Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Review of The Goodbye Kiss by Massimo Carlotta (Europa Editions, 2006 [2000]; translated by Lawrence Venuti)

As a youth, Georgio Pellegrini was full of ideological fervour and commitment that ended with the unintended death of a night watchmen by a bomb planted outside the Industrialist’s Association. Ratted out by an ex-girlfriend, Pellegrini is forced to skip across the French border. A year later, a wanted man in Italy, he finds himself in Central America lending a hand to left wing militants involved in a civil war. When he is ordered to kill a fellow compatriot, he knows its time to leave, slipping across to Costa Rica where he spends a couple of years tending a bar and womanising, growing ever more homesick. Eventually he returns to Paris, determined to find a way to clear his name and return to Italy. His old political group finds someone already imprisoned to take the rap for the watchman’s death. He’s picked up at the border and charged with belonging to an armed group and told that they know about his deception; they’ll throw the book at him if he doesn’t name the entire network. Unwilling to serve a life sentence he cuts a deal with the police and after a couple of years he’s out of prison and looking to create a new life. But there are few opportunities for an ex-militant, ex-con with no scruples except a life of crime. Pellegrini is soon helping to run a strip joint, working various scams to supplement his living, always looking for new opportunities to make money and take advantage of weak women, in often cruel and sadistic ways. And he doesn’t care who he hurts or kills as long as he survives, but then he sees a way to reinvent himself as an honourable citizen – one last job is all that is required to set him up for life.

The Goodbye Kiss is, as one review says, ‘lean, mean and violent’; Italian noir at its darkest, placing the reader in the mind of criminal who’s prepared to do anything to get by. Pellegrini is a well formed character who is frighteningly believable, his thoughts and actions seemingly rationale and logical. He uses intimidation, manipulation and violence in a pre-meditated, calculated way to exert his will, yet he also understands his place in the wider criminal system and how to respect and work that system. Some of his actions are stomach churning and it is difficult to warm to the main character, but that is clearly the point. Criminals like Pellegrini are repulsive and, for many people, unfathomable, and Carlotto provides a window into their world. The book is written in a lucid, engaging, economic prose that keeps the pages turning, and the story is well structured and plotted, with just the right amount of backstory to give credibility. The book is short at 144 pages; and for me slightly too short. I was somewhat surprised when I turned a page to find it was the final one, with an ending I wasn’t expecting and found unsettling (I’d discuss this more, but it’s impossible without giving spoilers). Overall, well written and paced novel, that's a rewarding and disturbing read.

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