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VALERIO EVANGELISTI

A BIOGRAPHY

Valerio Evangelisti (born in Bologna in 1952) is maybe the most known Italian author of fantastic and SF literature. After many years dedicated to the historical research at the university of Bologna, in 1994 he won the Urania prize with the novel "Nicolas Eymerich, inquisitore". The success of the character of Nicolas Eymerich, a 14th century inquisitor, cruel and clever, who investigates over phenomena having in the future their solution, pushed Evangelisti to conceive a true cycle, composed until now of other seven novels: "Le catene di Eymerich" (1995), "Il corpo e il sangue di Eymerich" (1996), "Il mistero dell'inquisitore Eymerich" (1996), "Cherudek" (1997), "Picatrix, la scala per l'inferno" (1998), "Il castello di Eymerich" (2001), "Mater Terribilis" (2002).
In Italy those books are published by Mondadori Editore. "Il mistero dell'inquisitore Eymerich" was initially published in episodes by the important Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica. Another newspaper, the French Le Monde, published in 1997 a short story by Evangelisti, "Sepultura", in a special supplement.
Novels of the Eymerich cycle have been translated in French, German and Spanish; the Portuguese and Brazilian editions are coming.
In 1999 Evangelisti wrote the trilogy "Magus - Il romanzo di Nostradamus", which became a bestseller and until now has been published in twelve countries.
Another cycle more ambitious, published by Einaudi Editore, is composed by an anthology, "Metallo urlante" (1998), and a novel "Black Flag" (2002). Inspired by the heavy metal and punk music, it has as a theme the coming of a schizoid society where between the human beings don't exist feelings anymore.
Valerio Evangelisti has also written on Eymerich three serials of 30 episodes each for the Italian Radio, winning in 2000 the Prix Italia for the best radio fiction. As a novelist he has won in 1998 the French Grand Prix de l'Imaginaire, in 1999 the Prix Tour Eiffel and many other prizes; the last has been the Prix Europe in the European SF Convention held in Prague in 2002.
The Eymerich cycle has inspired a lyric drama, "Tanit" (2000), and many musical albums and songs, mainly heavy metal. A collection of comics based on the Eymerich novels is published in France by Delcourt Editions, and a graphic novel in Italy by Mondadori. Many artists all over the world have dedicated to Eymerich paintings and drawings. Two films on Eymerich are being realized in Italy and in France.
Evangelisti has published in 2000 the book "Alla periferia di Alphaville", an anthology of his articles and essays on popular literature. He is a contributor to many magazines and newspapers in various countries, first of all Le Monde Diplomatique, and the director of the Italian revue Carmilla, dedicated to politics and fantastic literature. He is the president of an Historical Archive on the New Left based in Bologna, where he still lives.
Until now Valerio Evangelisti has sold more than one million copies of his books all around the world.

 

HISTORY AND THE INQUISITOR: NOTES ON THE SCIENCE FICTION OF VALERIO EVANGELISTI

By Luca Somigli, from Toronto University

 

