By Gianrico Carofiglio, translated by Howard Curtis.
Published by Old Street, 2007 (first published in Italy 2004).
Gianrico Carofiglio has written three excellent novels* in a series set in the Italian seaside town of Bari. The Past is a Foreign Country is also set in Bari but is not part of this series. The book opens with a chance meeting between the unknown narrator and a woman in a bar. The woman finishes her fruit juice, comes over to the narrator’s table and stands there. He does not remember her. She says her name.
This act brings back a flood of memories to the narrator, now revealed as Giorgio, who in the early 1980s was a 22-year-old law student, living at home with his parents (as is common for students in Italy), going out with an attractive but boring girlfriend, Giulia, and living a life of predictable routine. One night, Giorgio and Giulia are at a party at a friend’s house when Giorgio witnesses an attack by some drunken men on a fellow guest. He impulsively head-butts the main aggressor, and the men are subsequently thrown out. The man Giorgio has rescued introduces himself as Francesco, and the two become friends. Francesco introduces Giorgio to a far more exciting lifestyle than he could imagine – but as well as adrenalin rushes there are hints of darkness, hints that escalate into horror.
Interspersed with the story of Francesco and Giorgio is another narrative, that of Chiti, a young lieutenant in the carabineri (the Italian military police). He is charged with finding a man who has sexually assaulted several young women over the course of the past couple of years. Chiti is a lonely man, prone to debilitating headaches, an outsider both in Bari itself and to the culture of the carabineri, even though his father was also in the force.
The book is a superb Italian version of the existentialist nightmare, as Giorgio becomes increasingly alienated from his parents, his studies and everything he knew. He feels himself being sucked into a vortex, but is helpless to resist its attractions. And in the counter-story, Chiti is a parallel version of the same dilemma of self, mortality and one's place in the world, but from a more subdued if no less nightmarish perspective.
Although The Past is a Foreign Country is in part a crime novel, it is also a fascinating psychological and philosophical character study, not pretentious or hard-going, drawing the reader into its web as much for its atmosphere as for its plot. My favourite part in the novel was the closing chapters, when Giorgio meets his long-estranged sister and when we learn the background of the encounter in the bar which began the story.