PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
Like Cleopatra – the Egyptian one – Caterina is adept at juggling lovers. But whereas Cleopatra’s affairs were all wrapped up in the upper political echelons, Caterina’s are distinctly low rent. Every Thursday she visits her boyfriend Aurelio in Rebibbia prison in Rome. He is in custody following a raid on his nightclub and being held under suspicion of pimping out the strippers who worked there. After visiting Aurelio, Caterina hooks up with the policeman who arrested him. Awkward – or so you would think, but Caterina has an endearing blitheness that carries all before her. Claudia Durastanti is one of the rising new voices in Italian fiction and it’s easy to see why. In this novella, which explores Rome’s underclass, she deftly draws the relationships between the protagonists – often in a single, usually pointed phrase – and her spare prose skilfully evokes a demi-monde of cheap hotels and run-down apartment blocks. It’s also packing plenty of mordant wit and Dedalus should be applauded for making it the first work of Durastanti’s to be translated into English.
In this, her fourth novel, and the first to be translated into English, Durastanti paints a vivid portrait of a Rome where nothing in life comes easy. The protagonist, Caterina, is an ex-stripper with a bad hip, which was damaged when Aurelio, her boyfriend, slammed her against a wall. She is now working as a receptionist in a run-down hotel that is never fully booked. When Aurelio ends up in prison for supposedly pimping out his strippers in his nightclub, Caterina resolutely visits him every week despite the growing distance between them, and despite the fact that she is in fact having an affair with the policeman who arrested Aurelio.
In just 140 pages, Durastanti succeeds in exposing this world of strip clubs, dodgy deals and run-ins with the law, illustrating just how difficult it is for someone like Caterina, who has known hardship all her life, to escape her past and forge her own path. The chapters alternate between the first and third person, allowing the reader to get closer to Caterina without ever being able to figure her out completely. The truth behind Aurelio’s imprisonment, which is gradually revealed as the book goes on, adds an element of mystery to the plot.
The Rome that many readers will know from weekend city breaks, with its luxury hotels, fine wine and sumptuous meals, is entirely absent here. What we get instead is a visceral story of a young woman who does her best to carry on despite knowing that her true dream – to be a dancer – will never become a reality.