The Uncanny City

A new translation of the 1970s horror novel The Twenty Days in Turin is an eerily resonant read today.

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The Twenty Days of Turin — Giorgio De Maria’s brilliant and eerily prescient 1977 horror novel, available in a new, vivid translation from Ramon Glazov — has a chipper vein of humor running erratically through its miasma of black dread. The effusions of “the stranger,” a batty anonymous letter writer who sends long, plaintive communiqués to the novel’s unnamed narrator, perfectly express this disturbing tone of dark comedy.

In one letter, the stranger describes his apartment building as a tall cylindrical tower with a demolished stairwell that necessitates he climb the walls to reach his living quarters.

But the physical exertion isn’t the part that bothers him:

What leaves me baffled is that the Administration has begun to use the stairwell shaft as a garbage dump. At first I didn’t take much notice: it was old furniture, books, papers, kitchen scraps. But later, the nature of the waste started to become — how to put this? — somewhat more challenging and personal. One would find — if you’ll permit me the term — human excrement, which fell from above in ever increasing amounts.

This nightmare vision can hardly even be seen as symbolic, it’s so directly familiar to us as a variation on the class-based shit-storm we navigate and rationalize every day. It’s like a solid-waste version of “trickle-down theory”:

Over several years, the level has risen to the point that it now reaches the first floor units, where mercifully only the working families live. And all of this has happened without a word of explanation! More than that, the fear of even stricter sanctions is so great that the other tenants are silent, as if being covered in s*** by the powers of the gerontocracy (up above, they’re all old) was perfectly normal! Now, Dear Sir, I ask you . . . Does all of that seem reasonable? Does it seem fair?

The stranger’s pathetic appeal for a “fair” explanation that would show him the rationality behind his monstrous situation is never answered. But soon he works out its logic to his own satisfaction.

A follow-up letter explains that, thanks to the rising tide of feces, the stranger must face the fact that he will soon be under permanent “house arrest,” entombed in excrement. However, he’s not too discouraged:

. . . [H]e had begun to consider the possibility of surviving on human excrement — and that, while the tenants on the ninth floor (very old, but as eternal as the whole Administration) were uncorking champagne bottles and munching caviar! The fact didn’t seem quite as unfair to him as it had once been: it was rather in harmony with the laws of Creation.

People mucking around in shit, garbage, and human detritus are among The Twenty Days of Turin’s most defining images, and they can’t help but gall us with reminders of our current crap-filled lives. Glazov notes De Maria’s shocking foresightedness in his introduction, especially the way the author anticipated the generally cruddy experience of social media.

The novel describes the sinister public enterprise known as “the Library,” a pre-Internet experiment in social discourse run by creepy, clean-cut young men with bright ideas and even brighter smiles. Designed to serve legions of lonely, isolated people who had “no desire at all for regular human communication,” the Library becomes a trash mountain of pornographic confessionals and splenetic hate-filled rants until it is shut down abruptly in mysterious circumstances.

The narrator is preoccupied by investigating the relationship between “the Library” and the twenty nights of mass insomnia and murder that took place in Turin ten years earlier. His attempts to elicit witness testimony are continually thwarted by a resolutely amnesiac citizenry. Even the relatives of those who died in the unexplained massacres have developed elaborate forms of denial. One victim’s sister has found that religious fanaticism distracts nicely from uncomfortable speculation:

How could we — poor mortals! — fathom the Lord’s inscrutable designs! We have sinned too much in pride, sinned with our hearts, with our senses, forgetting that spirituality . . .

The narrator has already informed us that spirituality is the woman’s favorite word, and, in keeping with the novel’s motif of constant, disgusting contact with human excretions in all their forms, every time she says it she sprays him with spit. “Never did such a gentle mist of saliva cleanse my face as during those declarations of faith in the spirit!”

As the narrator slowly pieces together the events of those ghastly twenty days, he begins to suspect that “the Library” has begun functioning again in a more diffuse way. The clean-cut young men are out and about once more, and people are seen hunting through street debris and rifling through garbage bins:

And so it struck me that not everyone was using those bins to get rid of wastepaper they didn’t need; some of them were putting their hands in to take things out, then hiding whatever they’d taken deep within their pockets. . . . Hence I too started rummaging around in these receptacles, collecting balls of scrunched up paper seeded throughout the streets.

The narrator also suspects that he is being followed, watched, and threatened by persons — or at any rate, entities — unknown. Immense and violent supernatural beings seem to rise out of the physical world’s abject gunk; their grating screams, sounding “like a terrible war-cry, with something dismal and metallic at the heart of it,” blared through the city on the first night of the massacres.

Glazov points out that the novel was “written during the late 1970s, when Italy was tormented almost daily by terror attacks and police-state crackdowns.” The novel bursts with metaphorical references to De Maria’s own terrible era that uncannily evokes our own.

People’s maddening refusal to acknowledge what is going on, for example, is taken to surreal heights: the statues in Turin are moving, but no one will admit it. The narrator has a grimly comical argument with a recalcitrant barber about two statues in the square outside the shop that have mysteriously switched places. The debate descends into darkly ironic commentary about how statues are presumably no more happily placed than most people. The increasingly nervous narrator tries to placate the barber, babbling that if people tried to change places with those who are better off, “they would have to carry out so much bloodshed that . . . it’s better to leave everything as it is.”

Unmollified, the barber “accidentally” cuts the side of the narrator’s face with the razor. It’s a clear warning of greater punishments to come for noticing what’s actually happening in the world, let alone trying to understand and explain it.

Fair warning from Giorgio De Maria in 1977 to us in 2017!