Antonia Felix reputed soprano, poet and author of several nonfiction books including biographies of Harry Connick, Jr., Irish tenor, John MacNally; Condoleeza Rice and Andrea Bocelli: A Celebration, published by St. Martinʼs Press.
One of the greatest delights of childhood is words—discovering them, voicing demands with them, engrossing oneself in them through stories and books, and amusing ourselves with them. A clever childʼs wordplay can be language at its best: spontaneous, funny, a pure and uncluttered stream of creativity.
Happily, not every adult loses this gift. In his novel, Albert Russo offers an abundant portion of verbal acrobats in the voice of his precocious young heroine, Esmeralda McInnerny, affectionately nicknamed Zapinette by her uncle for the girlʼs love of video games, computers, and other high-tech media.
Zapinette reveals a slice of life from a perspective that is both rare and familiar. She is unique in her worldly travels, having been born in the United States, currently living in Paris, and visiting faraway lands with her beloved Uncle Berky. She is all too common in her pain as the child of a broken home, her anger and hostility over her motherʼs new beau (“Fermin the Vermin”), her confusion over the baffling realities of the adult world, and her inner longing to find her real father. Armed with a facile mind and an exposure to several languages, Zapinette relies heavily on her own vocabulary to describe the people and events that spin around her. More than in her thoughts themselves, it is in the words she uses to express them that we uncover the conflicts, breathless conclusions, and surprising subjects to which the young Zapinette has been exposed.
Impatient, impertinent, raucous, and often passionate in her opinions (a trait she obviously inherits from her hot-blooded uncle), Zapinette regales us with words weʼve never heard before. Like her mother, sheʼs a staunch “felinist;” she worries about the “heather-setchuals” who are “VIP positive;” is freaked out by the “Clue Cocks Clan” and the “androidous” Michael Jackson; has read about the English playwright “Shakeʼem pears;” wishes more people would go see a “sigh-kayak-tryst;” and canʼt stand an uppity blue-blood classmate she calls “Charlotte de Jerq.”
There is wisdom in this young voice, too. After sensing her mother and stepfatherʼs attitude about AIDS, she feels a new anxiety creeping into her and realizes that “fear is sometimes more contagious than sickness itself.”
Contemplating the Ten Commandments, she refuses to take the Bible at face value: “To ʻThou shalt honor your father and your mother,ʼ I have added, ʻnot if your dad ran away, leaving you and your mom on the dole, without a single farting (thatʼs how they used to call pennies in the times of Charlie Dickens),ʼ coz that would be too easy.”
The laugh-out-loud wordplay Albert Russo creates, especially with names, provides an unavoidable comparison to Nabokov. “Charlotte de Jerq” is a childʼs twist on the Nabokov humor found in Lolita and other novels, as evidenced in this passage from Transparent Things: “Madame Charles Chamar, née Anastasia Petrovna Potapov (a perfectly respectable name that her late husband garbled as “Patapouf”) . . . ”
Albert Russoʼs freshness with language is further enhanced by his ability to maintain such a unique voice throughout Zapinette Baguette & Tagliatelle. He creates a very challenging problem by choosing a character whose atypical language is central to her character, and never lets up on this child-like intensity.
Anyone who has attempted a novel-length work will appreciate Russoʼs stamina and seemingly endless imaginative resources. In Zapinetteʼs own words: “To all of you ninnies who think that writing a book is a picnic, you have no idea how mindbubbling the whole affair is.” From beginning to end, each page crackles with Zapinetteʼs original use of words—delivered at the quick pace of a childʼs nonstop inquisitive mind. Keeping up is an amusing and exhilarating experience.