Charles Lambert’s first collection of short stories, The Scent of Cinnamon, contains a story called ‘All Gone’. A collection of unsettled, occasionally disturbing impressions of a displaced upbringing, it feels a little like notes for a potential memoir. I’d happily read a book’s worth of that writing, I tell him.
‘Thank you,’ he laughs, ‘but I’m not sure I’d want to write any more of it.’
Well, never mind. With three novels in the works, he probably has enough writing to be getting on with.
We’re having lunch in Sardi Due, a seafood restaurant in Garbatella, Rome. Nearby is the university where Charles Lambert teaches English, one card from the deck with which Anglophones in Italy pay their way. (He also works as an editor for the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, and has previously taught political science at the American University of Rome).It’s the combination of Lambert’s expatriate experience and the fish-out-of-water upbringing described in ‘All Gone’ that together led to his debut novel. Little Monsters contrasts the protagonist Carol’s experiences as a child, growing up with an unloving aunt after a family tragedy, with her later life as an adult, when she’s living in Italy and helping at a centre for asylum seekers. There she tries to connect to another lost child.
Among other things, Little Monsters is about the reconciliation of the past and the present, power and helplessness, and the way we define ourselves in concert with, or opposition to, the people who surround us.
With its cover featuring a soft-focus photograph and title written in a flowery script, Little Monsters was targeted by Picador at a middle-class female readership. ‘Not a bad readership to have,’ as Lambert puts it, but the novel’s actual readership has proven broader, with fans from John Self to Dovegreyreader, from Nick Harkaway to Beryl Bainbridge. When Salt published The Scent of Cinnamon, they carried the style of the design through to the cover of that book, but already it seemed unnecessarily restrictive: just as Little Monsters draws from a broad range of themes, one of the pleasures of The Scent of Cinnamon is the sheer variety of the stories included.
It helps that Lambert is an eclectic reader – as authors should be – who cut his teeth with classic horror and the adventure stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs. His early writing was a collection of imitations and parodies of the writers he discovered and admired: ‘I had my Evelyn Waugh phase, my Virginia Woolf phase, even my Hemingway phase… though that one didn’t last very long. I can’t resist writing long sentences.’Lambert’s style is now very much his own, though it might be argued that a late example of his imitative experiments was the title story ‘The Scent of Cinnamon’, originally written for a competition for stories in the spirit of Daphne du Maurier. It failed to get longlisted for that prize, but was picked up as issue #64 of One Story magazine, and went on to win the O. Henry prize instead.
Today his prose displays a comfortable openness to genre that makes it a pleasure to read, and probably a nightmare to market. Lambert produces outstanding, cross-genre writing, hard to pigeonhole, and the problem with that kind of writing is that, while it’s the one thing we all want to read, it’s also the one way that you can’t sell a book: if you could make a book stand out just by saying it’s great, than everybody would be doing it. So it’s no surprise – well, perhaps a bit of a surprise – to hear that for Lambert’s new novel, Any Human Face, Picador will be leaving the soft focus, flowery covers behind. Because Any Human Face is a thriller. Well, more or less.
‘The book’s not exactly a conventional thriller,’ explains Lambert, ‘but I was conscious as I wrote that much of the narrative tension comes from the need to find a solution to events of a criminal nature – abduction, murder – and I hope there’s also a sense of impending danger as things close in around the characters. So there’s a thriller-type apparatus at work.’
It’s not just a marketing spin, then?
‘Oh, no. I think the blurb is right in describing it as ‘half thriller, half love story’, and I’m more than happy that Picador has decided to concentrate on the former aspect of the book in marketing terms. And they’re also right to see that the book is, quite apart from anything else, a page-turner. But it evades the narrative conventions of the thriller and, I think, subverts them, though I’d better not say how. And I hope that the ‘love story’ aspect of the book also generates a sort of narrative tension in a different way.
‘Obviously, one of the other attractions of the thriller format, in terms of cover design, is the prominence given to the author’s name, which shows a healthy – and I hope justified – faith in my work on Picador’s part!’
The seeds – though not the substance – of Any Human Face can be found in a true story. A couple of years ago in Rome, an antiquarian bookseller discovered among his acquisitions a box of police photographs from the 1960s. He decided to arrange an exhibition of these images, but the night before the exhibition was due to open, the police raided the shop, taking the photographs, his books, computer, ledgers, and everything else. They gave him no explanation.
