Diego De Silva: I Hadn’t Understood



Vincenzo Malinconico is a lawyer with an almost non-existent practice, still yearning for the wife who left him two years ago for an architect (why is it that ex-wives always seem to end up with architects, he asks), when out of the blue he’s summoned to act as the court-appointed lawyer at the initial interview of a man found with a severed hand buried in his backyard. It’s immediately clear to him that his client, Fantasia, is a very nasty piece of work and the whiff of the Camorra is strong in the air. To his own surprise, he does rather well in the initial duel with the Acting District Attorney and his cheeky performance impresses his client, so much so that he finds himself pursued by the Camorra to see the case through. What follows is both funny and sinister, “a cunning account of the Mafia’s influence on everyday life”, as the blurb says, and a wry examination of the male ego. Against his will Vincenzo finds himself tagged by a Camorra minder/bodyguard who gets him out of a number of ugly situations so that he is forced to recognize the power of brute force and the social and political clout the brand has. But he certainly isn’t cut out for working with the Camorra.

The secret of the Camorra’s success, I think as I’m standing there, must be the way that they eliminate the whole idea of problem-solving. In their cognitive system, probably, there is no human situation that can’t be solved in a brisk and direct manner….

Whereas I’m constantly overwhelmed by imponderables. I have a horror of death. I perceive life as something that continually opposes an obstinate and dignified resistance to my every desire. I have, so to speak, a mortgage holder’s attitude to life. Life gives me a series of deadlines, life obliges me to make a number of periodic payments, if that conveys the idea. It’s not something I take for granted, the idea that I’m here and that life is here too, that we’re both in the same place. Life isn’t free, you know. I have always had  this idea of life as a mortgage that extracts a portion of what I make every month, while at the same time preventing me from turning into a complete savage, in a certain sense. (264)

If you’re a crime reader you’ll like this. Even if, like me, you aren’t really, you’ll probably fall for Vincenzo’s voice, which the racy English translation captures perfectly.   He’s an instantly engaging character, perpetually puzzled by life’s refusal to form a logical narrative. In his relationship with his ex-wife and with a new love, in his relationship with his children, with the neighbour who seems to want to confide in him at the most inconvenient moments, with his bad-penny minder Tricarico, even with the yappy little dog that terrorises visitors to his downmarket office, he’s constantly besieged by the sense that he doesn’t know what’s coming next and he doesn’t know how he got where he is now.

I only wish (really, I do wish) that the out-of-date disappointments, the wrong people, the answers I failed to give, the debts I incurred needlessly, the small cruelties that poisoned my soul, all the things I can’t relegate to the past, love stories especially — would just vanish from my mind and never come back. But I’m filled with residue and after effects, specters with nothing better to do who just drop by to see me all the time. I blame it on memory, which freezes and thaws of its own volition, hindering the digests and of life and making you feel appallingly alone when you least expect it (19)

But Vincenzo is no mere lovable bumbler. De Silva plays a great riff on the lone-wolf private investigator, crappy car, gorgeous women and all, but the book is much more than that. It’s about the deals we make with ourselves, the lines we spin ourselves and the sudden, brief illuminations we have about what’s really going on in us. And about the fact that every life does have its own crazy logic.

I’m not a narrator you can rely on, Vincenzo tells us early on. Oh yes, we can, and for exactly these reasons:

I’m too interested in incidental considerations that can take you off track. When I tell a story, it’s like watching someone rummage through the drawer where they keep their receipts and records.…I daydream, I get distracted, I make little piles of paper. I find things I wasn’t looking for and stop to think about them (20)

A funny, clever, thoughtful book, it won the Naples Prize for Fiction on its publication in 2007 and was shortlisted for the Strega Prize.


Diego De Silva, I Hadn’t Understood,  (Europa editions, tr. Antony Shugaar, 2012).




8 thoughts on “Diego De Silva: I Hadn’t Understood

  1. I have this on the shelf so it’s good to know that you liked it. I recently watched an entire series based on the Camorra clan. It was excellent.

  2. I do like crime, so this looks like a good bet for me…and the quotes are great. Europa Editions is another selling point as they always seem to bring something interesting to the table. Funny, sinister and thoughtful is an interesting combination…

    1. I love the look of Europa Editions too, very crisp design. Have you read the Marseille Trilogy by Jean-Claude Izzo? The writer died in 2000, but his books are still available through Europa Editions. Quite wonderful.

      1. I haven’t, but funny you should mention it as the first book in the trilogy (Total Chaos) is on my wishlist! I’m delighted to hear you enjoyed it.

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