[…] but you’ve been through the plague and come out the other side, is there anything left to scare you? You did well, though. The things I’m telling you about, and that you cannot hear, are like the nursery rhyme we use with children to give them the courage to go to sleep.
La notte si avvicina.
Night did close in, and then opened up again for you. Now is the time to start asking the right questions.
Do you ever ask yourself how a plague starts?
Do you ever ask yourself whether there is only one fault? Because this is the tale that has always been told: someone is responsible, someone, and that one holds all the evil in the world inside them. Have you ever asked yourself whether, if this is true, that one person is aware of it? Have you ever asked yourself if a good person can do evil? Furthermore: are they urged to do it because of some other evil that was done to them, or has darkness always been inside them? And yet more: can one person really carry evil with them, or is evil so deeply rooted in a town that it only takes a light breath to reawaken it?
La notte si avvicina is a novel which Loredana Lipperini started writing in 2016, long before any whispers of possible real pandemics made it to Italy. And yet, her gripping, terrifying exploration of a resurgence of the plague was only published in 2020, with barely a few experience-based tweaks from its previous drafts. The title, which is also a refrain throughout the story, is part of children’s lullaby, and carries all the unspoken creepiness of nursery rhymes. Lulling children to sleep, convincing them that everything is fine, even as night falls and as shadows close in. La notte si avvicina – night is closing in.
The different narrators, all women, who help unravel the story of the village of Vallescura – a non-place, and yet easily identifiable in many of the little villages dotting the Marche and Umbria regions – have their own voices, distinctive even when their individual perspectives tangle and twist together in a build-up of tension towards a powerful, horrifying release in the final act. They are: Saretta, the de facto ruler of the village; Maria, the outsider; Chiara, the mediator and prophet, who dreams of the plague and returns to the village, to Aurelia, her ex-mother-in-law; Giulia and Aurora, mother and daughter who are both outside and of the village; even Carmen, the young ‘rebel’ who defies Saretta and the horrors that she nudges into existence. Because this is an Italian gothic novel, a horror story – from Lipperini, no less, who is one of the most vocal advocates for genre literature within mainstream Italian publishing. A horror story set in an ordinary reality, where nothing is supernatural unless you choose to believe in the village’s curse, in the ‘bad place’, in the shadows that creep towards it. It is a story of revenge for horrors past, and for horrors entirely human in their making, perfectly ordinary in their ugliness.
The novel is prescient even in the ugliness of those who turned further into themselves in self-preservation would spell horrifying consequences for those wider communities, from families, to villages, to cities, to countries.
When the disaster took place, then, the town was locked down, we were all prisoners. No one in, no one out. Initially we just saw it as an injustice, like the rose plants and their leaves, eaten through despite all the care, water every evening, the carefully sprayed Neem oil, even the sweet and nonsensical words that we speak to plants pretending they can hear us. The feeling of confinement, and fear, came later: the beginning was a time of protest, because no one believed in the plague. Some mocked the doctors, undoubtedly at the service of morbid powers. Some believed in a cosmic energy that would protect them, and at the end of the long hours of prayer to whatever divinity, would take to the streets to explain to others that there was no real danger, with the superiority of the believer. Some could not give up their happy hour just one town over, the multiplex and the shopping centre. Some hung a sheet on their balcony, with big black letters reading: “Let’s Rebel.”
I’m getting my times confused, the after and the before. But it’s necessary: if all we do is parse time, ordering it in sequence as on a calendar, we would not make sense of it. Time moves forward and backwards, along strings we are unable to follow, and so when I recall the days of the plague I cannot not think of what came before, when we could still do everything, when the word ‘fever’ only meant the flu, a bump in the road, a stumble, and all the bad illnesses kept happening to other people, and everything was far away, like a dream about someone else.
Again uncannily prescient, in her novel Lipperini grapples with the idea of time in a setting where time has always been crucial to survival, with the village festivals, the gatherings, the sagre, and where time suddenly becomes irrelevant, as the plague forces everyone to isolate. She weaves her narrator perspectives around the appearance of the first case of the plague, and initially flits back and forth between before and during the pandemic itself: the story starts many years earlier, and we speed through several events in and around the village. That is, until time dilates, and tension builds in the final five days before the plague arrives, and the first, horrifying death takes place. Except death has always been part of the village’s history, as it has been of the world surrounding it; the only difference, this time, is that death cannot be controlled by Saretta, or the carefully crafted balance she – almost successfully – created in the village.
La notte si avvicina is a novel about the plague, about the pandemic, about terrifying illnesses, yes, but it is primarily a novel about mothers and the different aspects of being a mother. It is a novel about relationships formed and lost in a time of crisis; a novel about the dangers of self-fulfilling myths, the lies we tell ourselves and others, and the ugly truths we have to accept to escape the horrors that surround us.
With the inevitable onslaught of pandemic novels, relying on the narratives of ‘frontline heroes’, of ‘necessary sacrifice’, ‘staying alert’ and the saccharine Italian ‘everything will be fine’ reaction, I believe that Loredana Lipperini refreshingly thwarts those narratives. To my mind this is a novel which clearly exposes the entirely human horrors, and human causes, of our current condition. It may not be escapism – but sometimes, exorcism will have to do.
By Alex Valente
LA NOTTE SI AVVICINA
(Night Is Closing In)
by Loredana Lipperini
Published in Italian by Bompiani (2020)
Translations from Italian by Alex Valente
Loredana Lipperini was born in Rome on 14th November 1956. She is a writer, a radio host, and cultural activist, currently on the board for Italy’s biggest literary and publishing festival, il Salone del Libro di Torino. She is the main host for the literary programme Fahrenheit on Radio3, and regularly blogs at Lipperatura.it.
Alex Valente (he/him) is a white European currently living on xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, and səlilwətaɬ land. He is a literary translator from Italian into English, though he also dabbles with French and RPGs, and is co-editor of The Norwich Radical. His work has been published in NYT Magazine, The Massachusetts Review, The Short Story Project, and PEN Transmissions.
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