Notes from an Italian hermitage – despatches from BOLOGNA #3
Gothic suspense story set in the Swiss Alps
17th August 2019
A Devil Comes to Town by Paolo Maurensig, Gothic suspense story set in the Swiss Alps. Translated by Anne Milano Appel.
What a delightful short novel this is! Set in for the most part in 1981, A Devil Comes to Town is a gothic tale laced with dark imagery. From the outset, it is advised to have a listen online to the cry of a fox, for it is a preternatural, eerie and disturbingly cutting sound as ever there was and Maurensig makes full use of it.
The story opens with a successful author given an anonymous manuscript entitled The Devil in the Drawer composed by a consultant for a small publishing house. The manuscript details the story narrated by a priest, Father Cornelius, and framed by the publisher’s own memoir. Maurensig eases the reader into the tale of the priest himself and an episode in which he is sent to the small Swiss village of Dichtersruhe, renowned for having once received Goethe on his travels through the Alps.
Dichtersruhe is a village in which everyone is a writer and no one has talent other than a seriously disabled young woman who manages to achieve what no one else there can, publication. All is well in the town until a publisher arrives offering to publish various works from the villagers and award a literary prize, the Goethe prize, to the most promising work. Father Cornelius is at first the only one able to perceive the menace. Prior to the publisher’s arrival, a plague of rabid foxes roamed the town, auguring evil. From here, the tale is a descent, and it is not until the denouenment and the final twists, that the reader realises the full extent of trickery at play.
Maurensig has no need to provide vividly descriptive passages of setting, for we know this place, the isolated village in the woods. It is the stuff of Little Red Riding Hood and every other gothic fairy tale. Nevertheless, the author conjures a powerful sense of place with the fewest words. There is much to unpack in the metaphors of the devil, the rabid fox and the saturn worn by the priest, unpacking that would provide stimulating conversation in a book club.
Using the device of the unreliable narrator, Maurensig has penned a meditation on madness and evil that leaves the reader pondering, not least on the real extent of that very unreliability. A parable for our age of creative vainglory, A Devil Comes to Town is literary gold and Maurensig a formidable talent.
Isobel Blackthorn for the TripFiction Team
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