Roger Vailland sets his story in the small Italian town of Porto Manacore, built on the Adriatic coast near the site of an ancient Greek city known as Uria which is now submerged beneath extensive marshlands. These marshlands provide a breeding ground for the mosquitoes which spread malaria amongst the local inhabitants, and those infected can be identified by their thin bodies, their feverish eyes, and their sallow skin. The antiques which the fishermen occasionally recover from the depths of the marsh, and the labourers from the olive groves, testify to a more prosperous past for the region, but it seems that only the old men are interested in this history; the youths of the town are more concerned with copying the trends and fashions of the north, viewed as a region of opportunity. Porto Manacore is a place from which people hope to escape.
This idea of a town built near a marsh which facilitates the spread of parasites, and near the ruins of a fallen civilization, seems to be used as a metaphor for the two factors suggested to dominate and constrain life in southern Italy in the years after the war. These are an almost feudal system of landownership which confers a bizarre set of rights upon a small number of landowners, and a pervasive system of organised crime which at one level seeks to control everything which occurs in the village and exact a tax on every transaction, and at another level manifests as petty crime and pickpocketing. These combine with a hierarchical social system and a set of values based on traditional ideas such as honour, and which establish norms which determine who in this society is beholden to whom.
The law referenced by the title has nothing to do with civil authority or the official laws of the region. There seems little concept in the society being described of a moral requirement to heed the laws of the land; such laws are viewed as requirements which have been imposed, and which can therefore be evaded. The very people charged with upholding the law, such as the chief of police and his deputies, are those involved in developing strategies for its evasion. They happily invent stories, fabricate evidence, and block investigations, in this case to assist the principal racketeer Matteo Brigante in his efforts to evade justice. He is a man proud of his hobby of raping virgins, and this is known by Chief of Police Atillo, whose own favourite pastime is seducing the wives of the town's leading citizens, making use of the racketeer's premises for his conquests. The two men often compare and contrast their respective pleasures and approaches, each quietly confident that he is the more virile.
However, it is difficult to pin down all that is being implied here by the notion of the law. At the simplest level the title is a reference to the game played each evening in the cafés of the Old Town, a game controlled, like everything else in Porto Manacore, by Matteo Brigante. It is a game of six or more players, played as a series of rounds, and in each round chance, in the form of dice or a drawn tarot card, determines which player will be the chief. He will choose another player as his deputy, and the others will supply a carafe of wine; the round ends when the carafe is drained. The chief behaves however he pleases: he may share the wine with the others or withhold it, and he may interrogate, slander, blame or praise them; his will is the law. A common strategy is to find the most vulnerable player and to humiliate him publicly, by referring to past indiscretions or current rumours, or by proposing some violation of a member of his family; he is required to endure it without flinching. It is the imposition of will which is appealing, the prospect of inflicting or observing the humiliation of another which affords them pleasure, and the possibility of demeaning someone higher in the hierarchy and untouchable in normal life which induces them to play.
But the law refers to more than this. It is a set of ideas and traditions embedded deep within the culture, which codifies obligations. It is a set of norms used to govern behaviour, but more importantly, it also establishes the benchmarks against which the behaviour of others can be judged. It is made clear that every one in the south of Italy is a jurist, ready to judge the others for their adherence to these unwritten rules and to impose them collectively through marshalling of town opinion, and it can encompass everything from the duty of a wife to submit to her husband's desires, to the unquestioned right of a landowner to take the virginity of every young woman in his household, irrespective of her own wishes. It is assisted by the claustrophobic nature of southern Italian life in which every action is observed and reported, and everyone concerns themselves with knowing the business of everyone else.
Roger Vailland tells the stories of several of the locals against this background of corruption and tradition, using their experiences to explore local attitudes and behaviours, and some of it is shocking. Women and young girls are regularly demeaned in the society he describes, and they have little say over their fates. Men who dominate are admired, promiscuity is taken as evidence of virility, and while virginity is venerated, the idea of removing it by force seems to be a common male fantasy. Little is fair, and outcomes seem to favour the strong and the corrupt.
First published by Jonathan Cape, 1958. Published in Penguin Books, 1960.