The use of the word ‘giallo’ (yellow) to refer to books dealing with mysteries, murders and whodunnits originates from the fact that a popular Italian series in this genre had yellow covers. The name stuck, but the gialli of this series were by no means the first of this sort to be published in the Italian language. Evidently, unusual and mysterious deaths have been the grist of literature for many centuries, but the police procedural is a surprisingly modern phenomenon, given they are the stock in trade of many media outlets, whether written or visual.
To look for the origins of this kind of text, we turn to Federico De Roberto, the first Sicilian author to write such a work featuring a mysterious death, various suspects, an investigating judge and a backdrop of political intrigue and star-crossed love. However, as with all things De Roberto, the finished product is much more than a simple investigation to uncover the truth. In the process of questioning the suspects, Judge Ferpierre, his crusading magistrate, delves deeply into the psyche and motivations of the people concerned. De Roberto is not associated in the minds of most readers with this particular genre; the modern-day aficionado of Sicilian literature will think of The Viceroys (I viceré) when De Roberto comes to mind. The Viceroys is his magnum opus, the tale of the corrupt and decadent Uzeda family from Catania during the Risorgimento. Although this book sits centrally in his oeuvre, it is important to remember that the Uzedas feature in a trilogy of works and he penned many other texts worthy of the reader’s attention, not least of which is his ‘giallo’ entitled Spasimo (Agony).
Spasimo first appeared in 1898 as serialized installments in the newspaper, Corriere della Sera. Subsequently, it was issued as a complete text in book form. Intrigued by the work, I decided to take on the task of translating it, a mission greatly enhanced by the knowledge that it had never appeared in English before. Italica Press have now released my translation in both hardback and paperback (plus ebook), the details of which can be found at the bottom of this article. Why was I so fascinated by De Roberto’s early take on this genre? The author, himself, stated that he wanted to write a book that would appeal to the average reader, in terms of its page-turning nature, without neglecting more literary aspirations. De Roberto, whose mother was Sicilian, spent much time in the north of Italy where he mixed with the likes of Giovanni Verga, before returning to Catania. Despite his lofty ambitions and connections in the world of letters, he never achieved the success in his lifetime that subsequent critics have felt he deserved. Spasimo was an attempt at more popular appeal.
As a series of installments, a form favoured by Arthur Conan Doyle, it gained a wide audience. People would turn to see what had happened to the central characters and how their motivations revealed further plot twists. De Roberto set the story on the shores of Lake Geneva, at Ouchy, a suburb of Lausanne. The book starts with the death of the Italian Countess Fiorenza d’Arda, who is living with Prince Alexi Zakunin, a Russian nihilist and revolutionary. At first sight, it appears that the countess has committed suicide, triggered by guilt and illness. To Judge Ferpierre’s surprise, the maudlin young Genevan poet, Robert Vérod, accuses Zakunin of being involved in her killing. This leads to the revelation of a love triangle between Zakunin, Fiorenza and Vérod, which greatly upset the deeply religious countess who was tortured by her relationship out of wedlock. Added to the mix is a young woman, Alexandra Natzichev, who works with Zakunin in plotting his revolutionary strategies. Through the judge’s tough questioning and the reading of Fiorenza’s diary, the truth gradually begins to emerge.
The fascination of the text lies as much in the deep examination of each individual’s impulses and rationales as it does in the progressive discovery of the veracity of events. Needless to say, attitudes reflect the times, but that is part of the charm. When we see incidents through the eyes of the countess, we are viewing her fear of society’s opprobrium at a relationship lived ‘outside the law’ and her self-loathing at such a moral lapse. Zakunin, based on a coterie of Russian exiles with radical political views who inhabited these beautiful Swiss environs, is a very different character. He is hot-headed and driven by instinct. Vérod is the quintessential post-Romantic poet, disillusioned with life, who places Fiorenza on a towering pedestal, needing her to be the solution to all his ills. Judge Ferpierre, who pursues the investigation, is an up-standing man of the law, who resorts to obfuscation in an attempt to cajole a witness, a tactic that sits heavily on his conscience.
As the book progresses, the majestic Swiss landscape also plays its part; clouds laden with mist obscure the peaks in a metaphor for the twists and turns concealing the clarity of reason and justice. What prompted Countess d’Arda to kill herself? Did she, in fact, kill herself or was another hand responsible? Is Vérod correct in attributing malice aforethought to the otherwise impulsive Zakunin? What role does the elusive Natzichev play in the proceedings? No spoilers…
Agony is now available from Italica Press, bookshops and online retailers. Click this text or the cover for details.