The narrator of Albert Russoʼs new novel, Zapinette Baguette & Tagliatelle, is a little girl of our time, very knowledgeable about the outside world, but also enormously ignorant of the language commonly used about it, and, as a result, very funny. Her phonetic transcriptions of what she hears and her malapropisms make of her a powerfully distorting lens but, strangely enough, also a reliable witness.
Ever since the world has been convinced of their natural innocence, children have become fiction heroes, or rather caricatures of fiction heroes, as those who tell about them, in novels, autobiographies or films, are necessarily adults. The genre has soon become stereotyped into a race against the forgetting of innocence, with its compulsory figures, as the discovery of parental lying, the first kiss with the milkman’s daughter or the postman’s son, and, obviously, the first stain in the panties or the underpants, all episodes that are supposedly fresh in the memory of the by necessity elderly writers of memoirs, “as if it had just happened”. Those “truthful” memories are however pure fiction, as children do not remember things sequentially. Taking mental notes of detail and local colour is an adult occupation, as in the case of Henry James’s characters, who look at Italy with the constant preoccupation of noting down every single sensation or impression, as if the storing of information about the decay of the Country helped them prevent their own decay. Children have no interest in mortality: when they look at Rome, it is certainly not to safekeep it into a mental photo-album, it is because they think that Trajan’s forum or the Coliseum would constitute wonderful playing grounds, and that Bernini’s elephant looks so funny. Tell them that the Italian sculptor had never seen any elephants, which explains the shrunken legs and the oversized trunk, and they won’t really care.
Albert Russo has thankfully spared us all the clichés of the genre, and what we read in his novel is a genuine portrait of a genuine child. Zapinette tours through Italy with her uncle, but it is obvious that she has not read Baedeker. She tells us about some of her impressions, as her utter boredom at a concert at the Roman ampitheatre in Verona, with a prima donna as big as a cow, or some anecdotes linked to places that are already getting blurred in her memory. What really interests her is how many
ice-cream cones her uncle buys her everyday.
Zapinette is a child of our time. Her nickname tells it all: she absolutely loves television. And she is in the novel the echo of the outside world, which she understands in a confused and patchy fashion. She is at the same time the recipient and the victim of the information poured out by the media and which, on account of its very nature, can never become knowledge or Culture. Zapinette’s references are often humourous or unexpected, full of the anarchy that her nickname reveals to us. She talks about Bosnia and John Paul II, politicians and media stars, with the same kind of ignorant confidence. If the young lady is surprisingly convincing, it is because in this domain as well as in that of memory, Albert Russo has given us a truthful portrait of a child of the nineteen-nineties.