The last decade has seen the rise of a literary phenomenon quite unknown to Italian culture: the widespread production and consumption of genre fiction - mysteries, science-fiction, fantasy, or horror fiction - not imported from abroad, but rather written in Italy and more often than not set there. Of course, genre authors like Andrea Camilleri, who has consistently been at the top of the best-seller charts for the past several months, or Valerio Evangelisti are not the first practitioners to come out of Italy: the history of Italian para-literature - for the most part yet unwritten - should certainly record pioneering experiments such as the review Il cerchio verde, which sought to implement a limited autarchy in detective fiction or the work of honest and often original writers such as Giorgio Scerbanenco, best known as a giallista, but who was also the author of a number of works of science-fiction, or Vittorio Curtoni who, among other things, is the author of what remains to this day the most complete - if somewhat outdated - history of Italian science-fiction. But this tradition of genre fiction has always existed in a doubly liminal space, that is, on the margins of both the official literary establishment on the one hand and of the market of popular literature, whose access was open mainly to authors in translation (American, English, French and, in the case of science-fiction, even Russian and Eastern European in general).
It is thus legitimate to question the reasons why Italian genre fiction has emerged so forcefully in the last decade. It is significant that this phenomenon seems to have taken by surprise the popular fiction industry itself. The back cover blurb of Evangelisti's second novel, Le catene di Eymerich (1995), published in the Mondadori science-fiction series "Urania", made the book sound like a minor miracle: "Autore del romanzo che ha vinto l'ultima edizione del Premio URANIA, oggi Valerio Evangelisti ha l'onore di essere il primo scrittore italiano a venire pubblicato su queste pagine al di fuori di ogni tenzone o competizione letteraria." And in an editorial by the editor in chief of the series, Marzio Tosello, much is made of the fact that Evangelisti has managed to break the traditional hostility of the Italian public towards Italian genre fiction, which resulted in lower sales "ogni qual volta si dava spazio a un autore che magari italiano non era ma il cui nome suonava tale", such as the mystery writer Bill Pronzini. It seems to me, however, that this renewed interest in genre fiction is an aspect of a broader coming together of and outright contamination between high and popular literature. I do not want to imply that we are in the presence of a "closing of the gap" between high and low culture, to use Leslie Fiedler's famous expression, given the fact that much of our younger narrative - from Paola Capriolo to Paolo Maurensig to Alessandro Baricco, and so on - is impervious to the allure of genre. Rather, we are in the presence of a process of appropriation which on the one hand has made certain of the stylistic and structural elements of genre fiction available to writers who do not necessarily locate themselves within that horizon, and on the other has "sanitized" - "sdoganato," to use the political jargon - home-made genre fiction enough to make it a viable alternative to the imported variety.
Of course, there is a long-standing tradition of exchange between genre and "serious" fiction, in spite of the lack of a national tradition for the former, going back at least as far as Leonardo Sciascia's Il giorno della civetta. Likewise, certain of Guido Morselli's novels can be read as instances of very specific sub-genres of science-fiction, from alternative history à la Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle - I am thinking of course of Contro-passato prossimo - to the post-apocalypse dystopia of Dissipatio H. G. Stefano Tani's observations on the uses of the detective novel by "serious Italian writers" seem to me to have general validity for genre fiction as a whole:

In Italy an extraordinarily well-written detective novel by one of the few professional writers of the genre will always remain "only a detective novel," while even a mediocre novel with a detective structure, if written by a traditional "serious" writer (i.e., Michele Prisco), has every chance of coming to be considered by critics a valuable innovative novel.

"Serious" is the operative word here, the one that distinguishes this early appropriations of the conventions of "letteratura di consumo:" genre is used to establish a horizon of expectation which the novel violates - and it is precisely this violation that locates it outside of the contaminated space of the popular - but the violation is functional to the plot itself and to the message it vehicles, and leaves the structures of the genre untouched. In other words, Captain Bellodi's defeat in Il giorno della civetta is functional to the novel's thesis about the pervasive nature of the Mafia and of its entanglements with the political realm, but the novel still delivers the truth (for all of Don Mariano Arena's Pirandellian talk about its shiftiness). Marchica's guilt is proved by the detective, if not by the legal system. In the end, then, what is explicitly negated by the novel, namely the possibility of justice, is what is in any case always denied by the very conventions of the detective genre itself, which stops short of showing the messy details of trials and sentences, usually bringing the text to a closure with the act of naming the guilty party.
On the contrary, the contemporary contamination between consumer and high literature has been the result of a more conscious re-working of the structures and codes of genre fiction. The terms of this complex relationship have been summed up clearly by Carla Benedetti in an essay on "the genres of modernity" (and we will notice, en passant for the moment, the introduction into the discussion of the notion of post-modernity). Benedetti writes:

I generi di recupero sono sostanzialmente il frutto dei mutamenti di criteri estetici portati dal postmoderno, anche se il fenomeno va ben al di là del postmodernismo inteso come poetica. Come è noto, uno dei tratti specifici del postmodernismo è la commistione (o meglio l'indifferenza della distinzione) tra cultura di massa e cultura di élite. [...] Se la modernità svalutava l'essere di genere, nella postmodernità quella svalutazione viene attivamente contrastata. La nuova produzione attinge a piene mani dalla letteratura 'di genere', non più svalutata come tale ma anzi recuperata proprio in quanto di genere. La via del genere insomma si riapre al traffico creativo [...] [L]a nuova produzione [...] fa un uso 'serio' [del genere], o per lo meno un uso che, per quanto ironico e ammiccante, non è mai stravolto o improprio.

