It became known as the Circeo massacre, one of Italy’s most infamous incidents in a decade lavish with violence.
In 1975, two young women, Rosaria Lopez and Donatella Colasanti, were held prisoner by three young men. The girls were drugged, tortured and repeatedly raped. Lopez was drowned in a bathtub. Colasanti lived, but I find I cannot type out what she endured.
The novelist Edoardo Albinati attended the same school as the killers. In “The Catholic School” — a 1,200-page slab of lament, accusation, exorcism — he anatomizes the world that produced them. His critique expands in widening concentric circles to indict their prestigious all-boys school, neighborhood and faith, the national cults of fascism and “familism.”
Rape, torture, murder: These are not violations of society’s norms, according to Albinati, but their fulfillment.
More than any institution, maleness itself is to blame, he writes. “The profound and natural need that males feel to win love and tenderness and warmth from other males almost inevitably remains unsatisfied, and that is why it is wholly (and sometimes brutally) turned upon women.” Albinati is a scholar of the harlequinade of masculinity, its rites and subtleties. He has spent most of his life in male-only spaces: years in Catholic school, a stint of mandatory service in the army and more than two decades teaching in a prison. His book — a blend of novelistic imagination and true crime — is a taxonomy of male types, of bullies and victims; a close reading of locker room behavior; an analysis of the correct proportion of vulgarity necessary for humor between friends.
“The Catholic School,” nimbly translated by Antony Shugaar, won the Strega Prize, Italy’s top literary honor. It has garnered comparisons to novels by Karl Ove Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante, but this book has a logic and form all its own. There are only a few scenes, lightly sketched; the modes here are the tirade and the aria — compulsively repetitive discursions with Albinati occasionally and apologetically catching himself. “Families, I hate you,” he thunders, then, chastened: “Yes, I know, dear readers, if you’re sick of this topic, just skip to the next, decisive chapter.”
It is not a decisive chapter. It is more, much more, of the same: Albinati channeling the logic of the killers, with the help of a stew of unattributed theories from Freud, Lacan, R.D. Laing, Melanie Klein — and some startling and original propositions of his own.
“What does it mean to be male?” he asks. “How, and by virtue of what, are men recognized as males? Since most men by and large fail to match the commonly accepted image of a male, and don’t possess at all the presumed identity of the real man, a male amounts to being other than the way one actually is — it means being the way one ought to be. A male isn’t someone who is male, but someone who has to be male. A male, then, is a non-being or rather a being-for, a potential being, a volition, an edge concept, a guiding principle.”
There are occasional flashes of epigrammatic wit — “if sex doesn’t manifest itself as an obsession, then it hasn’t manifested itself at all”; “the only thing you’re in a hurry to put at arm’s length is something that is close, uncomfortably close” — but Albinati is generally a humorless writer. Who else could describe volleyball so mournfully as a “hysterical sport, a matter of crucial instants.”
A peculiar, disconcerting feature of the book is how frequently it reproduces the conditions it purports to criticize. It too is a harshly male-only space. For much of the book there is only one recurring female character, a lunch lady of sorts who remains unnamed — although her “enormous shapeless bosom” merits mention. Later, there are fleeting references to lovers, and to Albinati’s daughter. (She is also thanked in the acknowledgments for transcribing his handwritten pages, a new and ghastly achievement in filial piety, considering how diligently Albinati records his sexual practices.) Women generally appear here in slices — as membranes, fleshy protuberances, vessels for male insecurity and revulsion.
Albinati conjures the minds of the killers and descends into them; we are trapped in their amber, their humid, claustrophobic logic. You expect him to take an ax to all this, to let in reason, but he merges with the muck. “To kill is an extreme way of making someone yours,” he blandly writes. “The preference accorded a dead body rather than a living woman has its point, as fine and subtle as a human hair, but hair can grow thick and strong.”
Are these the sorts of admissions that have earned this book its plaudits for bravery? What is striking is how banal these statements feel, for all their horror. I kept experiencing an eerie feeling of recognition as I slogged through the book as if I had, only yesterday, read an identical text that I couldn’t place.
I had. Yesterday, the week before, the year before. For all its reheated philosophy, for long stretches this book could pass as any of the manifestoes left behind by mass killers, from Jack the Ripper to Elliot Rodger. “Those women and girls,” Albinati writes, “brimming over with all sorts of attractions, whom it would cost nothing to offer you a small portion of their body, a few square inches all considered, for 10 minutes, but even five minutes would do, what do they do? Nothing, they do nothing, they just keep walking.”
It’s bad form to criticize a book for what it does not do. But in its indifference to mounting any kind of meaningful challenge to misogyny or its rhetoric — so easy, so satisfying to accomplish — “The Catholic School” too often reinscribes the authority of the arguments trotted out by these killers. It seems that for Albinati, the unearthing of these ideas is work enough, truth enough, however nauseatingly familiar they may be. It’s his own school that is in session — a one-way, Orphic descent into hell, with the violence manifest instead of latent, and his own pessimism front and center.
There is no corrective he can imagine to male brutality, no antidote. “Being born a boy,” he writes, “is an incurable disease.”
Follow Parul Sehgal on Twitter: @parul_sehgal.
The Catholic School
By Edoardo Albinati
Translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar
1,268 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $40.