Interview: Ramon Glazov on “The Twenty Days of Turin”

This year marks the first time that The Twenty Days of Turin, written by Giorgio De Maria in 1975, has been translated into English. Its translation couldn’t be any more timely: De Maria’s novel, partly a reaction to the violent fascism that plagued Italy during the 1970s, perfectly reflects the bleak political landscape and uncertain times we find ourselves in today. De Maria was quite the visionary in many ways — his work anticipated the rise of social media and reality TV decades before their advent. We talked to Ramon Glazov, who translated De Maria’s Twenty Days, to gain more insight into the book, how he translated the text, and the author’s fascinating albeit troubled life.

Weird Fiction Review: Can you give us a brief summary of The Twenty Days of Turin? Why should people consider reading it?

Ramon Glazov: The Twenty Days of Turin is a lost gem of European weird fiction, written during Italy’s “Years of Lead” in the late 1970s. That was a very violent, paranoid time when dozens of communist and neo-fascist groups were waging terror campaigns involving kidnappings, murders and public bombings. The chilling part was that many of the fascists were backed by the authorities and were off-limits until it was too late. People were scared of being killed as soon as they stepped out of their houses and also scared that the government wouldn’t be on their side. It became a taboo-ish topic to speculate about too loudly, and to write sci-fi or fantasy about it was nigh unthinkable.

In The Twenty Days of Turin, Giorgio De Maria took that situation and fused it with cosmic horror. His stated goal was to write an “allegory,” but he went beyond that and ended up creating his own disturbing mythos from scratch. In his world, hateful entities feed on the sanity of Turin’s citizens and massacre them every night as they mill around in an insomniac fugue. The protagonist, an amateur investigator, tries to decipher their motives and suspects they have human accomplices.

Some of the things De Maria dreamed up seem eerier now — and closer to life — than when the book was first published. For starters, he predicted that a phenomenon similar to social media would overtake our culture. He knew virtually nothing about computers; his novel doesn’t mention them. Still, he anticipated that society would desire something like Facebook — even if his version works through pen and paper. What De Maria gives us is a creepy force that exploits people’s loneliness to suck up their private information, which is to say, their souls.

Loserdom and terrorism, of course, go hand in hand. We know that too well now, and De Maria saw it too. The rampaging demigods he creates manage to be terrifying and pathetic all at once. It’s hard to think of Lovecraft’s deities as losers, but De Maria’s entities have that added level of bleakness. They’re omnipotent, nobody dares challenge them, yet they’re losers — much like humans who carry out gun massacres, only magnified in scale. That’s the part of the novel that really shook me.

WFR: It sounds like the author, Giorgio De Maria, had an interesting albeit troubled life. Can you tell us more about the author?

RG: I’ve been told by his daughter, Corallina, that De Maria only became a novelist because of a tragic incident in his life. He started out as an enormously talented pianist, trained at Turin’s top music school, the Conservatorio. For kicks, he used to write very brutal sacrilegious songs and perform them at weekly salons for his oddball literary friends. He was also, according to his friend Emilio Jona, fond of sleight of hand tricks to show off his manual dexterity…

Then, around 1960, when he was in his mid-thirties, he developed a cramp in his hand that killed his piano career. Nobody ever figured out if it was psychological or purely physical, but it became one of his life obsessions. He would spend long hours in front of the piano trying to force his hand to play again. So when he took up writing, it was in a state of exile from a previous calling, and this pain comes up again and again in his fiction. One story of his, “The Death at Missolonghi,” imagines a situation where Lord Byron is cursed by a supernatural power that strips him of his ability to write. It explores the anguish of a character who’s suddenly cut off from his destiny and feels like a depleted shadow of himself. The Twenty Days of Turin has an amateur musician protagonist whose recorder is linked to the state of his soul.

