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The House on Moon Lake by Francesca Duranti
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The House on Moon Lake (1984)

by Francesca Duranti

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Fabrizio Garrone is a book translator. When he comes across a reference to an obscure novel, purportedly a manuscript, he sets out to find it; in fact, he becomes obsessed with it. After he translates the novel from German to Italian, he is also asked to write a biography of the author, Fritz Oberhofer. When he cannot find any information about the last three years of Oberhofer’s life, Fabrizio fabricates a mistress, Maria Lettner, for him. The fun begins when others substantiate the existence of the fictional Maria.

It is the characterization of Fabrizio which caught my interest. He wallows in self-pity, describing himself as someone “whom fate had always taken delight in cheating, without ever bothering to compensate.” He is a mess of insecurities, full of “feelings of inadequacy and mistrust of everyone.” As a result he is “always taking very short steps and avoiding all risks.” He is depressed by the hustle and bustle of modern life with its “debased culture” and by modern women (“Nothing but trouble, right from the start”), women who are “in control” and walk with a “strong and confident gait, the sign of a profound independence.” This detailed development of Fabrizio’s personality makes his behaviour credible.

It is Fabrizio’s relationship with Fulvia that illustrates his approach to life. He hates “feeling like an outsider” but constantly withdraws from people: “he was incapable of admitting another person into that secret recess, off-limits to friends and siblings, where love resides.” He loves Fulvia but “the more his love for Fulvia grew and deepened, the more it frightened him” and “when he’s afraid he doesn’t reason or respond, he becomes mean, disloyal and dishonest.” Because he is afraid to commit, he does whatever is necessary to keep the relationship from progressing: “he shows great powers of obstruction, an uncanny ability to hinder, stifle, deny and ignore.” He uses words not to communicate but as “stones for a barricade.”

Fulvia is Fabrizio’s foil. She emanates “peace, strength and health,” speaks with “a great deal of substance, intelligence and spirit” and exudes a “calm, steady reliability.” She has a “resolute nature” and never minces words. Fabrizio describes her as his “warrior angel, generous and brave.” Unfortunately, rather than open his arms to this human and living woman who also loves him, he becomes enamoured with Maria, a woman of his imagination who embodies his idea of “the abstract essence of womanhood.”

There is a great deal of foreshadowing the consequences of Fabrizio’s obsession. Early on, he chooses not to tell Fulvia about the book and we are told he “missed the chance, his last, to stay in touch with common sense, and set off alone toward his nightmare.” As he searches for a copy of the rare book, he experiences a “feeling of strangeness” which eventually even causes physical changes; slowly he becomes consumed: “He was different from the way [the guesthouse landlady] remembered him. He was still thin, though before this had seemed to suggested a fiery disposition . . . now his thinness made her think of something sick, of some pale, viscid parasite eating away at him.” It is therefore not surprising that Fabrizio describes himself as “a limp, transparent excrescence” living an “unraveled existence.” Suspense is created as we wonder whether he will disentangle himself in time and “make it home with his hide intact.”

The third section of the novel did not particularly appeal to me because I have little patience for supernatural elements. Fabrizio says that “mortality, even in the most advanced countries, is always for keeps,” but then we are introduced to Petra who seems “to have remained untouched by the deeper currents of time’s flow.” There is much that is not explained in this last quarter of the book so it is open to a variety of interpretations. Reality and imagination and past and present are interwoven in a “game of mirrors.”

The style of the novel has been described as “musical” (Los Angeles Times), but I was less impressed. Some of the sentences are so long and convoluted with clauses built on clauses that meaning is lost: “If only he could not see the millions of plastic bags produced every day and subjected to a very brief tryout (the half hour it took to get home from the supermarket)before being immediately sent off to fulfill their true purpose: to cover the earth, to float on the sea, to taint the atmosphere with their poisonous fumes; not see the kids with ears sandwiched between those dreadful headsets, trapped in a solitude beyond reach, where only bad music mattered; not see the torrid Christmases and freezing Julys amid the sinister hums of heaters and air conditioners; not see the obscene greed that turns everything into vice, into drugs: suntans, athletics, work, television, food – all of them drugs – even diets, even fasting a form of greed; not see the formula that held the whole mad system together, that warped time into grotesque shapes like a three-thousand-dollar bonsai tree, with the past unanimously viewed as through a fish’s eye, flat as a shadow on the wall (Brecht and Sophocles, two classics roughly contemporary with each other), and the present inflated and overrated like an insufferable little jerk, and obnoxious, spoiled child whose every whim is anticipated, whose every word and gesture is trumpeted to the four winds.” This book is a translation of the original Italian. Was something lost in translation?

As a bibliophile, I was left wondering whether I, like Fabrizio, seek too often in the world of fiction a “peaceful cloister of transparent serenity.” If a book offers a level of discomfort, it is certainly a worthwhile read.

Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. ( )
  Schatje | Jul 29, 2013 |
Not an exciting book and I couldn't get myself to like the main character. i finished the book alright, but it wouldn't recommend it.
  verenka | Jun 17, 2010 |
Will somebody else please read this marvellous novel. It's the written equivalent of an early renaissance fresco, poised and composed characters described in the most beautiful and lyrical language. A joy of a novel and a wonderful translation. ( )
  philipjohn | Aug 14, 2006 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Francesca Durantiprimary authorall editionscalculated
Dijk, Tineke vanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Book description
A prize-winning international bestseller, this gripping story by Francesca Duranti follows Fabrizio, an impoverished but aristocratic translator, on his obsessive quest to find a lost German novel - The House on Moon Lake - after he reads a reference to it in the book of a renowned literary critic. Fabrizio's quest and its solution transform his life as he searches for the reality behind the events in the book and its author.
As Fabrizio is drawn into making up a story which slowly - and intolerably - becomes fact, he watches as his own creation begins to overpower him. By the time Fabrizio realizes the ramifications of the myth he has crafted, the love story of the original dissolves into a horror story of the present.
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