Benedetti's picture appears somewhat overtly optimistic here, but she then goes to qualify it in a way that, it seems to me, hits the problem squarely in its centre. Because the apparent recovery and even celebration of genre by serious literature has not pushed genre literature itself within its horizon, but has rather resulted in a parasitic relationship whereby the non-literariness of genre fiction becomes a resource for the literary text itself.

Quanto ai generi di recupero, contrariamente a quanto si potrebbe pensare, presuppongono anch'essi la svalutazione estetica di cui stiamo parlando [i.e., of industrial or consumer literature]. Certamente qui la via dei generi viene riaperta, ma ciò avviene appunto nella forma di un recupero paradossale che non cancella la loro svalutazione estetica, ma semmai la sfrutta: [...] la letteratura di genere viene apprezzata e ripraticata nonstante sia di genere, nonostante porti in sè [...] l''inestetico' contrassegno che la modernità le ha attribuito.

The often cited example of Umberto Eco's Il nome della rosa is a case in point. In Eco's novel, as is well known, the rules of the genre are both re-asserted and subverted, as the denouement of the novel reveals that the truth uncovered by William of Baskerville is both a formally legitimate interpretation of the clues and a colossal misreading of the same. Thus, the appropriation of the rules of the mystery genre is not simply carried out in an "ironic and knowing" way, as Benedetti has it - and that, in any case, would already be incompatible with a "serious" appropriation of those very same rules - but it is rather aimed at a destructuring of the mechanisms which govern the rules themselves. Il nome della rosa always calls for a double reading, as a mystery and as a meta-mystery about the (re)-construction of the crime carried out by William, which works according to what his inter-textual referent Sherlock Holmes called the "science of detection." The double-play of the novel between narrative and meta-narrative level of course is re-articulated at the point of decoding - if, in any case, we can accept Eco's own testimony as having theoretical validity and being more than a mere instance of much-maligned authorial intention - as it calls for a reader who can both "read for the plot" and thus enjoy the fictional world on its own terms (Eco: "I wanted to create a type of reader who, once the initiation was past, would become my prey - or, rather, the prey of the text - and would think he wanted nothing but what the text was offering him") and be the narrator's "accomplice" in distinguishing between the historical reconstruction or the detective plot and the structural, rhetorical, and narrative conventions which govern them - in other words, a reader who does not mistake the play of linguistic and cultural codes with something outside them, i.e., "reality." The fate reserved to the "ingenuous reader" who is unable to carry out these operations is, of course, to be deceived by the text itself. The novel, finally, calls for "post-modern readers":

[W]ith the modern, anyone who does not understand the game can only reject it, but with the post-modern, it is possible not to understand the game and yet to take it seriously. Which is, after all, he quality (the risk) of irony. There is always someone who takes the ironic discourse seriously.

