Recently I found the time to finally read one of my most anticipated novels of 2017, The 20 Days of Turin by Giorgio De Maria. This novel was hyped as a cult classic, a prime example of Italian weird fiction that had finally been given the treatment owed to a cult classic and translated into English. Reviews and publisher blurbs hailed it as a horrifying tale that, despite being published almost forty years ago, had proven just as timely and significant as ever.
With such endorsements, I didn’t really know what to expect, since I have never read any Italian weird fiction, and the closest thing to Italian horror I’ve read was Dante’s Inferno. But the synopsis was intriguing, the cover was creepy, and I thought, what the heck?
The 20 Days of Turin turned out to be more complicated than I had anticipated. It’s part Lovecraftian horror story, part political allegory, part mystery thriller, and part sublime nightmare. This novel is a very good example of the kind of horror that focuses less on jump scares and more on weaving an insidious scheme to ensnare its reader.
Ensnare me it did. The 20 Days of Turin didn’t scare me in a way that forced me to make sure my doors and windows were locked. But it burrowed its way under my skin, and I can’t stop thinking about it.
Before I get into the meat of the review, I feel compelled to discuss the historical context in which De Maria wrote The 20 Days, his fourth novel and considered his magnum opus by many. Understanding the state of Italian contemporary politics proved essential to reading the novel and gleaning De Maria’s purpose. But damn, is there is a lot to unpack.
I’m no historian, especially when it comes to mid- to late-20th-century Italian history. I had no idea that this era marked a very unstable time in Italy’s history. Specifically, the 1960s and 70s represented a startling degree of upheaval, when the populace was beset from all sides by both leftist and right-wing fringe groups. Ramon Glazov, De Maria’s translator and author of the novel’s introduction, put it this way: “Italy was tormented almost daily by terror attacks and police-state crackdowns…at the time, Italy was home to roughly a dozen militant political organizations, from Marxist “armed cells” to clandestine neofascist networks” (pg. viii, xx).
These groups carried out domestic terrorism at a steady rate, bombing train stations, concerts, crowds of civilians gathered in squares. They attacked authority figures, policemen, and politicians. At least four thousand cases of political violence…are thought to have occurred during the “Years of Lead,” leaving hundreds dead and thousands more wounded. These extremist groups occupied the spectrum of Italian politics from the left to the right, and each group had a preferred target. Some had an affinity for assassination attempts on police officers, judges, and politicians.
Worse still, all this violence and political terrorism were part of an overall “Strategy of Tension,” which is to say that portions of the Italian government, the terrorists, and the agitators colluded in a structured plan to sow fear and chaos across Italy. The goal? Gaining control of and weaponize the emotional and fearful public against political enemies.
Basically, these actors used violent and insidious methods to gaslight the hell out of an entire nation.
That alone is terrifying. But it’s a tale as old as time and the powers that be routinely exploit the people for their own ends. We know this story. It will happen again and again.
Only De Maria figured out how to retell this story. He found a way to document what he observed in a way that gives new dimension and resonance to what might otherwise be disregarded as another unpleasant history lesson.
The 20 Days is certainly imaginative, the story of an unnamed investigator who seeks the answers to peculiar and violent events in the city’s past. Ten years prior, the city was gripped by a mysterious plague of mass insomnia. Hundreds of people roamed the city for 20 straight nights, bleary-eyed and dazed. Worse still, some of the insomniacs were savagely murdered, their bodies bashed against the paved roads and old statues in Turin’s historic town squares. Even with hundreds of potential eyewitnesses, the police never established a lead. The insomnia and murders stopped as quickly as they started. No one ever knew why or how.
The unnamed narrator believes that the events relate to the establishment of The Library, which preceded the 20 days. Run by a group of clean-cut, respectable, and utterly creepy young men, the Library was meant to “encourage people to be more open with one another by offering “true, authentic documents reflecting the real spirit of the people” (pg. 34). Any person could visit The Library, housed in a church-run sanatorium, and anonymously donate their writings (sort of). No manuscripts, no essays, just their unfiltered thoughts and ramblings about whatever they wanted. Anyone could read the volumes and, for a fee, learn the name and address of the author. The grand experiment of the Library eventually took a sharp turn, veering away from its stated noble cause and instead dredging up the worst of the city, as people with “no desire at all for regular human communication” begin to fill the Library with their twisted fantasies, simmering resentment, and barely contained cruelty.
As the investigator pushes deeper into the buried history, he learns that there are some very powerful people who don’t want him to dig any further. In fact, it seems that the whole city of Turin doesn’t want him to uncover the truth about what happened.
