The Years of Lead: A Review of Giorgio De Maria’s The Twenty Days of Turin

7 min read

by Anthony Perconti

The 2017 English translation by Roman Glazov of Giorgio De Maria’s The Twenty Days of Turin (A Report from the End of the Century), connotes a high water mark in the international weird fiction literary scene. Initially published in late 1977, The Twenty Days has gained traction amongst certain Italian circles as a cult classic. Upon reading it, I can certainly see why. Hailed by La Stampa as a “book dipped in the stream of cruel and timely metaphors”, Giorgio De Maria’s singular novel is a meditation on the political violence that erupted in Turin (and throughout Italy in general) during the era known as the “Years of Lead”.

Giorgio De Maria

This turbulent era lasted from 1969, well into the 1980s. This back and forth conflict between (as a simplification) left and right-wing factions, took a great toll on the citizenry of Turin and well beyond. De Maria ran in the same circles as the luminaries Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco (they were members of an avant-garde music group, ‘Cantacronache’, that sought to dust off and politicize traditional Italian folk songs). But unlike those two companions, Giorgio De Maria explored topical political concerns in a profoundly different way. The Twenty Days of Turin examines the phenomenon of political strife and violence through the pessimistic lens of cosmic horror. Or as Roman Glazov states so eloquently in his Translators Introduction; “Like Maistre before him, De Maria imagined a Divine Providence that was ruthless, opaque and, viewed through limited human eyes, seemingly amoral…The only safe choice available is not to pry too deeply.”

The Twenty Days of Turin takes place on the verge of the 21st Century, in that “City of Black Magic”. A nameless narrator (a salary-man by trade) and denizen of the city is in the process of investigating the strange circumstances that took place a decade earlier.  This man’s eventual goal is to write a book on the phenomenon, collectively known as “The Twenty Days of Turin”. A decade previously, a wave of mass insomnia plagued the city, in which, droves of sleepless citizens milled about aimlessly in the various piazzas. To make matters worse, during that late, draught inflicted spring (and early summer), these somnambulists began dying in a highly gruesome and bizarre manner.

At the onset, our narrator is interviewing the first victim’s, Giovanni Bergesio’s sister, Alda. This Millenarist recounts her brother’s disturbing dream (whenever he was able to fitfully doze off) just prior to his death; of a dried-out lake with a very deep bottom. “The bas-reliefs? Oh, I can’t remember well…He said that they were badly worn out…He seemed to recognize images of himself as a child and the faces of our mother and father…” Our inquisitive narrator leaves this meeting with unique information concerning the death of Bergesio. Braced up by this new data, he goes into full private investigator mode (a la Chinatown) in uncovering the truth of “The Twenty Days”, wherever it may lead.

At the time, when these murders and the “phenomenon of collective psychosis” were visited upon Turin, the institution known as the “Library” came into existence as well. Not to be confused with the beneficial public repository of books and knowledge, this upstart organization is a malign echo of the former. Housed in a Church-run sanatorium and bolstered by an army of mysterious, smiling, well-dressed youngsters (that reek of Sales or Hedge Fund Traders), the Library provided the citizenry of Turin with a peculiar brand of reading material. As Glazov states; “Tellingly enough, the Library’s patrons turn out to be “people with no desire at all for ‘regular human communication’”.

The institution becomes a colossal storehouse of memoirs by perverts and maniacs, taboo fantasies and even whole diaries devoted to bullying…This collection of personal horrors-which De Maria often juxtaposes with images of garbage dumps and overflowing sewage- swells to mountainous proportions…rather than helping its users connect, the Library consumes their privacy in a “web of espionage…malicious and futile.” Paranoid that anyone around them, friend or foe, might have read their unguarded confessions, the diarists are drained by unnatural insomnia that sleeping pills cannot cure.” This is perhaps De Maria’s most prescient flourish of the novel; an analog version of a cyberpunk hell. A physical space that is a stand-in for today’s caustic and toxic culture that can be found on (and exemplified by) various social media platforms, 24/7.

