Category Archives: Chiara Piero

The Bishop’s Bedroom: Piero Chiara

I still think about Piero Chiara’s The Disappearance of Signor Guilia, so I was delighted to see a translation of The Bishop’s Bedroom. The New York Times Book Review compared the book to a Patricia Highsmith novel, but I basically ignored and forgot that comment. But it’s a well deserved comparison, and I wasn’t too far into the novel when Highsmith popped into my head. This is a suspense/crime novel set against post war Italy. The dreariness and deprivation of war is over, and those who have survived, at least most of the characters in the book, are approaching life with new attitudes. There’s a sense that leisure and pleasure are to be valued above all else. The war is in the past, a shadow that still can be seen with a backward glance.

The Bishop's bedroom

It’s 1946, and WWII has ended, yet the ripples of the conflict still extend in Italian society in spite of the book’s emphasis on relaxation, leisure, and sun. The unnamed narrator, a man in his 30s who has recently returned from Switzerland, has a sailboat and he spends his life sailing around putting off the day he must pick up responsibilities again. The narrator is a consummate bachelor (lothario), and with a knack with women, some of them married, he picks one up, takes her for a sail and then drops her back home. There are no commitments, no broken hearts, and no demands.

One day he sails into the port of Oggebbio on Lake Maggiore and a local man named Orimbelli, who reminded me of an oily Peter Lorre, strikes up a conversation. The narrator finds that he can’t quite read his new acquaintance:

He smiled often, sometimes for no reason, as if to seem obliging, but with the world weariness of a gentleman, or a man who’s lived a lot. His voice was somewhat nasal and yet not the least bit affected. He wore a gold ring on his little finger, and a fancy wristwatch, the kind that tells the day and month as well as the hour. 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 or notary, or just a rich idler who had established himself by the lake before the war, someone who’d stuck his head out after the army had gone by, to see which way the wind was blowing. 

One thing leads to another and Orimbelli, who tells his story of how he spent some of the war in Ethiopia,  followed by a stay in Naples for health reasons,  invites the narrator to his villa for dinner. Orimbelli lives at the Villa Cleofe with his older “very thin, schoolmarmish” wife and his sister-in-law, the lush widow Mathilde. While the villa is gorgeous, the atmosphere around the dinner table is suffocating, so it seems no surprise that Orimbelli should want to lighten the domestic atmosphere with the diversion of a guest. And neither is it too surprising that Orimbelli expresses an interest in sailing away with the narrator.

Over time, the narrator and Orimbelli, who connect over the pursuit of women*, make a number of sailing excursions together with the narrator sleazily picking up various women for himself and Orimbelli. If the idea is that Orimbelli needs to escape from his wife’s scrutiny for a while, then Orimbelli, once off leash, knows no restraint. Orimbelli has the annoying habit of shamelessly poaching the narrator’s women, and in spite of the fact that he’s not particularly attractive, he’s remarkably successful with women, perhaps because he’s so persistent.

While the story is set mostly in sun-filled days spent on the water, there’s a dark thread which runs through the plot. Is Orimbelli just the overweight, harmless married man he appears, or is there something far more sinister afoot? After a few incidents, the narrator, who calmly observes Orimbelli, decides he’s a “well-mannered monster, a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” but even after that recognition, Orimbelli’s deviousness still catches the narrator off guard.

The Bishop’s Bedroom, incidentally, the room in which the narrator stays in at the Villa Cleofe is a lavish red and gold bedroom–a creepy shrine like room with a morbid atmosphere.

Soon the sun would flood the bishop’s bedroom, rendering it violet rather than red in the first light, and transforming it into a first-class mortuary with its canopy, the altar-like chest of drawers, the walnut wardrobe with large panels. the prayer stool and crucifix between two purple festoons.

*It’s possible to say the two men also connect over sailing, but IMO, the boat is a means to an end.

translated by Jill Foulston

Review copy

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The Disappearance of Signora Giulia: Piero Chiara

“Justice is a machine with neither heart nor intelligence: it acts as instructed.”

