352 pp. New York Review Books
Reviewed by Natalia Nebel
Guido Morselli’s brilliant novel “The Communist” gives readers a sweeping political history of last century Europe and the United States, from the 1920s up to 1959. Set in Italy, America and Spain, it crosses borders and eras by asking universal questions about the role of suffering in our lives, along with whether that suffering can be alleviated. On the surface a novel about politics and a dedicated Italian Communist’s existential crisis, on a deeper level it’s an inquiry into whether it’s possible to make an unjust world more just.
Walter Ferranini, the novel’s protagonist, begins questioning his political faith after becoming a parliamentarian in Rome in 1959. He’s a natural pessimist who, over dinner, describes eating as keeping death at bay, and then goes on to say, “we’re keeping death at bay from the moment we enter this world.”
While Ferranini is struggling over his beliefs, in the outside world Communism is shifting—the Russian and Italian Communist are de-Stalinizing, and the Korean War has ended. The Soviet Union is consolidating an Eastern European empire, while America is strengthening a capitalist one. The Cold War that takes shape between these two growing superpowers forces people all over the world to take ideological sides and, in Italy, leftists view America rather than the USSR as an enemy, something important to understand as the context for this novel.
For Ferranini, Communism is a religion, and when his lover Nuccia Corsi points out that his freezing room was first occupied by a priest, and asks him to “at least get a room with a bath,” she’s acknowledging that he’s taken priest-like vows of poverty and self-sacrifice. The fact that he—along with 30 percent of Italians–has chosen a philosophical system that promises an egalitarian society is understandable. Communist goals of redistributing resources and ending the exploitation of labor had great appeal in a country that was still recovering from the devastations of a second world war.
Ferranini’s personal history also led him to the left. Having grown up in a poor family and then been orphaned at age 12, Ferranini knows the hardness of physical labor through personal experience. When still a child he works first at a train station’s warehouse, where he’s fired after being linked to leaflets promoting Communism. He then finds work in a shoe factory where he works 12-hour days for seven years. In this period of hard labor, Ferranini imagined “the world, the world of his companions who worked in the shoe factory, and the world of everyone who labored, as a face of solid rock… Hundreds of millions of human beings with their feet nailed to the ground, shoulders and heads bent under the load of one heavy plate.”
His body is eventually broken by his physical labor, and he develops a heart murmur that makes him unfit for military service. As Ferranini gradually loses his belief system, he loses his sense of purpose; his mind and physical resiliency crack in tandem with his disillusionment in Marxism. As the novel progresses, Ferranini’s struggle for sanity becomes all-consuming for him as well as for the reader, due to the narrative’s expert pacing. Each of Ferranini’s professional and personal disasters is perfectly timed, raising the stakes just when it seems they can’t be raised higher. Morselli makes Ferranini’s hard early life and his visits to the U.S. and Spain as vivid as his present-day Rome crisis through flashbacks, enriching the narrative along with our understanding of early to mid-century Europe and the U.S.
In America he surprises himself by acclimating to American life. Ferranini is a good worker at a company founded by a deracinated Italian immigrant and is soon swallowed whole by what the narrator calls the “bourgeois society’s powerful digestive system.” He begins buying things he doesn’t need, and even marries the daughter of surplus value, as well as of his boss. A few years into their marriage, Nancy’s conservative Americanist tendencies pull her further to the right, and all she values opposes Ferranini’s belief structure. He buys a plane ticket to Italy. During a layover in Shannon, Ferranini is still immersed in his American dreams of love and plenty, and joins a group of Americans who have been asked to step aside for a document check. An airline employee brings him abruptly back to reality by directing him to the Italian group instead. “He felt like cursing.”
In Italy he becomes convinced that the suffering inherent in labor cannot be reduced. “…Labor, and the harm it causes, is a universal and ineradicable condition. Unredeemed.”
He impulsively publishes an article that presents his argument about the intractability of human suffering within labor. His implication that a Marxist utopia will never be possible is clear. It is widely read, creating a firestorm in which Ferranini is called heretical by the mainstream press and disloyal by his own party apparatchiks. Ferranini realizes that he’s no longer a believer, and within this loss he gains an insight that will perhaps save him: Apparently, to eat and sleep is what really matters.
Guido Morselli writes with passion, precision, and an eye for the perfect detail in the “The Communist,” flawless translated by Federika Randall. A reason for the book’s readability and importance today is that Morselli highlights problems with communism without dismissing its ideals. And the novel fulfills literature’s purpose as described by one of Ferranini’s comrades, Dr. Amoruso: “… the important thing we need to know before deciding whether a writer or narrator is worth reading is: has he extended the realm of consciousness in our experience of life or not.”