Imagine James Joyce at the height of his logophiliac talents, walking along the Seine and wordplaying with a nonchalance so serious that vendors, tourists, even sophisticated Parisian matrons turn their heads–the latter often shocked by the sexual innuendos and naughty papal allusions. Suddenly Joyce receives an infusion of Nabokov spiked with some Lewis Carroll and a wicked version of Arthur Frommer. Give him a young niece, nicknamed Zapinette, for a companion: precocious, worldly
as well as wordy, yet naive enough to be curious about the workings of the human body and the strange things grownups do, and let yourself travel with them to Italy and elsewhere. Not that youʼll literally be able to take this far from typical Frommer tour, but you might remember the trip you read about in Albert Russoʼs novel (Zapinette Baguette & Tagliatelleʼ long after youʼve forgotten that three-star hotel in, say, Turin.
Russo, a much published Paris-based bilingual author equally at home in French and English, offers such a delectable linguistic feast itʼs difficult to single out particular items, but for starters, how about Zapinetteʼs description of herself as “so interactive–my CV … rhymes with TV”. Or her subtle comment about the “people dressed in X-rated clothes” and “pierced boobs” at a San Francisco gay right parade, who “have the right to suffer excrucifyingly”. She assures herself she wonʼt ever have to go to a “sigh-kayak-tryst to get brain-trashed” and would not want to be at risk of “rescoopcitating as a chick or hyena”.
On their Italian journey, she resents Unky Berkyʼs penchant for dragging her to art galleries to see paintings by “Shoo-Goal” and “Mowgli-Annie” whose sad-faced portraits of women makes her think they have AIDS. While they travel, Zapinette asks her uncle many personal questions about his past, particularly about his diverse “setchual adventures”. Yet even when she seems to be scorning his tastes, she not only admires him, especially his writings, but loves him in her own indirect way and eagerly listens to his stories about the familyʼs life back at the time of the Second World War as well as his tendency to regale her with “shtisticks” about everything from the number of sunny days in London to accident rates on the Continent. At her most hilarious, Zapinette indulges in multi-lingual puns, like “leche-delirious (which has nothing to do with milk)” and the “Sea of Kugel-lee” where Jesus allegedly walked. The latterʼs particularly subtle allusion to Christ as a Jew (a “kugel” is a traditional Jewish pudding of Eastern European origin) clearly establishes her role as a thoroughly sophisticated commentator on not only contemporary Italy and France but world history.
But far from being merely an allegorical figure, Zapinette has a plentiful supply of flesh for matters both gustatory and sexual. Yet she can get away with such metafictive comments as “writers, even young ones like me, always worry about being plagued with rice”. So skillfully does the author project his own voice onto hers that the reader forgets that a young girl is the narrator and her beloved Unky Berky a fictive version of the protagonist/ author. No wonder that when Zapinette is chagrined about Berkyʼs lovers, whether male or female, he assures her that nobody will ever replace her in his heart.
After a zany climactic scene where, back in Paris, the narrator and her uncle are attending the Gay Rights March, which Zapinette admires for the opportunities it offers the imagination, especially to create characters like her own “drag queen of the Babushkas”. In that respect, the March outdoes Eurodisney, where the characters are merely Disneyfied. And though Zapinette has qualms about her uncleʼs sexual proclivities, when she thinks he might be in love with someone else, a CD of Jacques Brel starts playing inside her head, “the smaltzy tune whose refrain
goes ʻNe me quitte pas, ne me quitte pasʼ”. In an earlier reference to that song at a moment of high tension, the line is translated as “don‚t leave me, don‚t leave me”.
Much as I loathe the word “muse” certainly Zapinette is Russo-Berkyʼs young muse and they cannot exist apart from one another. But whatʼs unique here is that the muse is not only the narrator but also herself a writer. Fear not, no deconstructionist dialectics mar what is in essence a profoundly comic and deeply moving metafictive novel which can be enjoyed on any number of levels. I myself canʼt wait for the sequel …