La Superba by Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer, translated from the Dutch by Michele Hutchison (Deep Vellum, 418 pages, March 15)
"La Superba"- an apt nickname for the labyrinthine, kaleidoscopic city of Genoa. As one of Pfeijffer's characters elaborates, this nickname has many meanings: "superb and reckless, beautiful and proud, alluring and unapproachable."
Thus are we thrown into the meta-novel that is La Superba, a work concerned with identity and reinvention, immigration, loss, language, writing, and the murky territory of love and sexuality. Pfejffer has made himself the narrator, and the novel we hold in our hands is, according to him, simply a compilation of letters that he writes to an unidentified friend back home in the Netherlands. He often says something like "if I wrote this novel, I would change x or y," which never fails to give the reader a very slight but noticeable case of literary vertigo.
La Superba is divided into three parts and two intermezzi: eminently appropriate, considering that this structure mimics operatic performances of the 18th century, and opera was invented by the Italians. Pfeijffer is always intensely aware of his status as an outsider and an observer, living amongst Italians, adopting their language, and yet never fully able to blend into the culture. His large stature and blond hair, as well as his previous life-experiences, will keep things that way.
And yet, Pfeijffer shows us just how his circumstances differ so vividly from those of desperate African immigrants, men and women who give up almost everything in order to make the difficult, dangerous, and often deadly trip to Europe in search of a better life. As one immigrant from Senegal, Djiby, explains to Pfeijffer, many Africans believe that Europe is the promised land, with streets paved in gold and a Mercedes for everyone. Families scrape together savings to send one of their own to Europe so that money and prestige can flow back to Africa and the chosen one's family. Not one of the immigrants who manages to make it to Italy via Libya dares write back that all of that is a fairy tale and immigrants must eke out a living as best they can with few resources. Destroying the fantasy would mean dishonoring oneself and one's family.
Pfeijffer explores so much in this book, including corruption and local politics, the lives of transvestite prostitutes in Genoa's inner labyrinth, and his own warped sexual escapades. Through it all, his love of Italian culture in general and Genoa in particular shines through, making the reader want to go see Genoa for themselves. Pfeijffer's self-deprecating humor and moments of lyricism make La Superba a gem.