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The Invisible Player by Giuseppe Pontiggia

The Invisible Player

by Giuseppe Pontiggia

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The atmosphere in Italian artist Italo Cremona’s painting with its somber creams, tans and rich browns depicting an odd sculpture and a pensive onlooker by a window with a medallion yellow building on the other side of the street is a visual complement to this well-crafted intriguing novel by Guiseppe Pontiggia (1934-2003).

On the very first page we learn of a character assassination, both personal and professional, against a university professor of linguistics and classical philology, an attack taking the form of an article in an academic journal, “The Voice of Antiquity,” filled with spite and sarcasm written by an anonymous author. Who wrote such an article? And why? The novel’s protagonist, the victim of this attack, a fifty-year-old professor, takes on the role of detective as he attempts to track down the culprit.

The professor climbs up and down stairways, paces along hallways from book-lined offices to research libraries to homes and shops encountering men and women – scholars, researchers, editors, even a poet and failed novelist - who have a large measure of their identity entwined with the written word in one form or another. Thus, as detective and solo investigator, the professor ends up probing possible motives and clues filtered through a vast multilayered linguistic maze. Sound like fun? Attempting to restore his reputation by discovering who wrote the article and formulating an appropriate response is anything but fun for this professor who becomes progressively more frazzled and mentally unhinged with each and every conversation.

The damning magazine article focused on the professor’s scholarship on the etymology of the word ‘hypocrisy,’ which is truly ironic considering how frequently pretense, insincerity, duplicity and two-facedness make their appearance in the story; it’s as if the well-educated people in his social circles would not even entertain the prospect of saying what they mean or meaning what they say. Hypocrisy as the standard mode of communication – not exactly conducive to emotional well-being or a harmonious, tranquil life.

Curiously, the game of chess pops up again and again, a game the professor finds most appealing, the chess board and chess pieces, the strategy of chess, all those master games of chess. Perhaps he is drawn to chess since this is one game, unlike, say, poker or blackjack, where there is nothing hidden, all the pieces on the board are out in the open and games can be accurately and scrupulously recorded in clear, unambiguous notation, quite the switch from all the innuendoes, veiled meanings, concealed messages and secret moves otherwise surrounding his life.

One feature that really makes this novel so appealing is how Giuseppe Pontiggia has a flare for sketching character. For example, we are treated to the life and reflections of one Mario Cattaneo, a fifty-eight year-old editor and ex-writer, a man who authored his one and only novel at age twenty-seven and was, at the time, considered one of Italy’s bright young literary prospects. Here’s a snippet on Mario’s challenge as editor when he is obliged to read one of his least favorite kinds of manuscripts: “His best intentions were also sorely tested by the so called memory novels, in which the author tried to “remember everything,” probably assuming that was Proust’s intent. How to arrest such zeal? Impossible; only the end of the novel seemed to be able to do it, but then again, it was only an interruption, never a conclusion. The problem was that memory novels were inexhaustible and soon exhausted his energies.”

Humor plays a part in a number of scenes, one of the most memorable is when Daverio, another specialist in language, spends a good hunk of his time scrutinizing not grammar or rhetoric but the hairs on his ever thinning scalp. Does he now have less hair? To determine the truth of the matter, he badgers his wife: as per his usual practice, he bends over and presents his head for inspection. His wife says no difference since the last time she looked so closely. He presses her on exactly what time frame she is referencing - a month, a year, two years, three years, five years? Also, has she taken into consideration the fact that his hair is now wet from a shower? Or the effects of the herbs and lotions he now shampoos with? At one point, exasperated, his wife tells Daverio: “What you really need is to get your head examined, forget your hair.”

Usually the professor converses with one person at a time, however on a particular occasion he sits down in a living room with two academics, Salutati and Sivieri (nowhere in the novel is anybody referred to by other than their last name). The power plays and subtle digs at one another, the hidden inferences and many shades of undertone and overtone turns what could be an enjoyable conversation among three colleagues into something akin to Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous three-person play about hell being other people.

“The Invisible Players,” published as part of the prestigious Eridanos Library, is the only novel by Giuseeppe Pontiggia to be translated into English. Pontiggia who spent most of his life in Milan, Italy, was an accomplished essayist and literary critic as well as novelist and short story writer. With its unique blending of detective fiction and tale of academic life, “The Invisible Player,” is well worth any reader’s time.

Giuseppe Pontiggia - Italian novelist, short story writer, essayist and literary critic ( )
1 vote GlennRussell | Feb 16, 2017 |
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