Through irony, the distinction between popular and elite culture, supposedly called into question by post-modernism, is re-asserted at the level of the reader: the post-modern reader is the discerning consumer whose giving in to the pleasure of the text, to the hypnotic and seductive allure that makes him/her its prey, is redeemed by the knowledge that the whole thing is a shadow play of semiotic codes.
It is on the possibility of this double reading that, it seems to me, rests much of the popular and critical success of the writers of the neo-noir or "cannibale" generation. The milk truck which closes Ammaniti and Brancaccio's famous "Sonatina" - by Ammaniti's own admission derived from Topolino rather than from a reality which in any case is jettisoned in a Baudrillardian society of simulacra - projects the whole story onto a purely meta-fictional level, in which every event is mediated into the text through a series of inter-textual references, so that the violence that permeates it is as formulaic and stylized as the gestures of a post-modern kabuki theatre. The level of mimesis shifts a notch, so that we are in the presence of the representation of a representation, of the mimesis of a Quentin Tarantino or Bret Easton Ellis text, of genre fiction, in other words, turned on its head insofar as the only rule is the ironic appropriation of the rules of the genre itself. But - I am not sure whether this is also an instance of irony - this kind of post-modern meta-genre fiction has also made Italian literature safe for genre fiction tout court. Recent anthologies like Gioventù cannibale or, even more obviously, the Urania collection I denti del mostro erano perfetti have brought together "pulp" authors and several of the younger writers who have attempted to work within the parameters of genre fiction without distancing themselves from it.
As some of the comments reported above indicate, Valerio Evangelisti has become in just a few years the capo-scuola of the new Italian science-fiction. A historian by training, before devoting himself mainly to fiction Evangelisti has written books on topics as diverse as Jacobism in Bologna, international terrorism, and the punk movement. Since 1994 he has published seven novels and several short stories, most of which center around the figure of Father Nicolas Eymerich of Gérone, a Dominican friar who in 1352 (but some historical records indicate 1357 as the year of his appointment), at the unusually young age of 32, was appointed Inquisitor General of the Kingdom of Aragona, and who in his long career, which saw him raised to the purple and even appointed papal chaplain under Gregory IX, authored several theological treatises including a "manual of the inquisition" entitled Directorium inquisitorum. While Eymerich anchors the narrative to a specific historical space and time, Europe in the second half of the fourteenth century, Evangelisti's ambition is to sketch a "future history" which stretches - to date - into the 22nd century. To this end, the novels of the Eymerich cycle are structured according to a complex and recurring pattern: each unfolds on at least three separate narrative planes, one set in the 14th century, one usually set in the immediate past or future, and a third set in a somewhat more removed future than the previous one. While the three planes do not converge, the events that take place in each illuminate one another like separate sections of a triptych, and the architecture of the text can be understood only through a kind of synoptic gaze which is able to view simultaneously and juxtapose the three levels.
Like much genre fiction, Evangelisti's novels avoid self-reflection, parody, and other techniques aimed at undermining the consistency of the fictional world and at foregrounding its constructed nature. As Barbara Puschmann-Nalenz writes in her comparative study of science fiction and postmodern fiction, "The model organization of the world by narration is done in SF by presupposing both an objective reality and the coherence of what is represented - not by refraction, multivalidity, metaphors." Thus, "[a]s the SF world is embedded in irreality, it has to be more realistic, even naturalistic in narrative method". For this reason there is a proliferation of the "useless details" which, as Roland Barthes has argued, fulfill no other function in the economy of the text than to proclaim that what is represented is "the real." While Evangelisti's prose is usually lean and functional to the action, these moments in which the density, the tangibility of the represented world is emphasized serve, as in general they do in popular fiction, to precisely locate the reader within the fictional environment. An example, among many possible ones, from Eymerich's first adventure:

L'ultimo piano della torre comprendeva una sala con volta a croce, del tutto priva di affreschi, e una serie di cellette. I capitelli degli architravi delle porte e le decorazioni del soffitto erano stati scalpellati via con furia metodica, per cancellare i segni dell'epoca in cui l'edificio ospitava una moschea. restavano spezzoni sporgenti e qualche informe rnamento geometrico, a cui una mano di calce aveva strappato anche le ultime tracce dell'antica perfezione.

Whereas in a novel like Il nome della rosa (think for instance of Adso's description of the door of the church) description is never "naively" representational, but rather offers the author (and not, of course, the homodiegetic narrator) the opportunity to mobilize a series of cultural codes and tropes, here it does not look outside the confines of the fictional world created by the text.
The same can be said of the CNN-like descriptions of the battle scenes in some of the near-contemporary sections of the novels, in which the careful display of technical terms, coupled with a rigorously neutral heterodiegetic narrator, is functional to the construction of an "objective" narrative, more the province of the historian or the journalist than of the post-modern narrator. Consider for instance the opening of the short story "Metallica," in which Evangelisti imagines the capture of New Orleans by the forces of an unholy alliance between the KKK and southern Christian fundamentalism:

La notte sopra Algiers era solcata dalle scie incandescenti dei missili, lanciati a grappoli dalle batterie semoventi nascoste nelle paludi e tra le rovine di New Orleans. A completare la fantasmagoria, ogni cinque minuti apparivano i tracciati multicolori dei Cruise scagliati dalla portaerei Aryan Defender, ormeggiata al largo delle isole Chandeleur.