The story is genuinely creepy and unsettling which made it engaging and enjoyable. The 20 Days of Turin is Lovecraftian in mood, tone, and structure, what with its anonymous first-person point of view and the slow unearthing of a terrible, incomprehensible secret. How could it not be, with the gravity of what happened in Italy hanging over the narrative?
At the same time, De Maria is careful and sparse with details. The prose undermines developments by refusing to linger very long on any plot point, which creates a disorienting, confused experience. I walked away feeling like I was missing key details about the events of the 20 days, as the omission of details only heightened my resolve to know what happened. On the other hand, De Maria spends a lot of time describing the city itself, with is teaming with filth and waste, trash and human excrement and grit. It seems that the city of Turin is slowly being consumed by nasty smells, greasy trash, and all sorts of disgusting products of a human population.
All of the imagery, the unexplained transitions, and the narrator’s questionable grasp on reality against a city of decay and secrets, mirrors a reality of confusion and hopelessness. But there is also a kind of forced and hollow apathy running underneath the surface. This makes the surreal, slow terror of the novel daunting and nuanced. And while De Maria created something more than a straight political allegory, the novel’s mood struck me as insightful, painful, and completely relevant to the state of American politics and culture.
In particular, De Maria’s warnings about internet culture are prophetic. His conception of the Library predicts the internet better than many speculative fiction authors ever did. Something that was meant to be a tool, a bridge, a net connecting millions of people to achieve a glorious new world has done just that, but not in the intended fashion (though the intents of the young men who started the Library remain shrouded in shadows). For every person who made a positive impact on another, countless others used those new connections to sow discord and malice. In the novel, the ability to pour out one’s heart with relative anonymity means you pour out all of your heart, good and bad. And in Turin, as on the internet, a lot of darkness resides in the human heart.
The Library becomes a lure to people with no desire at all for ‘regular human communication’”—which captures the disturbing phenomena that people a malicious breed of courage when behind a keyboard.
In the words of Glazov: “Try to picture an evil alliance between 4chan, Craigslist, and the Catholic Church. That’s the Library.”
While I liked the book, I did have some difficulties with certain aspects. Mainly, I found the pacing uneven and disorienting, and not in a way that felt purposeful or intentional. I understand that the narrative aims to be aloof and mimic the way the Turinese have deemphasized and ignored what happened, but it wasn’t always successful. Some parts were meandering and a little boring.
As I pointed out earlier, much of the novel’s impact is dependent on the historical context. Obviously, The 20 Days of Turin is much more than that, but someone well-versed in Italy’s history will glean much more from his message than someone without this knowledge. Without it, it’s merely a really weird and eerie story about a town in Italy. I’m not quite sure if that’s a weakness or not.
But I’m glad I had to do some work to understand the novel. It was too potent to let me off the hook.
Given the ubiquity of internet trolls, daily scandals, and mud-slinging politics, The 20 days of Turin feel like it could have been written recently. This is the most disturbing part of the novel—regardless of the year or the progress we think we’ve made or our delusions, insidious forces lie in wait for the moment to strike. It doesn’t matter who they are or what they want. They will seize the opportunity to exert their influence and we might let them.
As Glazov points out, “Wordless fear, determined amnesia and an aggressive impulse to look the other way are the story’s cornerstones, and at least as chilling as its bizarre violence.” (pg. viii). Cognitive dissonance coats the city of Turin, but we in the present are not immune, especially if we collectively decide to turn a blind eye and act like nothing is amiss, or worse still, that we can’t right what is wrong.
I can’t stop reflecting on this novel. I want answers, I want to know what questions to ask.
What does it mean that the Library was housed in a church? Why does the Library’s wickedness bleed into the insomnia plague, and how does that enable the murders? What does it mean to have those particular icons of Italian culture and history engage in bloody, petty conflict, with the people as their pawns?
I could posit countless theories, and I could try to tie up all the loose ends of this surreal nightmare. But I’m not certain I’m supposed to figure it out. Perhaps The 20 Days of Turin is only offered as a warning. De Maria has accomplished something fantastic, a creative history that has lodged itself in my mind more firmly than a didactic historical account or a moving but forgettable drama. Those are too real, too easy to see once, shake one’s head, and then forget about it like so many headlines.
As De Maria put it, “I believe that the scope of the fantastic… is the most suitable one for conveying a reality as complicated as ours.”
I think he’s absolutely right. But what should we do with once confronted with the message of The 20 Days of Turin? No writer, filmmaker, artist, politician, judge, activist, can force anyone else to wake up from their daze. No one can force anyone else to confront reality. In the end, all De Maria has given us is a disturbing moral that fulfills itself time and time again.