Saturday, July 3, 2010

Thriller and love story on the surface, serious moral critique beneath (Books - Any Human Face by Charles Lambert)

It was probably a good year-and-a-half ago that Dovegreyreader conducted a wonderful interview with author Charles Lambert where I learned of his collection of stories The Scent of Cinnamon and his novel Little Monsters. I bought the second and for some reason it then festered on my TBR pile unread. Then a few weeks ago I heard described a new novel that Lambert had written set in Italy. I immediately ordered Any Human Face, it arrived this week and I glanced at the first page Thursday evening, becoming instantly hooked. I finished gulping it down this morning.

This is an unusual book in that it has everything - love, suspense, moral conflict, social criticism, psychological acuity, and crack writing - but none of it is expected. It is pitch-perfect on the a fast-paced, ostentatious, brutal beauty of Rome. Who the central character is purposely eludes the reader for some time, although in time the point of view unambiguously settles, but I will let you discover where by reading the book yourself. It moves back and forth between the 1980s and 2008, between Alex, Michel, and Andrew - all young gay men living in Rome. Bruno and Martin - two older journalists - and a wonderful character known as The Birdman, instantly recognizable to anyone who was familiar with the gay scene in the 1980s as the older man who takes in strays and mentors them while harboring an unrequited love - part queen of the bordello, part professor, part nurse, part mama. And three women - Alina, a generous and practical spirit, married to Martin. Daniela - an art critic with terrible taste and worse moral judgment, and The Girl - one of many victims of kidnapping and exploitative sex by higher-ups in Roman and or Vatican politics whose inner monologue Lambert imagines.

Lambert's writing is rich with observations both interior and exterior that imbue character and place with clarity and instantaneous complexity:
It took almost twenty minutes before they could sit down, at one of the tables up against the wall. Bruno told the waiter to bring some bread and a litre of local white. And four suppli. And four filetti di baccala. Alex had his elbows on the table, waiting for Bruno to tell him to shift them, feeling in the mood for a fight, nothing too serious, a touch of friction to remind them both that Alex had a mind and body, and not just body, of his own. He was still smarting from being called Alessandro, his real, despised name, although it might have been worse: Bruno might have said Sandro, as Alex's mother always did. His earlobe was warm, almost sore, from the pressure of Bruno's fingers, the edge of his broken, nictoine-yellowed nail.

Alex was wearing a T-shirt he'd bought that day, white, with Greek letters round the neck, but Bruno, the only person he knew who could read what they said, didn't seem to have noticed...
I love writing like this, a few sentences crammed with sensation that amount to a volume on the experiences to be found in this part of Rome - the sounds, sights, and smells. Alex's inner life is revealed - his youth, insecurity, and how he is different from the typical young man of his neighborhood of origin. The nature of his relationship with Bruno is not explained, but is there to be understood through the details. We learn of the difference classes each come from, and of Bruno's preoccupied state. This is masterful writing - characters and place, inner and outer realities, exposition and plot seamlessly interwoven and wrought through detail not prosaic explanation.

This novel is entertaining to read - a time capsule of 1980s Rome and of a type of gay culture I vaguely knew from New York in that period. Though the book is by no means limited to describing gay culture or relationships - there are loving and unloving people of all sorts in it. It is also a thriller packed with intrigue, sweating with suspense, whose narrative speeds along like a Maserati on the Via del Corso. The plot concerns a collection of photographs which include some sensitive police material and become a mortal threat to anyone who has been in contact with them. Andrew, who owns a bookshop and suffers from artistic pretensions, decides to mount a show together with Daniela (the art critic of doubtful taste) with some of these photographs. There are two outrages represented in these photos - one is the crime exposed by them (and is of such cost to those who would rather not have them on view) the other is Daniela's outlook that when reinterpreted in an artistic context they are rendered anonymous and harmless:
'These images are pure text, Andrew, used, abused, discarded text, crying out to be reinterpreted... She's pixels on paper, darling.'
This novel, though entertaining to read, is an unambiguous critique of the moral hypocrisy that infects the powerful. And the nature of that crime which combines an abuse of power with the dehumanization of innocent people pursuing their mundane pleasures, doing some sort of work, making the little mistakes and the helpful gestures that finally add up to their lives. It is Lambert's accomplishment with this novel that he drives home this point with the juxtaposition of richly imagined scenes rather than with explanation or grandstanding, and that these scenes do double duty as thriller and love story. I also appreciate it for the tender depiction of gay characters both young and old pursuing love and helping each other through the stages of their lives.

This is a superb novel, enjoyable on so many levels. I hope you will seek it out and read it. Now I'm going to try unearth Little Monsters without burying my bedroom and see what Lambert's first novel was like.


Guy Savage said...

I wonder when we can expect the sequel to this?

Ted said...

Guy - Wasn't it fantastic? I don't know if CL is planning a sequel, but I know he is at work on something and it is bound to be worth reading.