In the 60s, De Maria moved from song writing to theatre scripts and novels. He was working for Italy’s national broadcaster, RAI-TV, and got commissioned to write a dystopian teleplay called “The Appeal” (Prova d’appello). The script described a game show where death row inmates can get pardoned if they persuade the audience that they’re charming and wholesome. Viewers at home phone in their verdicts and the inmate lives if the clap-o-meter hits 110. Basically, De Maria thought of reality TV before reality TV — with the poor condemned protagonist trying to act sociable while he’s frightened for his life. The broadcaster cancelled the program, claiming it was “not appropriate for our scheduling, though it might be a good work, insofar as it envisages a repressive and terroristic use, with apocalyptic prospects, for this very medium of television.”

After the 1970s, De Maria had a mental breakdown and turned to Catholicism. I’m told he didn’t write much literary work after that and was a bit too odd for the Church’s liking as well. He would rant about archangels walking the streets of Turin and things of that order. The last phase of his life was rather sad and reclusive.

WFR: How well known is The Twenty Days of Turin in Italy? How about Giorgio De Maria? How did you personally discover it?

 RG: When De Maria began his writing career there was still a thick line, drawn by middlebrow cartographers, between “literature” and genre fiction. Writers had to choose one or the other. Even a respected author like Primo Levi — who moved through many of the same circles as De Maria — found it daunting to get into sci-fi in 1966 after he was already famous as a Holocaust memoirist, and did it under pseudonym. It didn’t matter that some of those literary authors, including De Maria, were privately huge fans of pulpy sci-fi and detective stories. De Maria was with Turin’s literary set, not the sci-fi set, and this was hard to break past back then.

As a result, even though his fiction during the 1950s and 60s included telepathy, futuristic surgical procedures, alternate histories and ghosts, De Maria, to my knowledge, never once published a story in an SF/F magazine. Most of his work ended up in Il Caffè, which was a literary journal — Italy’s equivalent to The Paris Review.

The Twenty Days of Turin wasn’t marketed as sci-fi, nor as giallo, nor as a horror novel. You won’t find it listed in the huge Vegetti catalogue of Italian sci-fi titles, for instance. It was “literature,” but with more pulp in its DNA than was normal for Italian literature at the time.

So it was an incongruous book by the standards of its era. In 1977, a leftist author like De Maria was supposed to be didactic, to write fiction that had a “social purpose” and end the story with a left-wing moral that wasn’t too hard to puzzle out. A “serious” social issue like terrorism wasn’t viewed as a legitimate subject for weird fiction or sci-fi or pulpy mystery stories, which weren’t considered “serious.” De Maria ran against all that. The Twenty Days has a dark, ambiguous ending and it’s very obviously about terrorism — which speculative fiction at that time hardly touched.

Its cult following in Turin can be divided into two categories of fans. First, you have the literary subculture De Maria rubbed shoulders with. Some of the critics who’ve championed the book, like Pier Massimo Prosio, come from the same generation as De Maria. Then you have a second group, mostly sci-fi fans, who encountered the book as teens and became obsessed with it ever since. A lot of them are Generation Xers with a taste for Lovecraft, Ballard, Cronenberg, thrash metal, graphic novels and so forth. Luca, the friend who introduced me to The Twenty Days, belongs in that category. I’ve also stumbled upon readers younger than me — undergraduates who got the book recommended to them by their creative writing professors.

Turinese are private people who tend to stick closely to their own circles, so many of these fans went for decades without knowing how many other fans there were. Two years ago, when I was going through the process of locating the De Maria Estate, it emerged that Luca had actually met the author’s son Domenico without realising it. They’d hung out together as teenage truants and listened to Black Sabbath in De Maria’s house at the exact time he was writing The Twenty Days. Luca only discovered this when Domenico recognised him forty years later!

