Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Origin of Species

The Origin of Species by Nino Ricci (Doubleday Canada, 2008) 472 pp.

All Italo-Canadian writers worship, secretly or not so secretly, at the altar of Nino Ricci which must be both somewhat gratifying and intensely annoying for him. He is our gold standard. Full disclosure: Nino Ricci is a cherished colleague who has been wonderfully supportive of my work in the past and today. It is a pleasure to read, think and write about his work.

We first meet the character Alex Fratarcangeli in Montreal in 1986; he is the quintessential child of Italian immigrants: smart, over-educated, under-confident, and unsure of himself in the world. He is also a dispirited teacher of English to newly arrived immigrants in Montreal and upper class Quebecois wishing to be more fluent in English. He seems comfortable in neither world. He refers to himself as "Italian but not Italian" and it rings true ... The book moves back and forth in time recounting many of Alex's personal relationships from the early to the late 80s.

This protagonist is oddly appealing and different it seems to me, a new direction in Ricci's narrative voice. Vittorio Innocente, the hero of the first three Ricci books in the Lives of the Saints trilogy, seemed somehow removed from the circumstances, sometimes horrific, which he experienced. The language was beautiful and the scenes rendered poignantly but there seemed to be a god-like distance between the narrator and the characters and between the narrator and the actions depicted. Here, Ricci is in your face with the sometimes angry, sometimes volatile Alex.

Immersed in almost daily therapy sessions with a Freudian psychoanalyst, struggling with his dissertation based on linking "Darwin’s theory of evolution with the history of human narrative" which one reviewer described as "quixotic", he is a troubled, lonely figure. Battling depression and conducting imaginary conversations with broadcaster Peter Gzowski in a wished for world of future success and fame (and I also love Alex's imaginary jousting with a "sibylline" Margaret Atwood who derides his opinions on CanLit), he lives very modestly, counting every penny, vaguely ashamed of his background and roots, sometimes hilariously inept with women. He slowly becomes unwillingly captivated by Esther, a young woman with Multiple Sclerosis who lives in Alex's building.

At first I was puzzled by the linking of Esther's life (based on a real friend Ricci had in Montreal during his Concordia days according to a recent Toronto Star article) and the Darwinism angle. Ricci described it this way: "Multiple sclerosis, like any other auto-immune disease, is about a body turned against itself. I saw a metaphor there for a world turned against itself."

As a younger man in 1980, Alex retraced the steps of Charles Darwin's 1831 trip to the Galapagos Islands from which he formed the basis of his theory of evolution. It is the centre piece of the book and clearly serves as a symbol for what transpires in Alex's chaotic life. The tone is decidedly different: Alex's experiences with Desmond a professor and researcher whose scientific aims are murky and dubious coupled with the maneuverings of the volatile Santos who has been hired to drive his boat to various islands creates a tense atmosphere which teeters on the edge of violence and ugliness. Alex evolves from a melancholic, aimless young man into a selfish, unpleasant and unwilling participant in Desmond's experiments. And yes it all ends badly.
The times are tumultuous for Alex and for Montreal when he returns. The reviewer Frank Moher of the National Post described it, in his not so flattering book review, as how "social Darwinism plays out in an urban intellectual setting".

Alex is profane, obsessed with women he both desires and seems to fear, leery of commitment, yet lonely and fearful of being alone ... Alex appears, to my mind, so vastly different from Ricci's other fictional characters: his passive unhappiness and gentle demeanor seems to hide an angry, ugly side which manifests itself primarily in his messy sexual relationships and fixations with women:

Esther, his neighbor whom he pities more than he desires ("Her life was like a quicksand he fell into ..."); a son in Sweden resulting from a brief romantic entanglement with Ingrid, a slightly older, divorced woman met during his European travels as a twenty year old. A bitterly ended and sometimes sexually volatile past relationship with Liz, a visual artist, who reluctantly had an abortion and blames Alex for it. Maria, a sexy El Salvadoran student in his ESL course, who haunts his fantasy life.

Liz, probably the most important relationship in his life, was cast aside in high school "in the Darwinian logic of adolescence" for a slightly "better" girl even though they later pair up and share a home. The pattern continues for Alex throughout his adult life, he is constantly "trading up" sexually ... taking what he can, when he can, then timidly moving on when something better comes along.

Maria deigns to allow Alex to tag along to her various political activities: environmentalism, Amnesty International, social activities in the Salvadoran community, Alex shadows her hoping for some sexual crumb from Maria's seductive table. He receives neither sexual intimacy nor encouragement.

His life only becomes more messy and complicated. Alex wages a largely singular battle against the new owners of his apartment building who are trying to raise the rent. His thesis supervisor Jiri Novak asks to move in wreaking havoc in Alex's life and apartment until he is unceremoniously thrown out by Alex. He dallies with old lovers like Amanda whom he faintly desires but seems to fear and detest more. Amanda, too, slips away.

In the background of Alex's life is the degeneration of Esther's body due to the ravages of MS. She loses mobility, then her independence and finally her confidence and will to survive. The impertinent quirkiness Alex found in her in their first encounter rapidly diminishes with the progression of her illness. Guiltily, he visits her in the hospital when she finally succumbs to her illness and Alex reluctantly assumes the false mantle of white knight, driven in equal parts by platonic affection and guilt. I loved it in all its complexity and ugliness and cerebral philosophizing.

And I look forward to the new bio on Trudeau Nino has written as well which was published last month.


Unknown said...

Outstanding review, Michelle (full disclosure and all!) I'm also looking forward to the Trudeau biography.

A Lit Chick said...

Thanks Maria, it's a challenging, satisfying read.