‘It was most likely that the police were embarrassed and didn’t want people to know that they hadn’t been able to keep proper guard over these photographs,’ says Lambert. ‘And this bookseller may have been known to them anyway, as I think he’d been involved in extra-parliamentary politics in the ‘70s, so they just thought they’d rectify their mistake, and teach him a bit of a lesson. Of course, while that may have been what actually happened, I was already making up my own truth…’
Lambert’s first thought in his fictional retelling was that it might be an MP covering up his shady past, but that seemed too obvious a choice. Then he started thinking back over his own life in the city: He moved to Rome in 1982, after a few years in the north of Italy: first Milan, then Turin, then Modena. (‘Slowly moving south towards Rome, with a brief shift off towards Portugal.’)
In 1982, Italy and Rome were still very much in their anni di piombo (‘years of lead’), the decades of violence and terrorism attributed to both left and right-wing elements in Italy’s polarised political world. On Lambert’s arrival, Rome would still have been under the cloud caused by the 1978 kidnapping and murder of ex-prime minister Aldo Moro; the subsequent years saw more assassinations across Italy, including at Rome’s La Sapienza university, culminating in the 1980 bombing of the train station in Bologna, which killed 85 and injured hundreds more. It wasn’t a huge leap to imagine those 1960s police photographs moved forwards to the early 1980s, allowing Lambert to draw more directly on his own experiences of another troubled period in Italy’s history.
Still, it wasn’t the Aldo Moro case, but another kidnapping, that provided the second thread for Any Human Face. In 1983, Emanuela Orlandi, a fifteen-year-old citizen of the Vatican City was abducted; she was never heard from again, and despite new theories occasionally surfacing, the kidnapping remains unsolved.
Corruption and politics are certainly nothing new in Lambert’s work: the abuse of all kinds of power was a central theme in Little Monsters, and much of his blog is devoted to picking apart the political situation in Italy. ‘What I’m drawn to most, in what we like to think of – I hope mistakenly – as our post-ideological political world, is the gap between public and private faces, so any form of hypocrisy is grist to my mill. The Italian political world, with its servile relationship to the Vatican and its pragmatic links with organised crime, has hypocrisy down to a fine art, and has done for decades, but the culture here is full of this kind of mismatch – university faculties that moan about the lack of investment in research while existing for the sole benefit of a clique of self-serving pseudo-academics and their immediate family, for example, or the total absence of customer service, or even humanity, in offices dealing with the public: the scene of a man being turned away without his pension still haunts me.
‘I’m horrified and appalled and fascinated by casual cruelty, which seems to me infinitely worse than the premeditated kind because it’s so much easier, it requires so little effort, and one of the principal ways in which hypocritical institutions do damage, as we all know, is through a cruelty based on indifference and neglect and, perhaps worst of all, personal convenience concealed behind a respect for protocol. One of the most laughable recent slogans in Italian politics, for example, was Veltroni’s ‘I Care’, without the slightest evidence for this being produced, or even required. Berlusconi, of course, is an absolute masterpiece in this sense. There’s a sort of cartoon-like Toto-esque perfection to the man that makes him irresistible as he talks about the people and the people’s needs, surrounded by a carapace of wealth and designer-suited muscle—though I’d obviously rather see him in jail than parliament or, heaven forbid, the Quirinale. But the novels I think of as my Rome trilogy, and this is also true of Little Monsters, are absolutely concerned with the way people’s lives are framed, and sometimes ruined, by the hypocrisy of power.’
The Rome trilogy? Charles Lambert has two more novels to follow Any Human Face. If the first book examines the artistic and cultural side of the city, the second, provisionally titled Chances of Death, will look at corruption in high-level politics, while the third examines the impoverished underbelly of the city through a re-imagining of the murder of Domenico Semeraro, the midget taxidermist known as ‘Il nano di Termini’ for his habit of picking up boys at Rome’s Termini train station.
While each novel follows its own story, together they’re intended to form a portrait of the city, and in wider terms a critique of power and corruption, according to the unique and passionate perspective of a writer whose prose has already been described as having the makings of instant classic status.
Any Human Face – of which the cover shown above is a draft – will be published in the UK by Picador next May. The trade paperback will be priced at £10.99. ISBN: 9780330512992.