This September, the book will be re-released in Italy by the Turin publishing house Frassinelli. Now here comes one of those eerie coincidences that follow De Maria’s work. The Frassinelli company was founded in 1931 by the typographer Carlo Frassinelli. It turns out that Carlo’s son, Giancarlo, was murdered downstairs from the De Maria family home! He lived in the same apartment building and knew De Maria’s wife because they were both occultists belonging to Turin’s “Gurdjieff Circle” — people who followed the teachings of the Russian mystic George Gurdjieff. Giancarlo was regarded as a “guru” within the group, but ended up paralysed after a stroke. He was stabbed to death by his carer, a nervous young man, and people around him suspected that he’d deliberately incited the kid into doing it — a kind of suicide by proxy. This has no connection to the publisher’s decision, since Frassinelli Edizioni is no longer owned by the Frassinelli family, but it’s spooky nonetheless.

WFR: In your introduction to The Twenty Days, you make an interesting connection between the Library and social media. This is rather interesting because the book was written some 30 years before the advent of social media. What is the Library in The Twenty Days of Turin and how does it relate to social media and blogging in our current age?

RG: Try to picture an evil alliance between 4chan, Craigslist and the Catholic Church. That’s the Library.

It emerges as a type of reading room where people can submit their handwritten diaries or peruse the diaries of others. Nothing like it existed when De Maria was writing, but today it’s everywhere: crowdsourcing, amateur content, YouTube, Tumblr, Blogger, DeviantArt and the like.

De Maria was interested in the darker implications of such a phenomenon. The loneliness, the perversity, the rage… His Library ends up accumulating all the nastiest, most shameful things that people want to vent and purge: the true sludge of their souls. And those people find themselves with the horror that that stuff is on public display, that the Library might dox them to anybody for a trivial fee.

Even after the Library’s first incarnation leads to an epidemic of massacres, lonely citizens are still tempted to do it again. That’s the pitiable part. It’s enticing to vent your miseries, to have a place to spew that soul-sludge. When De Maria’s narrator first encounters the remains of the original Library, it’s a huge, disgusting pile of mouldy paper. Later, the book gives us garbage and human waste as a motif. It’s the most literal form of “shitposting” imaginable.

To make it doubly twisted, the Library is endorsed by the Church as a goodwill initiative. The building that hosts it is a real place in Turin, the St Cottolengo Little House of Divine Providence. It’s a charity hospital notorious in Turinese urban folklore for supposedly housing “monsters” — patients too deformed to see the light of day. The word “Cottolengo,” in the local parlance, has become a bit like “Bedlam.” An apt place to keep a proto-4chan!

WFR: What was the process like in translating The Twenty Days and what sort of challenges did you run into?

RG: Italian gets stereotyped as a “musical” language. With De Maria this is truer than usual. He began as a musician and in some of the novel’s finest scenes he still thinks like a musician. My favourite example is the chapter titled “The Voices.” The narrator visits an occult researcher who claims to have a tape recording of the book’s terroristic entities conversing over the airwaves. The scene is all about build-up — not just dramatic action but crescendo, decrescendo, diminuendo. It starts mildly enough, then an eerie soundscape develops as the recording plays. Harsh subterranean noises evolve into vowels and consonants, then syllables, then words, then sentences, until we can hear a chorus of malicious creatures arguing and plotting massacres. It’s an awful lot like an orchestral movement, and throughout it De Maria makes full use of the Italian language’s onomatopoeic potential. Translating that, finding the right-sounding English for the job, took heaps of work.

WFR: The Twenty Days of Turin was written during the 1970’s which was a time of political unrest in Italy. I believe there was a neo-fascist coup and also a radical left-wing paramilitary group. What was the political scene like in Italy during the 70’s and how did it influence The Twenty Days of Turin?

 RG: When the magazine Sipario interviewed him in April 1978, De Maria had this to say:

I believe that the scope of the fantastic… is the most suitable one for conveying a reality as complicated as ours. […] It’s no coincidence that The Twenty Days, which seeks allegorically to portray the violence that reigns over my city, has even caught the notice of journalists, and not just literary critics.”

