An Orphan World

Giuseppe Caputo’s An Orphan World, translated by Juana Adcock and Sophie Hughes, is a novel of juxtapositions. Each of its chapters tells of two different moments in the life of its narrator, alternating between each story. Caputo also places in contrast his character’s close relationship with his father and the often distant sexual exchanges which take place in his life as gay man. Finally, we find light and darkness in constant play across the narrative: the novel’s title, for example, originating in stories that the narrator’s father tells him of life on a different planet, “an orphan world with no sun, plunged into perpetual darkness.”

However, An Orphan World is, first of all, a tale of poverty:

“That’s how we lived, my dad and I, in that grey neighbourhood – a grey that was sometimes smoky, sometimes blackish – trapped in a cycle of poverty and never quite at peace.”

The father thinks up numerous schemes to make money – from charging to give people advice at the local bar (“The first piece is free, and from then on I charge.”) to using a tape recorder to pretend that their house is talking, a scam which backfires when they fail to open the door on time and everything on the tape plays ahead of the action. It is their lack of money which forces them to move to the section of town which is without any lights at night:

“I was terrified of the location, right in the heart of the dark zone – as it was called – which had no street lights at all, but the price was within what we could afford.”

Later, when their electricity is cut off because they cannot afford to pay the bill and they illegally reconnect it themselves, they are unable to put any lights on in the front of the house in case they are seen from the street. In many ways, their poverty can be seen as a journey into increasing darkness; however, light in the novel is not presented as the benevolent opposite.

The novel’s central event, overshadowing everything, is the mass murder of homosexuals, presumably on one night. We do not see the violence but are made fully aware of the horror in its aftermath:

“There, in the bar district, we came upon men with no heads: four or five bodies, floating from the neck down in their own lake. Beyond them, in a little heap, the chopped-up crimson flesh of a man (or several men) who’d been out dancing.”

Later, when a lorry appears to take the corpses away, even a policeman throws up at the sights illuminated by the headlights – including the severed heads which have been placed inside the street lights. It’s perhaps for this reason the narrator says at one point:

“So much light that, instead of illuminating the night or dissipating the darkness, it seemed to create them.”

This threat hangs over the narrator throughout – for example, when he is stopped by the police having gone out to look for food, one of them comments: “How come they didn’t kill this one, though?”

The narrator’s sex life is revealed in a refreshingly uncompromising manner. There are no ‘relationships’ but simply a series of sexual encounters. Some of these take place in a sex club he visits, others online. Caputo is particularly good at writing about the Roulette chatroom, and the narrator’s attitude to it:

“A hundred men in one; a stranger transforming into a hundred strangers.”

Later he says, “Sometimes I mistake my screen for the stranger’s”. The influence of the internet on sexual desire is clearly going to be an important topic for writers over the coming decades, and it’s exciting to see Caputo begin to explore this, though elements of voyeurism are also apparent at the sex club:

“I watched them, and I watched him watching them.”

That Caputo places this alongside the narrator’s loving relationship with his father illustrates that he is not emotionally empty – a cliché which is often present when a character indulges in sexual gratification outside of love. The narrator’s connection to his father is evident from the beginning, and Caputo often use language we would associate with a couple:

“With our arms around each other we went to his room…”

And:

“I think about my dad, and go back to lie down beside him (‘beside him’ is code for spooning him).”

There is a beauty in their relationship that survives the ugliness which surrounds them.

An Orphan World is a novel which does things that not many other novels are doing. Its father / son relationship is one of love and companionship rather than tension and resentment; the narrator’s homosexuality is powerfully central to his story without overwhelming the narrative; and the ugliness of its poverty and violence is never quite victorious in the face of its human virtues. It would be a pity if it did not get the audience it deserves simply because of its sexual openness.

Advertisements

Tags: , ,

3 Responses to “An Orphan World”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    A characteristically thoughtful review, Grant. What strikes me about this, alongside other pieces you’ve posted over the last year or so, is how committed Charco Press seem to be to publishing this type of narrative, giving a ‘voice’ to those individuals whose stories deserved to be told. It’s very impressive indeed. If I were to try one of their books, which one would you recommend, particularly given what you know of my interests and tastes? (You’ve probably got a reasonably good idea of those by now!)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: