Sunday, 15 May 2011

Penguin no. 2371: The Fancy Dress Party
by Alberto Moravia

Sebastiano was quite capable of seeing that Tereso's government was in many respect's arbitrary and was founded wholly on force. But the idea of a government composed of people like Saverio was utterly horrifying to him. Tereso, he said to himself, at least knew how to sit on a horse. In concluding thus he was following the dictates of taste, which seemed to him more reliable than reasoning. To Sebastiano, who was very serious in his frivolity, there was no greater sin than lack of elegance and no greater inelegance than a belief in something. Now Saverio was ugly, misshapen and badly dressed, and believed in too many things. This was quite enough to make Sebastiano prefer Tereso to him and people of his sort.

The English title of this translated novel seems insipid and poorly chosen. It doesn't convey the essence of the story at all, although it is captured perfectly there on the cover. In Italian the title is La Mascherata, meaning not so much a fancy dress party as a masquerade, or at least something masked or camouflaged.

And that is what this book is about on so many levels: each of the characters is taking part in a game of calculated subterfuge, pursuing a goal inevitably linked to power, sex or money, but always with an element of pretence or concealment. Even the book itself has something of a masked purpose: it is a kind of farce containing an analysis of the Italian fascist regime of Mussolini, but pretending to be the story of a dictatorship in an unnamed ex-Spanish colony somewhere "on the other side of the ocean". Copies of the second edition of the book were seized by the Italian authorities.

The totalitarian state is partitioned into its component parts, with each part represented by a major character: there is the dictator at the head, the fawning upper classes who support him, the police who maintain his authority through terror, the spy network on which they rely, corrupt individuals seeking the dictator's patronage to increase their wealth and their power, and the communist revolutionary with his idealistic dreams of the proletariat. At the base are the simple, unsuspecting and uncritical people.

The dictator is General Tereso Arango, who fought his way to victory in a civil war, consolidated his rule  through questionable means, and now finds himself secure and popular. He is beloved by the crowds but unloved by any woman, and women are his weakness. Unfortunately his success and power make him a magnet for the wrong type. The Duchess Gorina represents the wealthy upper classes. She wants the General as a guest at one of her parties in order to enhance her own prestige, and to lure him she presents the young and beautiful widow Fausta as bait. But Fausta is well named: she is immoral, unchaste and calculating, representing the corrupt elements of the regime. She will pretend an affection for Tereso and become his mistress in return for a government contract and its lucrative benefits for her brother.

But the party at the Duchess' villa simultaneously presents an opportunity for others. The Chief of Police Cinco wants to sure up his position and power, which is inevitably slipping as the General becomes more assured of his own popularity. While wearing the mask of loyalty, he plots a fake assassination attempt with his spy Perro. Perro loves intrigue, and loathes revolutionaries, and yet has established himself as the head of a local revolutionary party. He has no trouble recruiting the fanatical but naive Saverio to carry out the fake plot by dressing as a footman and planting a bomb in the General's bathroom, even though it carries the risk of death. Saverio's unsuspecting brother volunteers to join the plot for his own reasons, wearing the mask of a revolutionary.

And so everything is masked. Every element involves some measure of deception: fake bomb, fake plot, fake revolutionary party, fake loyalty. Wherever you look in this story things are not as they seem.

Its strength lies in the unusual narration. The story is told by following each of the characters in turn, learning of their thoughts and beliefs, the opportunity they perceive in the Duchess' party, the true motive of their actions and the mask that they present to the others. Each is described and analysed in turn, but the author passes no comment; the descriptions are insightful, but the individuals are never condemned. This is simply what they are: grotesque, immoral, self-centred and self-justifying; the system of government encourages it.

The climax of the novel is farcical, but the message is clear: in the end nobody wins.

Also by Alberto Moravia:
Penguin no. 880: The Woman of Rome
Penguin no. 1357: Roman Tales
Penguin no. 1460: Two Adolescents

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