‘The Viceroys’, by Di Roberto is an Italian classic and an absolute must-read for anyone with an interest in world literature, exaggeratedly horrible characters or the history around the Italian unification. For book lovers, it will especially appeal to those who have enjoyed ‘The Leopard’ by Tomasi Di Lampedusa, but I think its charm goes further. Personally, I find Di Lampedusa’s nostalgic adoration for the decaying old order a bit trying; the author had read the earlier novel, but consciously set out to do something different. To put this into context, ‘The Leopard’ deals with the same time period as ‘The Viceroys,’ but it was written later. In 1957 Di Lampedusa explained his creative ambition to depict ‘a Sicilian nobleman at a moment of crisis (not to be taken to mean simply that of 1860), how he reacts to it and how the degeneration of the family becomes ever more marked until it reaches almost total collapse; all this, however seen from within, with a certain connivance of the author and with no rancour as is to be found, for example, in ‘The Viceroys’.’
Give me rancour any day. The Viceroys is a startlingly bitter and sarcastic novel intent on exposing the corruption of the Sicilian nobility. It traces three generations of the wonderfully hideous Udeza family as they cheat, lie and bludgeon their way through history. If you love Dickens’ Chuzzlewit family (representing England), Zola’s ever charming Rougons (from France) or the impressively vile Russian Golovlyovs as imagined by Saltykov-Shchedrin, then you’ll recognise the Udeza as a valuable and worthy addition to the international fraternity of truly grotesque tribes. Appropriately, the book begins with the announcement of a death, the all-powerful matriarch has passed away leaving a sprawling and brawling collection of hypocritical dependants, all clamouring against her harsh treatment and determined to gain as much from her will as possible.
I suspect anyone reading the book will find their favourite characters within this chamber of horrors. Personally, I think I’ll pick the unbelievably offensive Don Blasco, the monk who manages to be guilty of (I think) all of the seven deadly sins. He has to be a monk, because the contemporary culture was all about preserving the family name and fortune. This meant that only one child in any generation, the oldest son, was allowed to marry or inherit; all his siblings are expected to sacrifice themselves to this end. Such commonplace cruelties are not enough for the Udeza though. The mother only really loved her younger son; she let him marry and managed to somehow split the inheritance in her will, thus sowing yet more discord amongst her other children who were passed over and neglected in turn, but for private, not dynastic favouritism.
Given that the novel is set during the Risorgimento, the turbulent reunification of Italy, this subversion of order all makes perfect sense. What gives the novel its edge, is the dedication with which the author traces the corruption of the Udeza and, by association, with the society itself. Nicknamed ‘The Viceroys’, as Di Lampedusa’s family are called ‘The Leopards’, this explicitly honourable family are really nothing of the kind. Adept at selfishly only considering their own passions and position, the dynasty can take revolution in their stride: ‘When there were Viceroys, we were Viceroys; now there is a parliament, our uncle’s a Deputy.’ This is my first experience of reading Di Roberto, and one of the pleasures was the sustained suspense as I wondered how much the family could take before it imploded. Some grotesque episodes imply their overdue end is nigh, others, such as the quotation above, suggest that they will endure as long as there is potential for their parasitic growth. I won’t spoil the conclusion of the novel, but I will tell you that it is as satisfying dark as everything that came before.
A final note: I read Verso’s new edition of the novel, which uses Archibald Colquhoun’s 1962 translation. While I think it’s shameful that such an enjoyable classic hasn’t been re-translated in over 50 years, the older translation did not in any way detract from my reading pleasure. The pity is that it’s taken me so long to discover this Italian classic, but, if anything, it was worth the wait. A highly, highly recommended read.
I received my copy of ‘The Viceroys’ from the publisher via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.