22 February 2015

Philippe Besson: Un garçon d'Italie (2003)

There are superficial similarities between Philippe Besson's Un garcon d'Italie and Linda Lê's Lame de fond (2012), mainly that the novels have three narrators, one coming from the grave.

In Un garcon d'Italie, though, each narrator has no more than three pages in which to tell his or her part of the story, almost always the 29-year-old Luca first, then his girlfriend Anne of the same age, followed by the twenty-three-year-old (but younger-looking) Leo.

The drama, which is very much a detective story, begins to unfold when Luca is found dead in the River Arno in Florence, where the whole story is set. He briefly describes the events after his death up to being buried and adding a few comments on this permanent location, and says that no one will know what has happened to him – although he neglects to say that his readers will find out in the end.

The autopsy reveals that sleeping tablets were in his system, which might suggest suicide or murder rather than accident: this is for the efficient if slightly unpleasant Inspector Tonello to discover, if he can.

Although the relationship between Anna and Luca has existed for a few years and although the couple are obviously in love, Luca has never wanted to live with Anna and has remained a little aloof, only seeing his girlfriend three or four days a week.

Anna begins to discover something of the truth when she lets herself into Luca's place and discovers the existence of Leo Bertina, whom the police know as a rent boy with a criminal record working around the train station restrooms and whose existence is known to Luca's uptight middle-class parents who reveal almost nothing to her about the affair.

The truth is a little less sordid than it appears because Luca has lied by omission to Anna and has been having a non-paying, loving sexual relationship with Leo, and been the only person ever invited to Leo's hotel room. But Luca had had sex with Leo on the same night that he died, he fell to his death just an hour after he left Leo, and Tonello asks himself if he was stuffed with tablets in an act of murder for which the motive isn't clear.

The third section of the book is short and just told by Anna and Leo, when they meet at his place of work at the station. Here two opposite worlds stumble towards mutual understanding, both obviously intelligent people with a strong understanding of psychology, but Leo to some extent hampered by his inability to translate his eloquent thoughts into eloquent words.

I doubt that any reader suspected an unreliable narrator, and indeed there isn't one. Both Anna and Leo return to their respective haunts to cope as they can with their loss of the same – but very differently perceived – person, and it's left for Luca to give the last voice, to reveal the truth.

He'd had a lot of wine that night with Leo, but he didn't think it would help him sleep, so he buys sleeping tablets from a chemist, doesn't realise he should have taken one instead of four, so feels wonderfully light-headed and starts playing on the bridge parapet, doesn't know it's slippery, and falls. So, verdict never recorded: accidental death.

At only 220 pages in largish print, this is a quick read, but a very fruitful one: once again, Philippe Besson shows he's a powerful writer.

My other posts on Philippe Besson:

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Philippe Besson: En l'absence des hommes | In the Absence of Men
Philippe Besson: La Trahison de Thomas Spencer
Philippe Besson: Son frère
Philippe Besson: Un instant d'abandon

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