Persecution, the title of Alessandro Piperno’s scorchingly ambitious second novel, is not a straightforward label for the catastrophe that befalls the protagonist, Leo Pontecorvo. It is, however, the one he would sincerely use. A distinguished pediatric oncologist and university professor living in 1980s Rome, Leo stands accused of molesting his thirteen-year-old son’s pre-teen girlfriend, with whom he has, apparently, been engaged in an illicit correspondence. Father and son learn of the charge when (on the novel’s first page) it is announced on the evening news during a family dinner:
It was pointless to pretend that Samuel’s tender age kept him from intuiting what had been immediately clear to the others: someone on the TV was suggesting that his father had fucked his girl. And when I say “girl” I mean a kid of twelve and a half with pumpkin-colored hair and a weaselly, freckled face. But when I say “fuck” I mean fuck.
Thus we are immediately introduced to the novel’s central question—is Leo guilty of a terrible moral and legal transgression?—and to the audacious bluntness of the first person narrator. The authorial voice is like a Greek chorus; never identified, nor a participant in the action, it narrates with selective omniscience and a tone laced variously with condemnation, empathy, and psychological speculation. It’s a risky strategy on Piperno’s part. But it works, mainly because his narrator’s strange offstage authority fits with the explicitly tragic overtones of the plot, in which a high-born, handsome, successful hero is subjected to a stunning reversal of fortune and an expulsion to the underworld.
Leo’s prison is the cellar of his luxurious villa in an exclusive suburb of Rome, where he retreats and cuts off all human contact. He is compelled to hide from not only “the judges, the newspapers, public opinion” but from “the people who at that moment he feared most in the world”—his wife, Rachel, and their two sons. From the depths of his physical and spiritual seclusion he relives, in a series of looping and disjointed flashbacks, the experiences that shaped his life and brought him to his current state of disgrace. (The novel’s subtitle is The Friendly Fire of Memories.)
We learn about his marriage to Rachel, a morally upstanding woman whose observant Judaism contrasts with her husband’s laxity. Leo, a member of the “Jewish bourgeoisie that had emerged unharmed from persecution” is more interested in “Jewish culture” than “Mosaic law.” We also learn about his loving, complicated relationships with his two sons, and with his domineering late mother. And, most importantly, Leo recalls his first encounters with the young girl who accuses him of attempted rape, Camilla—or, as he prefers to think of her, “that precocious little whore,” “the little psychopath.”
Though it is the most unequivocally destructive, Camilla’s accusation is not the first importunate intrusion into Leo’s hitherto charmed life. Before the novel begins he has been placed under investigation for financial wrongdoing—some sort of embezzlement or swindling; allusions to it are vague—in connection with the private medical clinic where he has his pediatric practice. As to his culpability for all the alleged crimes, Piperno keeps us guessing with impressive deftness, spreading equal clues to Leo’s guilt or innocence.
While the suspense is maximally exploited—whether the gorgeous, charming Professor Portecorvo is a thoroughly depraved individual or a victimized innocent is a truly intriguing puzzle—the novel is just as preoccupied with how truths and falsehoods can be perceived as slippery, or subjective, or tailored to public opinion. As defense lawyers are fond of saying, the truth is less important than the convincingness of a story, and Leo goes one step further than that. “The only true story,” he thinks in despair, “. . . is the one everyone will believe,” which “speaks of the moral corruption of a twelve-year-old girl by a fifty-year-old man at the peak of success.”
Even if Leo is innocent, we are asked to wonder if he is nevertheless in a predicament of his own making, or if, somehow, his blissfully privileged surroundings have sprung their own trap. His tragic flaw might be gullibility, the narrator suggests, or a lack of cynicism born out of never having to hustle. Or it might be vanity, a desire to be admired that trumps cautiousness and was always too easily fulfilled. (This is how his wife would see it.) Either way, it turns out that Leo’s dazzling worldly accomplishments—his innovation in the treatment of childhood cancers, his newspaper column, his professorship at a university—debilitate him in the face of these dark challenges. And it is those accomplishments, in accentuating his allegorical fall, which make the scandalous tale even more luridly appealing to the prurient press, thus sealing his doom.
Written in unstintingly sharp and arresting prose, magnificently translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, Persecution is an exhilarating and often uncomfortable read. The devastating depiction of Leo and his jaded milieu contains nothing redemptive, or at least not yet: the nearly-400 page book ends, soap opera style, with a “to be continued” message. But even if the second book in the promised diptych offers no outright catharsis—nor reveals the identity of the mysterious narrator—Alessandro Piperno’s dark wit and forensically acute insights will surely keep readers coming back for more.