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In the wax museum to seek the dream of a better world In the latest book by Raffaele Nigro, Il custode del museo delle cere (The wax museum curator), published by Rizzoli, a sumptuous kaleidoscope of stories within stories.
Speaking statues that relate a hundred years of history. The dream of Socialism and the death of utopia. But maybe we can still hope
by Giuseppe Lupo
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In one of the chapters of Verifica dei poteri (1965) Franco Fortini writes: “Il socialismo è stato una favola, sognata per un secolo” (Socialism was a fairy tale, a century-long dream). This phrase, despite it having been said fifty years ago, fits well together with Il custode del museo delle cere (Rizzoli, pp. 281, 19 euros), the recent narrative work with which Raffaele Nigro tries to re-evoke, at least in symbolic and allegorical terms, the still-flickering reverberations of a political credo preached to the weak and defenseless. The central idea of the book, that which holds up the scaffolding of the tale and enables the reader to travel through its pages from top to bottom, consists in the osmotic relationship between History (with a capital H) and the single happenings that concern the destiny of individuals, their not-always fulfilled hopes, the unlikely possibility of holding out in the long term. But let’s proceed in order. Let’s start at the end, i.e. with the words Raffaele Nigro uses to sign off with his readers, wondering, ironically, and perhaps polemically, whether such a narrative is “opportune” or “useful”. Let’s quash his doubts: Il custode del museo delle cere is both opportune and useful and, like Viaggio a Salamanca (2001), which it is slightly reminiscent of in its narrative structure, a sumptuous, rich, evocative kaleidoscope of stories within stories. Its form, in fact, reminds us of that tradition of Arabic-Mediterranean story-telling that includes Boccaccio or Basile: a grandfather invites his nephew to visit a wax museum in the city of Bari, where, by miracle, the statues wake up from their silence and immobility to tell of a slice of their life, to reflect, in the wide seas of macro-history, on the fragment of time in which they lived. We’re dealing with framed tales, therefore, or a polyphonic novel. We who read the strange dialogues that the grandfather holds with the statues, travel through many geographies: the epochs of the Goths and the Byzantines, the Italy of Frederick II, of Sicily on the eve of the battle of Lepanto, the acts of the brigands that inflamed the southern Appenines after 1861, Albania moving from under the Ottoman Empire to the Stalinist orbit. We group together civilizations and languages which are different one from another but are held tight in a deep lack of faith towards all kinds of officialdom; we are shakily poised between the torments of a not very sedimented past and the winds of a future that has caught the whiff of a chimera. We are dragged by Nigro to reflect on one of the deepest motifs, from which derives a substantial suspicion, not so much regarding History, as regarding the way it is told. And to help us we turn to the magnificent dialogue between Borjes (the Spanish soldier sent to help the brigands in post-unification southern Italy) and Crocco (the chief of the brigands). The former who believes in the validity of written records and shouts: “Documents are history. If you destroy documents you destroy memory”; while the latter recognizes the superiority of life over the telling of history: “And what counts most, signor Borjes: the history that they will write tomorrow or the story we are living through today?”. So –we wonder – can a book that deals with such questions be useless? Why doubt such a story? The answer lies in the grandfather’s words, when he reveals to his grandchild that the writers of today “dress up as detectives and look for murderers. They dabble in the love affairs and troubles of politicians and cinema personalities, or they aspire to appear on T.V., investigating mysterious codes, the sacred Graal and squalid murders to entertain readers who are worried about daily life”. Nigro speaks through the mouths of his creatures, in this case an old intellectual never unwilling to listen to the siren song of that old project of a fair world, of Socialism, never achieved except in degenerate forms (the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, for example), despite being invoked for a long time at the beginning of the 20th century as a definitive antidote to the toxins of History. It may be true that in this museum-book there are no police commissioners at work, nor night-watchmen to guard those who sleep, but Nigro has no fear of committing, through his ghosts of wax and flesh, the most serious of murders: the end of utopia seen as the death of the hope for a brave new world. The grandfather’s walk with his grandchild leads right here; two generations facing the last hundred years, which started expecting the sun to shine on the future, but sadly depicted as “the sick century”. This doesn’t mean that the dreams have been wiped off the face of the earth. Just that they have been banned from the tendencies of a literature that all too often hurries off in chase of a culprit when it should cultivate the risk of memory as a grammar of identity, participating on the front line at the funeral of Raffaele Crovi (one of the most moving episodes in the novel, probably a part in which Nigro goes to the roots of his own narrative), as an interpreter and heir of a question that, from Vittorini to Pasolini, from Carlo Levi to Sciascia, from Scotellaro to Dolci, makes each written page a trial of conscience, a testament, a bible.

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