On the road to the 20th century the German poet Heinrich Heine wrote, “Give me a mask and I’ll join the masquerade.” At the turn of the 21st century, Albert Russo has written Zapinette, a novel that is an acerbically witty commentary on fin-de-siècle human foibles, which are dissected with clinical precision, diabolical humor and something of the grand satirical style of Voltaire or Montaigne. Russo’s mask in this particular masquerade is the story’s protagonist, a precocious preteen named Esmeralda McInnerny, who’s been nicknamed “Zapinette” by the novel’s other main character, her Uncle Alberic, called “Berky” by his inventive niece.
Voltaire wrote that to crush “the Infamy” of his time “it must first be rendered ridiculous.” Our era’s Infamy, like that of any age, is founded on hypocrisy. It is this that Russo ably attacks with Pasquinading relish from the first page to the last by donning his mask of a young Franco-American girl and commenting on the world she sees around her as she rambles through it in the company of her uncle.
The novel is not long on plot but doesn’t need to be any more so than past novels of its kind, among which I would include Mailer’s Why Are We in Vietnam? and Nabakov’s Lolita. Nor have Russo’s past works relied strongly on plot as engines to drive the narrative. On the contrary, Russo’s approach has been to take simple situations and then dismantle them to see what turns the hidden gears. In the process the reader often has shocking peeks into the clockwork mechanisms that underlie much of what we take to be reality. Behind the face of the timepiece may lurk a clandestine listening device. Within the marble skin of the Greek statue, a Venusian praying mantis waits to devour. The bard behind the Zapinette mask strips the masks from other less noble forms of artifice and lays bare the sometimes ugly subterranean truth.
For those who would like a quick precis: Esmeralda is the favorite niece of her “Unky Berky” who works for the French post office in a not clearly defined capacity (we gather he is some type of supervisor with much free time on his hands). She has been dubbed “Zapinette” because of her fondness for zapping her way through televisual media, from Nintendo games to rock videos. In many ways Zapinette’s narrative is a form of self-generated rock video, the stream of consciousness by which she perceives the world. This, of course, connects to the book’s title and sums up the style in which the book is written, but it’s also a commentary on the way we more and more tend to view the world around us as a pastiche of disconnected and ambiguous images and sound bites that flash past our minds in an ever- accelerating kaleidoscope that seems to simultaneously energize and enervate.
But back to the plot — Uncle Alberic is a native of Monza, Italy, and although superficially Francofied from his years of living in Paris, he nevertheless remains Italianate below the waterline. Alberic’s longing for home forms the basis for the middle part of the book, where Zapinette and her uncle leave Paris on a tour of Italy. This gives Alberic’s young charge lavish opportunities to lampoon some of the bastions of Western cultural tradition, from the Vatican to art film.
The book’s other two main characters are Zapinette’s mother, Laura, and her live-in lover, Firmin, who has recently fathered a child by Laura. Laura, who is Berky’s sister, owns and operates a Parisian beauty parlor. She is a staunch feminist (or “felinist” in Zapinette-speak, about which more momentarily) who has a don’t-tread- on-me attitude when it comes to men. This attitude is one reason why Zapinette’s father is not in the picture — he was a casualty of Laura’s wrath some years before, leaving the American-born daughter in the care of her Parisian mother while going off to seek his fortune in the Amazon.
One of the devices Russo uses to make his point and to carry the narrative is the unending stream of Malapropisms, or more properly, “Zap-apropisms,” that emerge from the mouth of this not-so-innocent young girl. They come rapid-fire, like a hail of machinegun bullets; they come in neo-Joycean flashes that wriggle and jump in the narrative stream like darting fish from the thought-dreams of Leopold Bloom striding through an Icarian Dublin. Should you chance to hook one of these delicious little minnows and roast it on the spit of your mind, you may never think the same again. My favorite Zap-apropism is “fonda-mentalist,” which makes me think of Jane under an Ayatollah’s turban, bearded and with eyes darkly ablaze.
Be warned, Zapinette’s gems of insouciant wit tend to become infectious. This wise- child’s deceptively worldly innocence takes the entire gamut of human endeavor in its compass. Hardly anyone or anything escapes unscathed. Michael Jackson, Vittorio de Sica, Freddy Mercury, Mao Zedong, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bill and Hill, the Pope, Fidel Castro, and even Jesus of Nazareth all come under Zapinette’s delightfully zany fire as she “zaps” from topic to topic in an irrepressible flux.
Interspersed with Zapinette’s first-person narrative and meta-portmanteau words are periodic Ripov stories, short-shorts that offer paradoxical and whimsical commentary on the rest of the book (Zapinette explains that Unky Berky pens these stories during slack time at La Poste).
Although the novel was originally written in French, Russo has skillfully turned it into American English in a translation that must surely be tantamount to a complete re- writing, since it’s unlikely that the American-style idiomatic prose of the English version could have been reproduced directly from a French original. Russo’s command of the American idiom is always on the mark, as is his keen eye for sham in its many permutations.
As the century of the double zeros is with us, we have seen the future and the future is — well, here’s how Zapinette might put it: The frying pan is on the stove. This is the future. We hold two eggs over the frying pan. This is your brain. We smash the eggs together and drop the yolks into the frying pan. This is your brain in the future. What you need is a dose of reality, fast. This is Zapinette.