This elegant psychological drama feels like an epic and yet it’s barely a 150 pages long, the novel seems to float in its own sense of space and time. The contrast between the brevity of the text and the depth of this study of human nature, so beautifully encapsulated here is extraordinary. The Bishop’s Bedroom is a poetic novel, stylishly structured and composed of tight perfectly judged prose. This novel is taut and lean, it shares that quality with the best kind of thriller, but that cleverness is not the whole reason it appears to be a TARDIS* of a novel. Moments of stillness are never less than fascinating, engrossing. Chiara manages to convey a sense of torpor, of languid indulgence, a suggestion of a peaceful post-War world, that’s the mood on the surface but the under currents are of disturbing memory, secrets, emptiness, of grief, loss and guilt. The past haunts each character. La dolce vita is revealed to be a veneer, the sense of anticipation and tension builds, to what we don’t know but it’s there somewhere, a coming storm. It’s the profound psychological insight into the characters that raises this novel, gives it an extraordinary life. There is not one moment of dullness here from the arrival of the unnamed narrator in port as the novel opens. It’s taken me some time to assemble my thoughts, it’s as if The Bishop’s Bedroom is an act of prestidigitation, a sleight of hand, it’s riveting, entrancing and delicious but so mysterious, thrilling. Even when I say it will lead to murder this story is tantalisingly opaque.
The Bishop’s Bedroom is not a straightforward murder mystery, this is a novel with a murder in it rather than a crime story. The murder is a fulcrum, a pivotal event, a prism through which the interactions of the character can be seen, there are other events earlier in the novel that have the same impact. The Bishop’s Bedroom is elegiac in the sense that the dead, those killed or lost, roam the pages of this tale. The sense of loss felt since the war that no one speaks of directly, or with due passion, is almost visceral.
It’s late in the afternoon on a summer’s day in 1946 on lake Maggiore when the narrator decides to pull into the port of Oggebbio, the Inverna which blows the length of the lake has been still, the wind it will take him no further tonight. Already readers will recognise that stillness, absence, deliver the narrator to port, an enforced not planned decision. As he moors the yacht, the Tinca, a middle aged man watches:
“It was immediately obvious that he was someone of a certain refinement, but it wasn’t easy to pin down his class. Clearly, he wasn’t a businessman or industrialist. Perhaps a doctor, a notary, or just a rich idler who had established himself by the lake before the war, someone who’d only stuck his head out after the army had gone by, to see which way the wind was blowing.” [Orimbelli]
The traveller tells Orimbelli that he sails the lake calling into various ports, meeting women and staying in hotels, la dolce vita? He was interned in Switzerland during the war but was born here by the lake. Orimbelli says he was also ‘detained’ but that was in Ethiopia until 1941, there’s a gap, after the war he returned to Naples and came back to his wife at the family home on the lake. When the traveller comes ashore the men strike up a conversation, retire to a cafe for a chat and an aperativo. Orimbelli Invites him to the villa Cleofe, where he meets his wife:
“Her body was straight and neat like a man’s.”
And the widow Berlusconi, Matilde Scorsati, the sister-in-law, she lost her husband at the battle of Ascianghi, married by proxy, annulled unconsummated:
“A Magnolia Flower, I thought. A lush, delicate tuberose, with who knows what hidden roots.”
The traveller is back on the water next morning but with an open invitation to return. When he does come back he stays in The Bishop’s Bedroom, Monsignor Berlusconi, his cassocks are still in wardrobe. Eventually Orimbelli asks if he can join the traveller on his yacht. They pick up women, explore the shore, Orimbelli slyly steals his partners. Women fall for this ordinary looking man:
“It’s not that I’d turn down a gift from God,” he added, “but I can do without certain things if I have to. Without love, no.”
“Orimbelli was surely one of those devils who stir things up wherever they go, who lack respect or a shred of principle, a well-mannered monster, a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
Back to the villa. The story envelops the widow Scorsati, stories about Orimbelli War, his time in Naples; brothels, black market, a girl left there. Then the murder happens, the characters circle each other, new perspectives emerge.
There are many words to describe this thrilling tale, existential, philosophical, psychological, I could go on. This is not about the investigation, the solution, it’s complex and yet simply laid out. A narrative like a beam of light that diffracts through a prism into a myriad of meanings. A hall of mirrors, you have it in your mind but it is distorted and so you rethink it but that is like another distortion. Everything that seems credible also seems a lie. It even had me wondering why the Berlusconi name appears, Silvio was a businessman in Milan at the time the novel was published, busy plundering land.
Congratulations to Jill Foulston on a beautiful translation.
(*Bigger on the inside than the out, ref. Dr Who)
Paul Burke 5/5
The Bishop’s Bedroom by Piero Chiara
New Vessel Press 9781939931740 pbk Nov 2019