which the cinema has built much of its visual repertoire. La scuola cattolica – the institution which was a foundation and a bastion of that middle class – is therefore a book in the past which tends towards the present. A horizontal narrative of nested boxes that open like the windows of a computer screen and which are intended to recreate, undiminished, the complexity of a world which lay at the origins of the social and cultural swamp we are foundering in now, early in the following millennium.