Review: A Private Venus by Giorgio Scerbanenco, Translated by Howard Curtis
Melville House | March 2014 | Reviewed by Tyler Burr
The cover of A Private Venus admiringly refers to its author Giorgio Scerbanenco as the “Godfather of Italian Noir.” This label carries with it the history of Italian crime fiction as a genre, as well as Scerbanenco’s role in its development. As his name suggests, Scerbanenco was the progeny of a Cold War–era culture clash, evidence of what happens when a Ukranian man and an Italian woman love each other very, very much. Though he spent most of his life in Milan—and the city plays a central role in A Private Venus—both cultural influences make themselves known in the novel, most notably in its hero, Duca Lamberti. Duca is fiercely loyal and instinctively protective, an exemplar of Italian belly fire, but he maintains a cool, detached cynicism worthy of a spot in the KGB. Duca’s complexities only serve to mirror those prevalent throughout A Private Venus. Written in 1966, the novel is not quite mafia fiction—there are no blood wars, nor are there phony truces forged between families. However, it’s also not quite noir. Rather, Scerbanenco’s story bridges the gap between two genres, illuminating a culture in which the mob is not underworld, but overlord.
A Private Venus is full of not-quites, in fact. Duca initially seems like the archetype of a noir hero—ideological, moral flexibility, shady past—but he is not quite that; indeed, he’s just spent three years in prison, but his crime was granting a cancer-riddled old woman’s request for euthanasia. As he leaves prison stripped of his medical credentials, he becomes the not-quite doctor for a young, handsome, and tortured alcoholic named Davide Auseri. Soon enough, however, we learn that Davide is not quite an alcoholic—he is drinking to avoid his guilt over the suspicious suicide of a young woman he met just once, over a year before. As a child, Duca had dreamed of becoming a detective but, after his investigator father suffered a debilitating injury at the hands of the Milanese mafia, was forbidden from entering the profession. Davide shares the story of Alberta—the young woman for whose death he feels responsible—with Duca, but it doesn’t seem quite right. Seizing the opportunity to dip a toe in the PI pond and potentially exact revenge upon that same mafia that ended his father’s career years ago, Duca sets out to uncover what actually happened to Alberta, who remains a shadow in Davide’s mind.
The result is a novel ahead of its time, engaging with inventive narrative techniques that have become common in just the last ten years. Only occasionally, during brief moments of subtle, passive homophobia and misogyny, will you remember that A Private Venus was written in the ’60s. Even these gaffes, however, are not quite offensive; they feel removed from the sophisticated finesse of Scerbanenco’s style. They are relics of a time and a place, much like Davide’s canary-yellow Giulietta or the Minox film cartridge that provides the breakthrough in the case of Alberta’s death.
In fact, even the occasions of bigoted language in A Private Venus feel more commentative than sincere—the men of the novel, like the men that would later be written into films and novels during the mafia fad of the 1970s, are products of their environment; and like Puzo, Scorcese, and Coppola, Scerbanenco is interested in revealing the underbelly of a rising mafia culture. As he does this, he also cunningly investigates gender politics within that patriarchal culture: A Private Venus portrays villainous men and the women they use as devices of power without frailly characterizing its female characters as victims. In the vein of a not-quite noir, A Private Venus does have a femme fatale—a sociological scholar who speaks several languages and occasionally prostitutes freelance for the sake of scientific experimentation. The slain women of the novel are not weak; rather, they attempt to claim autonomy within Milan’s criminal enterprise, which our Mafiosi will not abide. In Scerbanenco’s Milan, seedy and powerful men are frightened, above all else, of women challenging their spreading authority. This Milan is crafted brilliantly by Scerbanenco and translated seamlessly by Howard Curtis. The result of their work is a tableau of sorts: though it distills power structures and attitudes from an unmistakably other time, there is something recognizable about the dynamics at play. We are reminded not only of the gritty novelty of mid-twentieth century Italy, but of how disturbingly it resembles our today. The tableau of Scerbanenco’s A Private Venus is not just an artifact—it is a grim reminder of our own inertia.
For more information, please visit Melville House’s website.
A Private Venus
Giorgio Scerbanenco, Translated by Howard Curtis
Posted: Jul 30, 2014
Category: Akashic in Good Company | Tags: Akashic in Good Company, Melville House, Italy, Review, Melville, Noir, Giorgio Scerbanenco, A Private Venus, Tyler Burr, Melville International Crime, Howard Curtis, Italian crime fiction
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