The Twenty Days keeps the political context implicit rather than mention it in the open — and with good reason. While De Maria was writing, people were being kidnapped and murdered on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis: judges, journalists, politicians, union figures. Terrorism was hard to discuss, except in circuitous ways. Even book reviewers who wrote up the novel for La Stampa shied away from using the ‘t’-word. The closest they got to that was through coy phrases like: “a book dipped in the stream of cruel and timely metaphors.” As late as 2009, De Maria’s obituary in the journal Studi Piemontesi praised The Twenty Days without ever mentioning the Years of Lead. It put all its emphasis on De Maria as a fabulist, an heir to Poe, an imaginative writer in the nineteenth-century mold. That’s the diplomatic way to champion something truly weird and risky: making it appear traditional.

What De Maria captured best about his political surroundings was people’s evasiveness and silence when they’re faced with a horrendous reality, the many ways they blank out and rationalise what they’re seeing. He observed how his fellow Italians reacted to the mundane traumas of terrorism and imagined how the same society might respond to cosmic threats “one cannot even mention… without feeling reason crumbling.” It’s not a reassuring picture.

WFR: What sort of literary influences played a part in Giorgio De Maria’s work? I believe you listed The Trial by Kafka as one in the intro.

RG: His tastes ran mostly towards nineteenth century romanticism and fantastic literature, plus a few German-speaking modernist authors like Kafka, Robert Musil and Thomas Mann. Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus—about a composer who deliberately infects himself with syphilis because he believes madness is the source of genius — seems to have fascinated De Maria early in his career. He said in one interview that reading Kafka was a “revelation,” so I suppose that’s where his passion for “weirdness” came from. According to his daughter, his other big loves were Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson, along with sci-fi and adventure fiction in general. In the Sipario interview, though, he claimed to have a low opinion of Italian fantastic literature, calling it “a very feeble tradition.”

To answer the biggest question many readers might have: I can’t be certain if De Maria was familiar with Lovecraft, though he might’ve encountered Lovecraft’s stories in 1960s magazines like Urania, which ran translated sci-fi for Italian audiences.

WFR: You talk about Turin in your introduction and it seems like a very disquieting place. It definitely adds to the unease the reader feels when reading The Twenty Days. Can you talk more about the setting and how The Twenty Days manages to be such an unsettling story?

RG: Dozens of things collude to make Turin spooky. It’s an out-of-the-way city in the northwestern corner of Italy. Its baroque architecture gives it an odd look that inspired surrealist paintings by Giorgio de Chirico. A curious number of famous writers have either committed suicide in Turin or suffered mental breakdowns there.

The city has a long history of occultism. While De Maria was writing his masterpiece, Turin was the home of Gustavo Rol, who was either a genuine X‑Man or the greatest faker in history. His reported feats included teleportation, mind-reading, bringing statuettes to life, summoning the ghost of Casanova so Fellini could question it for film research, terrifying Mussolini by correctly predicting the date of his death and other disconcerting party tricks.

What’s important is that these Turinese occultists don’t typically look like shroom-heads or characters from Harry Potter. It’s a culture where well-mannered individuals in boardroom attire might also happen to hold séances or do even weirder things in private. Gustavo Rol’s following contained a large number of top professionals and even the town’s leading psychiatrist. Lorenzo Alessandri, a painter considered to be the “Black Pope” of Turinese Satanism, played down his notoriety and claimed he was just a regular Catholic.

In a city where so many wholesome, conservative-looking people led double lives, De Maria found a perfect backdrop for his uncanny tale.

WFR: I find the cover to The Twenty Days to be rather fascinating. Can you tell us more about it?

RG: The image is based on a lithograph by the iconoclastic Belgian illustrator Félicien Rops titled Satan sement l’ivraie or “Satan Sowing Tares.” It refers to a parable in the Book of Matthew that compares Judgment Day to a wheat harvest, where God will gather up the “wheat” (his followers) and burn the poisonous “tares” that Satan has sown in the field.

The cover of the novel’s original 1977 release used a version of the same image, but I haven’t been able to find out whether it was chosen by De Maria or his publishers.

I note in my introduction to the book that wheat harvests in Europe traditionally happen in July, and this is also the month De Maria picks for most of the supernatural violence in the story.

3 replies to “Interview: Ramon Glazov on “The Twenty Days of Turin”

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