From the very first page of Alessandro Piperno’s second novel, you know that dark times will deluge Leo Pontecorvo, an eminent paediatric oncologist: a family dinner at his stylish Roman villa is besmirched by a TV news item, insinuating that this dashing Jewish saviour of sick children has seduced a 12-year-old girl, a friend of his own son.
The crime scene was the ski chalet to which the Pontecorvos have invited this girl, the creepy, excruciatingly thin Camilla. She suffers — or fakes — an asthma attack, and Leo, naturally enough, deals with the medical emergency.
Camilla then leaves hero-worshipping letters in his underwear drawer. Leo is not quick enough to dispel her precocious yearnings. So who has done what to whom? Who, if anyone, will believe Leo when Camilla cries assault?
So far, so shocking, but this is no formulaic whodunnit. Al contrario, this is a caustic, complex and cerebral portrait of Italian bourgeois society.
Piperno was hailed as positively Proustian for his debut novel, The Worst Intentions, and certainly his forte lies in character and meditative description. Before the Caribinieri come for Leo, there is little you will not discover about his leather moccasins, his rich spoiled upbringing, his love of torta caprese, and a certain social heedlessness that unnerves his wife, Rachel.
You will learn that, beneath the “conjugal dream”, lurk traits that husband and wife have long disliked in each other and come, as they ponder their crisis, to hate. Their Jewish perspectives are poles (and dietary laws) apart: Rachel, once scorned by Leo’s mother as “the daughter of a tire salesman from the ghetto”, is traditional; Leo, whose affluent parents sat out the war, safe in Switzerland, is “more secular and enlightened”.
Piperno’s subtext seems to be that Leo, for all his assimilation and professional cachet, appears insufficiently Italian to trust. He has, after all, dared to criticise the Pope in a newspaper column. Sleeping antisemitism is easily aroused towards someone so successful, so high-profile… so suspiciously close, through his chosen field, to the young and vulnerable.
Leo himself seems too distant from his heritage to perceive any real threat. Spectacularly gullible, he is in denial of its toxic force. Is Piperno suggesting a likeness here with Jews who failed to see where nascent Nazism must lead?
Persecution makes deep, if uneasy reading. Piperno portrays the stricken Pontecorvos, along with most of his other characters, with acid distaste. He warms only to a junior policeman with a walk-on role. Some mellowing of descriptive malice would soften this literary blow of a book. But Piperno has satire flowing through his veins and his inventive fingertips.