The Night of the Black Cat

The Night of the Black Cat, Antonio Pagliaro’s noir from Palermo

The Anger of an Average Little Man

By Leopoldo Fabiani (La Repubblica, Thursday May 24th 2012)

This is a perturbing novel, this The Night of the Black Cat by Antonio Pagliaro (Guanda). An obscure story in which no one is saved, that leaves no space for redemption, no chance of standing up to evil.

We’re in Palermo, present times. Salvatore, nineteen years old, didn’t return home, he spent the night out. It’s the first time. Giovanni, his father, still hopes it’s an act of bravado, but he can’t get rid of the feeling of anguish, the cell phone doesn’t answer. The police won’t look for him, “you’re wasting our time, did you have a fight with him recently?”. When finally some news does arrive, it’s terrible news. Salvatore has been arrested, he was carrying a large load of drugs in his car. Giovanni’s life, his simple routine as a teacher, is disrupted. His descent into hell begins with the lawyer, who doesn’t take the story to heart as it deserves, but still uses up all of the professor’s savings. Then tragedy hits and, without giving away too much of the plot, because it is a crime novel after all, Giovanni, in his attempt to react to the injustice that has shattered his life, is sucked into a whirlpool in which he ends up loosing everything: his job, his money, his wife, but above all: himself.

Why is this story unsettling? Because it tells of the everyday injustices that continue to happen in our country. For example: the situation in the prisons, made of untold daily violence, corrupt guards, mafia bosses ruling over everything. Or the miscarriages of justice that leave ordinary people defenseless in the hands of an indifferent and murderous mechanism. Pagliaro’s novel takes us by hand to see close up how a simple person can be unrelentingly crushed by it all. Confirming the theory according to which crime is, nowadays, the only literary genre capable of describing society as it is, portraying it realistically, without recurring to consoling ideologies.

But the “social accusation”, which is certainly present and quite powerful, does not exhaust the strength of the story. Giovanni Ribaudo, the protagonist, having to face the absurd injustice that deprives him of his only son, begins to change. He has put up with things his whole life, always accepting whatever came. Now it is no longer possible. Everything changes when he meets a childhood friend who has become a mafia boss. The criminal is tied to the professor by an old debt of gratitude, he wants to help him, convinces him to seek revenge. Giovanni crosses the line of legality, enters a world that is not his own, a world of violence, and he slowly turns into a “monster”.

The psychological course, an ordinary man that becomes a “killer fury” because of the loss of his innocent son, reminds us closely of Il borghese piccolo piccolo, a novel from the Seventies by Vincenzo Cerami, which then became a film directed by Mario Monicelli (translator’s note: An Average Little Man) with an incredible Alberto Sordi in one of his rare exceptions to his habitual comic standards. But Cerami’s objective was more “political”: turning his main character (whose name was also Giovanni) into the typical representative of an apparently good-natured lower middle class, capable of unprecedented explosions of ferocity. We find none of this in Pagliaro’s novel, that follows its protagonist with a dry language, all action and dialogues, and never indulges in the temptation to judge. Furthermore, the “middle-class-man’s” reaction is set off when the death of his son destroys his fatherly dream in which he had designed and prepared in detail his son’s career and life. In Giovanni Ribaudo’s Palermo, instead, evil burst in and destroys lives that have never had an outlook, not even “very small”. That is why The Night of the Black Cat is disturbing: because it tells us of a time, our time, that has lost hope.

© Cristina Popple for Nabu International Literary Agency.