Change the verb tenses to the present, and this might well be a report from Belgrade. Style disappears behind the instrumentality of language, which can render the horror of violence not by indulging in its description, as that would once again push it into the realm of simulation, of the anestheticized mediatic display of brutality in which the real is transformed into an always already textual representation, but by simply constituting the connective tissue into which are studded shards of reality like place names, or the "proper" names of weapons and ships.
Evangelisti's adoption of the conventions of genre narrative, however, is not simply necessitated by the fact that the author wants to locate his narrative squarely within the confines of genre fiction. Rather, given the stylized and self-contained nature of post-modern genre fiction, its transformation into a new aestheticism neatly removed, by means of the mediation of mass media, from reality, his return to genre can be seen as a gesture to break out of the limited space of the post-modern novel, and to return fiction to a referential function. In other words, on the one hand Evangelisti acknowledges that in a multi-mediatic society it is impossible to have a direct representation of reality insofar as reality never offers itself in an unmediated way, but is the result of a process of encoding and decoding, of simulations of other simulations vehicled by the media of mass communication. On the other hand, and paradoxically, it is through the return to a genre which is both highly formulaic and at the same time highly concerned with constructing a tangible world that reality can be approached, albeit through an askew and oblique process. Fredric Jameson has clearly described this procedure in a famous essay on science-fiction:

[T]he most characteristic SF does not seriously attempt to imagine the "real" future of our social system. Rather, its multiple mock futures serve the quite different function of transforming our own present into the determinate past of something yet to come. It is this present moment - unavailable to us for contemplation in its own right because the sheer quantitative immensity of objects and individual lives it comprises is untotalizable and hence unimaginable, and also because it is occluded by the media culture that penetrates every remote zone of our existence - that upon our return from the imaginary constructs of SF is offered to us in the form of some future world's remote past, as if posthumous and as though collectively remembered. [...] SF thus enacts and enables a structurally unique "method" for apprehending the present as history.

The construction of a future history linking the various narrative sequences which make up the Eymerich cycle allows the author to carry out an analysis of the present in which are being shaped the forces that will transform the world into the dystopic future envisioned by his fiction. The tripartite structure of the narratives mentioned above parallels on a structural level this closed vision of history. In fact, contra the post-modern common place of a narrative model which emphasizes de-centered, open structures, and which refuses to put an end to the unlimited play of semiosis by bringing closure to the text, Evangelisti capitalizes on the strictures of the genre by enforcing a kind of "strong" closure whereby each level of the plot both comes to a conclusion and simultaneously illuminates and qualifies the ending of the others. Thus, history, far from a random collection of events, is envisioned as an organic and closed system, a complex architecture in which human beings inherit the horrors of the past and are compelled to repeat them. Framing his narratives with on the one hand historically accurate descriptions of the repressive practices of the Inquisition and on the other with the imagined, but equally disturbing, methods of social control of the North American and European nations of the future, Evangelisti suggests that the nightmares and the atrocities of our own century are not detours or momentary steps backward on the way to planetary harmony, but are in fact our true inheritance and destiny. If anything, it is the utopian thinkers of our times, like the psychologist Wilhelm Reich, who plays a central role in the fourth novel (Il mistero dell'inquisitore Eymerich), who are hopelessly out of step with the movement of human history and are destined to be crushed by it (as Reich was by the inquisitory tactics of the FBI).
As several commentators have argued, science-fiction is concerned with the encounter between self and other - hence its fascination with the alien and the exotic, with the "galaxies far far away" and with the new frontiers of cybernetics and genetic manipulation and their apparently endless opportunities for the re-definition of the meaning of what is human. Evangelisti does not avoid this theme, and yet that too is turned inside out by his vision of history. In the first novel of the cycle, Nicolas Eymerich, inquisitore (1994), the protagonist, newly nominated to the post of Inquisitor General, finds himself embroiled in a plot which involves the evocation of ancient pagan gods. Cut to the year 2194 and to a report of a witness of the events surrounding the tragic end of the "psytronic starship Malpertuis": as the report unfolds we realize that what the crew of the Malpertuis was forced to face by its crazed psytronic skipper are the same monstrous gods whose threat Eymerich battled some eight centuries before. Chronologically sandwiched between these two narratives is the story of the scientist and apparent crackpot Marcus Frullifer, whose scientific theories explain the phenomena experienced by both the medieval Inquisitor and the future spacefarers. According to Frullifer's grand theory, the human mind broadcasts particles which are capable of bending space and time and which can be used - among other things - to power starships or give physical shape to the great conscious and unconscious myths of humanity. Thus, the encounter at the far end of the galaxy between the Malpertuis and the mysterious inhabitants of the planet Olympus (the pun is duly noticed by the characters) turns out to be an encounter between humanity and itself - or rather, its own collective dreams and nightmares. The other, in other words, is a product of the human psyche, a purely ideological (but also very real, both within the confines of the fictional world and in terms of its effects) way to give shape to the aspirations or fears of a certain group. Another product of contemporary Italian popular culture, the cult comic book series Dylan Dog, has gotten much mileage from its somewhat qualunquista slogan "I mostri siamo noi," which implies that what Western society defines as normality is pathological insofar as it is built upon a constitutive lack of respect for difference. Evangelisti turns upside down the stereotype by suggesting that the monsters are indeed other from us - and in this lies their power -, but they are first and foremost a product of our own imagination, cultural constructs - texts, if you will - which nevertheless inform and form our own understanding of and relation to the world.
Upon meeting the archbishop Pere de Luna in the course of his investigation, Eymerich answers the prelate's question as to what is the task of the Church, besides caring for human souls, with these words:

