Giorgio De Maria’s The Twenty Days of Turin is more than a book; it is a literary event. For starters, the novel has a track record of decades spent on the mouths of its fans as they excitedly pass around used copies because the novel has been out of print, and that certifies it as a cult classic. Second, the almost palpable paranoia, strange happenings, eerie atmosphere, bizarre elements/characters, and superb writing make comparisons to Jorge Luis Borges and H.P. Lovecraft obligatory. Third, in its pages, this novel offers a perfect prediction of the internet era: loneliness, disconnection, and constant attempts at reaching others in the void. Lastly, between the outstanding introduction and the careful translation, it is obvious that bringing the book to English-speaking readers was a labor of love translator Ramon Glazov took on eagerly and worked on with the care necessary to offer readers a memorable reading experience. It’s still early in the year, but expect to see this one pop up in many best of 2017 lists.
In The Twenty Days of Turin, an anonymous man recounts his researching efforts as he seeks to illuminate the strange happenings that took place in Turin a decade earlier. At the time of the strange event, sinister happenings affected the city for 20 consecutive days. It started with waves of mass insomnia that drove its sufferers out of their houses and forced them to wander the streets at night in mobs that were unsure of what they were looking for or escaping from. This was accompanied by creepy cries that came from various points in town and seemed to be reacting to each other, foul smells that emanated from everywhere and nowhere at once, and, ultimately, hyperviolent public murders that no one really observed. As the man meets with others who have information to share about the events and explores the history of a mysterious place known as the Library where people shared their most personal writings, the past seems to come back. Sinister entities look at the man from the shadows of the streets of Turin, someone knocks violently at his door, and the threats to his life and those of the people talking to him become as undeniable as they are unfathomable.
The Twenty Days of Turin is chilling and wonderfully weird. On one hand, the narrative is a smart allegory for the feelings of tension and terror that abounded in Italy in the 1970s and a predictive text that nails online (non)communication in ways that most cyberpunk novels failed to do. On the other hand, it is also a fun, fast-paced horror story in which the city is the main character, the past and present bleed into each other, and paranoia takes center stage. De Maria’s style is enjoyable and timeless, and it pushes this story forward at all times without giving the reader a chance to stop and breathe for a while. Furthermore, while this narrative stands on its own feet and is aching to be discovered by fans of weird literature now that it’s available in English for the first time, its DNA is full of echoes of other literary giants. For example, the way people are picked up and slammed to death against statues is reminiscent of that public-yet-unexplainable death H.P. Lovecraft gave Abdul Alhazred, author of the Necronomicon.
The dialogue is enjoyable and tensions permeates the story, but what makes this novel special is the way De Maria managed to create a creepy atmosphere almost immediately and then add eerie elements to it until the end, which is a gem I refuse to spoil here. All of it works because the writing itself is admirable. Here’s a small portion of an early passage in which De Maria writes, in a dialogue, about the sounds that could be heard in the city:
The second scream came from the opposite side, from the area around the cottages…Of course, I couldn’t pinpoint where exactly…Then a third scream, much farther away…farther away, and yet even more terrible. It seemed like they were relaying some kind of message. A few seconds went by, then other screams arose from the most disparate directions…From this neighborhood, and then from lower down, lower down toward the city center, like echoes…And there was always something gray and metallic deep behind it…I repeat: they had the intonation of war cries, not only bold as I said, but virulent and hostile.
One of the most important elements in any novel, one that can make or break a literary work, is the ending. When an author doesn’t land the ending, everything that preceded it becomes tainted. In The Twenty Days of Turin, the opposite is true: any previous shortcomings are immediately forgotten by the dark, surreal, unforgettable ending. This is a novel constructed with a lot of seemingly disparate elements: the mysterious nature of the events, the scary implications and descriptions, the Library and what it meant, how it came to be, and its disappearance/morphosis into something different, religious undertones, dark streets and characters, and Lovecraftian prose (“The physical executors of its crimes are entities much too far beyond suspicion, since once cannot even mention them without feeling reason crumbling.”). However, when taken together, it works perfectly. There is a reason this novel stayed alive despite not being in print, and my hope is that, now that it’s appearing in English for the first time, it gets the attention it deserves from a new generation of readers on this side of the globe.
The Twenty Days of Turin
by Giorgio De Maria; translated by Ramon Glazov
Liveright; 224 p.