Pushkin Press‘s new Vertigo imprint suggests the reader “step inside a dizzying world of criminal masterminds,” and Piero Chiara’s crime novel, The Disappearance of Signora Giulia, certainly fits that rather ambitious description. This is the story of the disappearance of a married woman, and it’s a case which continues to haunt the man who leads the investigation. The Disappearance of Signora Giulia is definitely not a traditional detective novel, but it is intriguing.

It’s 1955. Commissario Corrado Sciancalepre is a talented policeman who’s “blessed with a special form of intuition, that particular mental agility that enables great policemen to delve into the minds of criminals.” He’s due for a promotion and yet he feels a tie with the small town of M, located in Northern Lombardy. He has a varied job: he’s an investigator, commissioner for public safety, and a counselor of sorts. The novel opens with Sciancalepre looking ahead to a golden future and with no idea that the case of his career is headed his way.

The case begins when Esengrini, the region’s “most agile and authoritative criminal lawyer,” a former mayor and chief magistrate “during the fascist period,” contacts Sciancalepre for assistance. It seems that Esengrini’s much younger wife, the very attractive Signora Giulia has disappeared. Giulia has a standing appointment every Thursday to travel by train to Milan to visit the couple’s daughter, Emilia, at boarding school. This Thursday is different. Her bedroom is a shambles, and it appears that suitcases, clothing and a substantial amount of jewelry are all missing. Esengrini has ascertained, from the gardener, that Giulia didn’t leave by the main gate, and he concludes that his wife has run off with another man. Esengrini had his suspicions that his wife was having an affair and that the weekly trip to Milan was just a cover for these assignations.

The disappearance of signora giuliaSciancalepre’s investigation of “The Esengrini Affair,” initially yields plenty of clues–all leading to adultery and the theory that Guilia ran off with another man. Sciancalepre asks himself what he would have done in Esengrini’s shoes and concludes:

I’d have poisoned her, he mused, or shot her on the spot, at the right moment. No one could have argued that it wasn’t a crime of passion, and I could get off with a few years.

It appears that the case will remain unsolved. Years pass, and events in the small town of M, now involving Guilia’s daughter, stir the embers of the old, still unsolved case….

Here’s a long quote in which the now adult Emilia talks to Sciancalepre about her mother’s disappearance:

One evening she found Sciancalepre in that [train] compartment. They made the entire journey together, and for the first time, Emilia spoke about her mother. She’d realized by now that there was something strange about her mother’s disappearance, and she wished she knew what was in her father’s heart. But it was something she’d never been able to ask him because she felt intimidated–or perhaps because she understood it was something they must never discuss.

“It’s a mystery. A mystery!” said the Commissario. And he tried to get her to speak, asking what her father thought about it. “Did you read the papers?” he asked.

“Yes, I read then, but I don’t believe any of their speculations. In any case. as far as I’m concerned, my mother’s dead: I can feel it.”

Truth to tell, Sciancalepre also sensed it, but he didn’t want to think any more about the case. The folder, with all the notes and photographs of Signora Giulia, was still in his drawer. Formally, the case was still open, but the paper in the file was starting to yellow and surely some day soon one of his successors would send it to the archives. And Sciancalepre was expecting a promotion–which would mean a transfer.

The Disappearance of Signora Giulia is an unconventional, compelling crime novel. Like any great detective, Sciancalepre is haunted by a case he cannot solve, and yet he also knows that the mystery hasn’t vanished; it’s just festering there in the recesses of his mind. I was frustrated by the ending–as we’re probably meant to be, so I immediately reread it in order to try and ‘solve’ the mystery for myself. This is the second novel I’ve read from Pushkin Press‘s Vertigo line, and so far I’m very impressed. For those interested, Vertigo is also recommended for crime fans.

Finally, The Disappearance of Signora Giulia takes place in the mid-50s, and there are a few references to the social views of the times, so we see the Commissario telling Esengrini to launch a suit against Giulia for  “abandoning the marital home.” Additionally, it seems as though it was possible to arrest someone for adultery.

Review copy. Translated by Jill Foulston

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Filed under Chiara Piero, Fiction