Imporre il proprio ordine. [...] Di questi tempi l'anarchia regna ovunque. La Chiesa cattolica, apostolica e romana è rimasta l'unico vero impero. Il solo capace di rinnovare gli uomini e di condurli fuori da quest'epoca di follia.

Eymerich's statement encapsulates not only the ideology of the church he represents but also of every grand narrative which has shaped human culture. What Evangelisti intends to show by juxtaposing one of the most brutally repressive grand narratives of history with its future counterparts (Reverend Mallory's racially pure and religiously homogeneous Confederation of Free America, the RACHE's ethnically cleansed Eastern Europe, the post-capitalist European bloc of Eurobank) is the tenuousness of the post-modern celebration of difference, local narratives, and language games. Seen from this fanta-historical perspective, the present is a historical "deviation," and in it we can observe the signs of the return of its barely repressed other, a new age of intolerance, ethnic, religious and nationalist fanaticism, of, in other words, competing and mutually destructive ways to impose order upon our post-modern condition.
Not surprisingly, the former Yugoslavia has become the testing ground of the difficulties of multiculturalism, as the end of the grand narrative of Communism (or Titoism, the difference, in practical terms, is moot) has seen the resurgence of other forms of strong identities, of totalizing discourses, and has turned the "local" narratives of, say, Serbian identity into the grand narrative of a nation and the source of yet another violent encounter with a constructed other. Definitions are inescapable, and definitions kill, symbolically and sometimes literally. Witness the following exchange in the short story "O Gorica tu sei maledetta," Evangelisti's first published work of fiction, set on the border of the "former Yugoslavia," the Italian city of Gorizia:

- È un ebreo? - chiese il cameraman mentre azionava lo zoom.
- No, di ebrei non ce ne sono più - rispose Grol distrattamente - Però è un mondialista. -
Il termine, che non significava nulla, era entrato nell'uso a indicare chi non aveva un'etnia precisa,e legami di sangue o di campanile da difendere. In pratica, era una generica espressione di disprezzo, senza coloriture ideologiche.

"Mondialista" is the ultimate empty signifier, the label to indicate those who lack precise labels so that they too can be categorized and efficiently exterminated. Thus, we can read Evangelisti's science fiction as the repressed other of post-modern fiction, a literary production which uses genre to argue for the impossibility of escaping genre itself, i.e., the production, circulation and consumption of models of classification whose effects are inscribed onto the real - which in fact is nothing other than the result of these multiple and contradictory inscriptions. History is the history of these genres, and the post-modern dream of escaping genre altogether is - in the architecture of Evangelisti's fiction - only yet another peculiar genre of discourse which is always at risk of flipping into its reverse, into the repressive practices of some form of identity politics. "History," as Jameson has famously said, "is what hurts, it is what refuses desire and sets inexorable limits to individual as well as collective praxis, which its ruses turn into grisly and ironic reversals of their overt intention" (Political Unconscious). He then goes on to caution the would-be student of history: "But this History can be apprehended only through its effects, and never directly as some reified force": hence the power - and use - of a history of the future which, by imagining the effects through which our present will become tomorrow's historicized past, invites us to think about the opportunities and, above all, the limits of our current post-modern predicament.