“No one’s immune, he said, as though the spores of violence were in the air and could settle on anyone.”
With The View from the Tower, Charles Lambert has written an intelligent, page-turner set in Rome–part mystery, part dissection of marriage and friendship, but underlying the story of a life in crisis, the novel examines revolutionary ethics and questions the moral justification of the use of violence. The book’s title, The View from the Tower, is literal and refers to a scene towards the end of the book, but it’s a phrase that also refers to the argument for revolutionary violence and how individuals swayed by the idea of ‘the greater good,’ place themselves on a higher moral ground, above the crowd and there, in isolation decide on that irrevocable step to take human life.
As with Charles Lambert’s novel, Any Human Face, The View From the Tower is a page-turner, and the story begins powerfully with a long-married couple, now in their 50s saying a casual goodbye as they part for the day, and with neither of them aware that this is the “last morning of their marriage.” British ex-pat Helen and high-powered government official, Frederico, leave their flat and part with plans for a dinner that night–an event, of course, that will never take place:
So she and Frederico have these final moments together, down the dark stairs and across the square, barely time to exchange a dozen words and say goodbye before their separate days begin.
There’s a poignancy here–the illusion of permanence, the fragility of our mortality and a sense of impending loss–a loss that Helen has yet to endure as we read about an evening that exists only in the imagination:
This evening, Helen will set the table and fill up glasses while Frederico cooks and serves. He always cooks; it relaxes him after work. Helen will sit at the breakfast bar with a glass of wine and listen to his stories of the day’s events at the ministry, of people who form an intimate part of Frederico’s world and a less intimate part of hers.
This cleverly constructed introduction sets the scene for the idea that everything we hold dear, everything we assume will happen, all our expectations, can be wiped out in a single moment. Along with that idea, the story describes the spaces Helen and Frederico share, and the way in which their lives separate. These two elements: loss and the knowledge we think we have of the people in our lives are two of the major themes of the novel.
Within a few minutes, Frederico and his bodyguard are dead–the apparent victims of political assassination, at the very moment that Helen is keeping an assignation with her long-time lover, and Fredrico’s best friend, aging rockstar revolutionary, Giacomo….
Author Charles Lambert takes some terrific risks with his characters by making them all flawed and, at times, unpleasant and unlikable. Frederico, Helen, and Giacomo are not perfect people–and certainly their relationships with one another are complex and intertwined with some sort of latent competitiveness lurking between the 2 men who see themselves reflected through the prism of politics. The novel goes back and forth in time, exploring these relationships–from Rome in 2004, back to Turin in the 70s and Giacomo and Frederico’s involvement in the war against the State.
What’s so interesting about the novel is the way the three characters appear to need each other; when Helen first meets Frederico in the 70s, she hears all these stories about Giacomo, his best friend, and it’s clear that Frederico has no small amount of admiration for Giacomo,–a man he sees as the ‘real thing,’ not just a theorist. If Giacomo appears to be the one who physically embodies the nomadic life of the untamed revolutionary, then Frederico is the intellectual arm of the revolution, and where does that leave Helen? How about smack in the middle? Even before meeting Giacomo, Helen feels that she will instinctively dislike him:
You’ll love him, Frederic said whenever he mentioned him. I know you will. Everybody does. Helen examined the small creased strips of photographs and other photographs of him Frederico showed her, always surrounded by people, and wondered if she would like him as much as Frederico expected her to. She didn’t like doing what everyone else did, or feeling what they felt. Besides, there was something over-masculine and swaggering about him she didn’t take to. Always standing in the centre, the largest smile, the others more often looking at him than at the camera, to see what he wanted, from them. She wouldn’t give him what he wanted, she decided, whatever that might be.
As the main female protagonist of the novel, Helen goes through various stages of grief when her husband is murdered: denial, shock, anger and acceptance, but whereas in a simpler novel, the character of Helen would be a vehicle for our sympathy, here she’s difficult to like. As the days pass after Frederico’s death, she turns to Giacomo for support, and it becomes increasingly apparent that Frederico, who seemed distracted and troubled weeks before his death, was keeping some very big secrets from his wife. As she uncovers layers of lies, her anger and feelings of betrayal, while very real, fail to garner much sympathy due to the fact that her relationship with Frederico has been tainted by duplicity for decades. In a lesser novel, this could be a plot flaw, but here the result is a pervasive sadness that these three people who profess to feel more for each other than anyone else on the planet, lived lives of tangled deceit and half-truths which all come spilling out only after Frederico’s death.
Underneath this drama involving murder, betrayal and infidelity, The View from the Tower tackles the question of revolutionary violence. Part of this comes through from the 70s backdrop of the kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro–an event that Helen notes mainly as white noise, but an event, as it turns out, that may involve Frederico and Giacomo. Several decades later, Giacomo has morphed from the dashing, charismatic radical and is now a middle-aged man who has turned author, tending to the heaviness of his sedentary lifestyle. He makes the lecture circuit on the merit of his past exploits, and his current rockstar status is thanks to his past which includes a jail sentence. Now he’s wealthy, jets around the world and has an anorexic, high-maintenance Parisian trophy wife. These days, Giacomo is about as revolutionary as a Che Guevara T-shirt. The fact that he arrives in Rome on the very day of Frederico’s murder is enough for those investigating the assassination to be suspicious of his involvement. Meanwhile, Frederico’s death suddenly becomes a matter of State, and Helen finds herself fighting over his corpse with her mother-in-law. The real fight, of course, goes much deeper than this.
While I can’t say that I liked the characters in this tale of tangled loyalties twisted with bitter betrayals, I wanted to see what happened to them as Helen and a friend dig around looking for answers to Frederic’s murder. I should interject that I really liked the adulterous twist that removed Helen from the devastated widow figure. This throws a wrench in her role as a tragic wife, and since I don’t like books that milk my emotions, ’nice’ people who do bad things always add to the interest of any story.
Politics is a dirty game, and here we see those layers at all levels: world, state and personal. Just who comes out as a winner in this well-written, engaging story isn’t who you’d expect. While the very-human drama plays out against the underbelly of Rome’s political structure, ultimately, the biggest question is: who has the moral right to decide to end of the life of another in order to secure political goals?
Review copy & purchased copy.