I had a bit of luck recently when I won a book give-away held by The Fiction Desk. The book, Any Human Face by Charles Lambert arrived and I almost immediately picked it up. I planned to read the back cover and perhaps a page or two as I had another book I intended to get to first. I ended up devouring this book in two separate readings over the course of a twenty-four hour period. The blurb on the front of the novel promises: A dark, fast-paced story of love, sex, abduction and murder, and the book certainly lives up to all those qualities.
The main character of the novel is Andrew Caruso, a man in his 50s who owns a sad little bookshop in Rome. His father was Italian and his mother Scottish, but Andrew manages to be neither. It’s 2008, and he’s lived in Rome now for decades. While he ‘fits’ in when it comes to adaptability, there’s a sense of impermanence to his life. This is expressed in the squalor of his neglected apartment (shared with a “half-starved” cat) and his complete indifference to his appearance. Even though he barely scrapes a living from the bookshop, he’s too kind to chase away the occasional shoplifter.
Andrew lives in a world of dilapidated, permeable borders. The books inside the shop, on the shelves and outside the shop, on the bargain table, are fluid categories, the membrane between his home and his place of work as punched with holes as a long-distance train ticket. Half the time, he doesn’t know where he’s put things and it’s a source of constant niggling disquiet that something important–but what?-might have gone missing.
Andrew is working on an article about one of his past lovers, a passionate explosive young Belgium photographer named Michel who killed himself back in 1983. Andrew has ‘moved on’ from the relationship, but he’s still deeply wounded by the affair. Searching through a box of Michel’s possessions brings back painful memories, but then he discovers some packages of photos he was unaware of. Pushy neurotic art director Daniela dell’ Orto comes up with the idea of holding an exhibition of Michel’s work. And from this point, things go rapidly downhill….
The narrative goes back and forth over time with each section focusing on one of the handful of characters. In 1983, for example, a young hustler named Alex has a close brush with violent death when his older lover, Bruno, is brutally murdered. Alex takes shelter at the home of former actor, the Birdman, a strange character who lives in the Piazza Vittorio. Gradually the segments of the novel show the connections between the characters, and the mystery of the photos deepens. This doling out of information makes the novel intense and an addictive read. At the same time, there’s this nagging feeling that this is a yarn–mainly due to the novel’s structure, but it’s a yarn in the best sense of the word. Any Human Face is described as “part thriller, part love story,” and while I wasn’t crazy about the love part, the story is far richer than a thriller. Yes there is a faceless power structure pulling the strings behind the scenes, but this is a book that primarily examines the shifting relationships between its characters as they cope with corruption, fear and monolithic abuse of power. How does the average person endure when they are surrounded by corruption? Well if you are lucky, you have family and friends you can count on. If you’re alone, you’re screwed.
Any Human Face tracks the way in which some characters mature or disintegrate. Alex, for example, morphs from being a selfish hustler to a decent human being, and in the process he learns to appreciate the generosity of caring relationships. The novel also explores the idea that fringe-dwellers like the Birdman are quite aware of the darker, seamier side of life, but while they rub elbows with these elements, they manage to maintain some ethics in their personal behaviour. The Birdman dabbles in pornographic photography, and yet he is one of the kindest people in the book. He’s a marvellous friend, generous, forgiving and unselfish, yet he hardly fits into any sort of acceptable societal rules. He’s the one character who immediately grasps just what’s going on and the dangers involved of plunging in too deep. Here’s the Birdman warning Alex:
“I don’t mean decent, respectable working-class homes like yours. I’m talking about our ruling classes. Bureaucrats, pimps, upholders of the faith. The worst kind of scum, but they don’t know that because nobody has the nerve to tell them, and if they do they’re branded as mad, or bad. As I have been, to my cost. I’m talking about people with money and power.”
In one part of the novel, Andrew engages in anonymous wanking via an internet video, and while it’s a pseudo encounter with very little risk, it’s bleak, lonely and ultimately unsatisfying. Andrew catches himself trying to read the book titles in the background behind the anonymous man who’s wanking for an unknown audience. There’s an emptiness to the experience that echoes through Andrew’s life. Any Human Face is a novel of connections and contrasts–anonymous sex and pornographic photographs, a missing girl snatched from the streets of Rome, sex and power, sex and vulnerability, human beings who use and exploit each other and relationships that endure.