The Story of My Purity, (Storia della mia purezza,) by Italian author Francesco Pacifico, dives straight into a world that could be called a counter-counterculture. The narrator, a not-quite-young Roman named Piero Rosini, has become a radical ultraconservative Catholic, rejecting with equal force his liberal bourgeois upbringing and the bohemianism of his peers. He unironically considers himself a “voice of nonconformism” in contemporary discourse. Piero and his fringe-group compatriots are so devoted to the Church that they reject the current Church, a stance which, weird and hypocritical as it may sound, is actually a thing: look up sedevacantism if you’re interested. Anyway, the novel begins with Piero wavering between several bad choices, impulsively championing an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory book about John Paul II, stringing a young novelist along to inflate his own literary ego, and lusting after his sister-in-law.
Having hit a dead-end in Rome, Piero migrates to Paris, where he feels increasingly alienated from the ideology to which he has committed himself. His new social scene also gets weird, as he is ‘adopted’ by a circle of fast-paced Eurotrashy young women. He becomes entangled in a sort of tortured pseudo-romance with one of them, and in a friendship with the girl’s uncle, Leo, a bond founded on intellectual and theological disagreement. Leo bestows a new name (“Rosenzweil”) on him, which becomes an alter-ego and then a whole troupe of alter-egos towards the end of the book. In Piero’s mind, they act out all the alternate choices he could make, and wishes he had made, multiplying around him in a cloud of action while Piero himself, passive and fumbling, sinks into the background. It’s a clever, Calvino-esque device, illustrating well the repressed person’s division of self.
Pacifico’s prose is clean and elegant, in a lively translation by Stephen Twilley. The narrator’s repressed sexuality lurks under the surface, sometimes expressed in fixation on details such as “the inner thigh muscle on a woman that engages when she moves her leg closer to yours,” and sometimes in longer flights of erotic vision that seem to come from some blind place of scent, touch, and muffled sound. The intensity in his imagination gives some hint as to why this side of human nature would be frightening to a mind such as Piero’s.
Pacifico manages to make a complex and believable protagonist out of a character who could easily have become a source of ridicule, as he is for most “laypeople” in the book. For all his extremes, Piero is just a person like any other struggling to find a place between the pressure of contemporary culture, the expectations of his family and worldly life, and the hope for some timeless transcendence to make it all worthwhile- all playing against his desperate need to define himself as an individual. He and perhaps Leo are the only characters in the book who take the struggle seriously. Through Leo’s intervention, Pacifico is able to cut to the quick of what is bothering Piero; it is easier to see a moral crisis against the backdrop of an opposing morality than in the vague sea of amorality. Does he follow St Augustine (any transgression removes the soul from God: “you need grace at every moment, just so the closed wound won’t reopen”) or St Thomas Aquinas (human nature stands freely between the natural and the supernatural: “when you want to, you can raise yourself above nature; when you don’t want to, you don’t raise yourself and let nature function as it knows how, with its rules. You can raise yourself above nature within the hour, tomorrow, when you want.”)? If one chooses Aquinas, is that because his doctrine his easier? Is it actually easier? After all, as Piero finds, “you can’t become a man of the world on a whim.”
It would have nice if the theological underpinnings were explored in more depth. Under the comedy and narrative flash, this is the heart of the book, and we don’t see enough of it. Although the Catholic far right does have a venerable intellectual tradition, Piero’s conservatism comes off more as a knee-jerk dependence on vague notions of “values” and “morality,” perhaps indicating the shallowness and adolescent-rebellion quality of his beliefs.
Sad to say, the novel falls flat in the last chapter. Piero dies out of the blue, seemingly because the author couldn’t think of a way to tie together the strands he had gathered. The final chapter has to gather the loose ends in the most awkward way possible, with a blend of Piero’s omniscient posthumous narration and the perspectives of other characters, detailing what happened to the people after the narrator left them in Rome and after his death. As a result, the arc of the novel as a whole feels choppy, the sudden changes of setting and tone seeming in retrospect lazy and unfulfilled. Several promising themes, such as the tension between Piero’s anti-Semitism and his growing interest in Judaism, are also dropped before they can be fully developed. Still, a very cool book, enjoyable and thought-provoking right up to the end of the penultimate chapter.
Read with: Confessions by St Augustine. Piero so wants to want to be a saint.
While drinking: Châteauneuf-du-Pape, obviously.