Don’t be fooled by the sombre portrait on the cover of Diego Marani’s new novel courtesy of 15th century Italian painter Giovanni Bellini: just as in the novel nothing is what it seems, the book itself seems to be saying “historical” while hiding a heart as dystopian as 1984. Marani shot to prominence when Dedalus published his 2000 novel, New Finnish Grammar, in English in 2011; this was followed in 2012 by The Last of the Vostyachs, which had appeared in Italian in 2002. Now we jump forward ten years as Judith Landry (once again) translates his latest novel, God’s Dog. The overall impression is of a restless, questioning mind with scant regard for genre.
Of the three, I must admit that God’s Dog is my favourite: it not only grabbed my attention within a few pages but plunged me into its world with the senses-shocking invigoration of an ice bath. That world is a near future Italy which is in the hands of a Catholic theocracy:
“The Catholic Republic was by now on a firm footing. Internal dissent was minimal. The anti-papists preferred to leave Italy rather than mount any opposition.”
The novel’s main protagonist is not a rebel but a servant of this state. Domingo Salazar is a Haitian orphan who has been brought up by the church and now works as an agent for them. He is tasked with rooting out any members of the Free Death Brigade, an outlawed pro-euthanasia group, masquerading as relatives at a hospital for the terminally ill:
“If men cease to fear death, or regard it as something run-of-the-mill, our sway over them is seriously threatened.”
The church also suspects that the dying father of a wanted abortionist, Ivan Zago, is hidden among the patients and that this might flush Zago out of hiding. The novel then proceeds conventionally with meetings with his vicar ‘handler’ in the confessional, observations of staff and visitors, the identifying and following of a suspect – only now and then dipping into Salazar’s diary to discover his religious views are more complex than we might expect for a ‘dog’. This changes when the narrative begins to fracture and sections reveal Zago and fellow ‘terrorist’, Marta Quinz. At the same time the plot also starts to fragment: Zago is after revenge for his father’s treatment; Quinz and others are planning to disrupt the canonisation of Benedict XVI; and Salazar is suspected of being unfaithful to the church as a result of his friendship with an Islamic scientist, Guntur.
It is perhaps difficult to fully appreciate the dystopian nature of the novel in the UK where the idea of a religious state seems unlikely (although Kingsley Amis wrote an alternative history where the Reformation didn’t happen and Europe is controlled by the Catholic Church). Much of the satire is directed at Joseph Ratzinger – Benedict XVI – who is quoted throughout and whose nickname was the Pope’s Rottweiler. This is also, however, a novel of ideas, articulating religion’s fear of science, and once again exploring the issue of language. The Catholicism it presents is ferocious and ruthless (like a dog) but also reasoned and calculating. Marani’s master stroke is centring the debate on an ambivalent character, one who is neither hero nor villain, and with whom the reader’s sympathies rise and fall.
The more I read of Marani’s, the more interesting he becomes.