As the salary-man follows up on the various leads and clues, sending him deeper and deeper into what is obviously a conspiracy, De Maria ratchets up the paranoia factor exponentially, which would make Franz Kafka proud. Phone calls at all hours, with silent parties on the other end, grotesque variations of Punch and Judy shows, inhuman disembodied EVP’s, along with cars and those ubiquitous walkie-talkie wielding youngsters tailing our protagonist at every turn, leaves the reader with a sense that the walls are closing in. The moves on the board are collapsing down. In one scene near the story’s conclusion, our amateur detective is visited in his apartment in the middle of the night, by something. “I was woken with a start by a terrifying blow against my front door…There was too much violence in the impact; it couldn’t have been produced by a human fist, not unless it came equipped with a hammer-but not even that! If anything, it had to be a mace, like the ones medieval warriors used.” Suffice it to say, that these entities, these mace bearers (who leave behind them reek of vinegar and broken human bodies), are directly linked to the murders of the decade past. Vagueness on my part, concerning the true nature of these supernatural antagonists, is intentional. I will say, however, that these beings are intimately tied to Turin in a fundamental way.

In De Maria’s political allegory, the “phenomenon of collective psychosis”, gave rise to the “foul, small-minded deities” that threaten and plague both the real version of Turin and its fictional counterpart

I am of the opinion that The Twenty Days was Giorgio De Maria’s attempt at an exorcism. This book is the author’s way of coming to terms and cognitively digesting the factional violence that was so commonplace throughout Italy during the 1970s. The “Years of Lead” that contributed to four thousand (and some estimates go as high as fourteen thousand!) cases of political violence, left hundreds of Italians dead and thousands wounded. The polylithic, factional violence between Marxist armed cells and neo-fascist terrorist groups eventually gave rise to a shift in the Italian political alignment. Law enforcement and government officials turned a blind eye to the doings of these neo-fascist groups; doings that included bombing civilian crowds in squares and railway stations. This devil’s bargain protected the alleged perpetrators well into the 1980s (and beyond) from prosecution. In De Maria’s political allegory, the “phenomenon of collective psychosis”, gave rise to the “foul, small-minded deities” that threaten and plague both the real version of Turin and its fictional counterpart. As Twain said; “History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

Here we are, in the year 2020, dealing with nearly the same situation that De Maria wrote about in the late 1970s. It is often the case that autocratic politicos exploit unstable societal situations to further their personal aims. This is by their very nature, what demagogues do (and do well). It is disheartening to admit societies in general terms, have not learned from events in world history. That we are doomed, locked in like Sisyphus, to repeat the same actions time and time again, ad infinitum. 

The Twenty Days of Turin. Here at Norton, we're excited to… | by W.W.  Norton UK | Medium

At the conclusion of The Twenty Days, the bottom drops out from our amateur detective. Like any good piece of cosmic horror fiction, De Maria’s work leaves the reader in a fatalistic fugue state. No comforting philosophical or religious platitudes are offered by the author. The assumed operating system of society is a lie. The trauma of peeking behind the curtain is too much for the common man to endure. Earlier in this essay, I made a correlation between De Maria’s inquisitive salary-man protagonist and private detective, Jake Gittes from the 1974 film, Chinatown. Upon further consideration, I take that back. At the conclusion of The Twenty Days of Turin, the protagonist has more in common with the character Rosemary Woodhouse from Rosemary’s Baby. He is left in an uncomprehending, yet a short-lived, state of shock at Turin’s (and presumably, the universes) predatory operating system. In De Maria’s worldview, the meddling common man is nothing but fodder to those “foul, small-minded deities.” Shut your mouth, mind your business, don’t ask questions, or else!

Further Reading:

  1. A literary travelogue from Katherine Dolan are a perfect way to flesh out De Maria’s phantasmagoric cityscape.
  2. An interview with The Twenty Days of Turin translator, Roman Glazov by Weird Fiction Review
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