Tuesday, 15 October 2013

'Cocaine' by Pitigrilli (Review)

Today I'm looking at another book from new indie publisher New Vessel Press, a recent addition to the world of translated fiction.  Last time, I reviewed some contemporary Argentine literature, but this time we're looking at an Italian classic - a rather controversial one...

Cocaine (translated by Eric Mosbacher, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a reissue of a novel by Pitigrilli, a writer whose work shocked staid authorities in the 1920s.  It's the biting, witty tale of Tito Arnaudi, a young man who runs off to seek fame, fortune and fun in Paris (well, where else?).

Tito is in the prime of his life, but averse to following other people's instructions, so he decides to make a living from a mixture of journalistic instincts and sheer cheek.  His first article, on the shadowy Parisian world of cocaine, makes him an instant hit and opens doors both professionally and socially.  This is his ticket to a world of pleasure, one centred on two lovers - and a lot of the white stuff...

While naughty and witty, Cocaine is not really explicit, but it's unsurprising that the novel was frowned upon by the church in Italy.  Sex and drugs and naked dancing may have been a fair reflection of the time, but it's unlikely to have amused the Vatican.  It's a fun book though, with jokes everywhere you look
Tito looked at him, puzzled.  Then he said: "You've had an unhappy love affair.  Has your mistress been deceiving you with her husband?"
p.138 (New Vessel Press, 2013)
And there are plenty more where that came from :)

In the early parts of the novel, the reader is treated to fantastic scenes of the hedonism of the time.  Forget Gatsby and his lame soirées - people really knew how to party in Paris.  The evening held by Kalantan, one of Tito's lovers, is astonishing in its open description of the way the upper classes spent their free time.  Strawberries and chloroform, butterflies flapping about helplessly, asphyxiated by the fumes of the mind-altering chemicals, naked dancing, cocaine aplenty, and guests openly injecting morphine.  While the orgiastic scenes that inevitably followed are veiled, it's still a rather powerful image.

It's the second girlfriend, Maud, that Tito really falls for though.  Initially a prim and proper Italian girl, she is ruined by the reformatory her parents send her to for her own protection.  Having disappeared from Tito's life, she reappears in Paris, a mid-grade celebrity, a high-priced 'girlfriend' and an enticing figure with a handbag-sized dog (eighty-odd years before Paris Hilton copied the style).  It's little wonder that our hero decides to pursue her.

Tito, obsessed, follows her across the seas to several continents in the hope of winning her heart.  However, Maud is a dancer who can't help feeling wanted; Tito can have her, but not exclusively.  In this impossible quest, and the globe-trotting, there are shades of a hedonistic Candide - in this, the best of all possible worlds, everything (even drug abuse) must be for the best...

Of course, a life lived at this pace has consequences, and Pitigrilli makes this abundantly clear, giving us warnings from the very start.  When Tito goes looking for cocaine for the first time, he encounters a group of female addicts, twitching and desperate for drugs:
"But the four harpies didn't calm down.  Panting, with dilated nostrils and flashing eyes, they clawed at the box of white powder, like shipwrecked persons struggling for a place in the lifeboat." (p.24)
It's a timely warning for our feckless friend...

Tito fails to heed these warnings though, and as his twin obsessions, sex and drugs, blend into one (he even starts calling Maud 'Cocaine'), his downward spiral accelerates:
"Tito's nights were restless.  In the evening he took strong doses of chloral to overcome the insomnia produced by the drug he could not give up.  The result of the incurable insomnia and the useless drug was a hallucinatory state; he spent long hours in a state of wakefulness in which he felt he was dreaming and in a state of sleep in which he felt he was awake." (p.153)
What goes up (the nose), must come down...

In the end, despite the wit and constant light touch, Cocaine is a sobering account of the dangers of drugs and sexual obsession.  Tito is quite obviously doomed to a sad ending, but you suspect that he's quite happy to trade in his twilight years for a brief moment of ecstasy.  It all makes for a thoroughly enjoyable story from a forgotten writer :)

Cocaine has an added extra in the form of writer and journalist Alexander Stille's afterword, one which focuses more on the man than the story.  It's an intriguing, fifteen-page tale of a man who... well, wasn't very nice.  Fascist informer, selfish traitor, Dino Segre (Pitigrilli's real name) was a pretty nasty character all round, albeit a very interesting one.  Cocaine is a great read, but I'd definitely leave the real story until after you've finished the novel ;)