Friday, 1 January 2016

Book Review: The Man Who Searched for Love by Pitigrilli

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Let’s be truthful, who of us doesn’t sometimes think of the world as a big circus and of people as clowns in it? It suffices to read the headlines of a newspaper or to turn on the TV news to come to this conclusion, doesn’t it? It’s rare, however, that an author takes up the idea in a novel not just metaphorically, but also in the literal sense. Such a novel is The Man Who Searched for Love by Pitigrilli, a humoristic Italian classic from 1929 about a disillusioned judge from Paris who exchanges the courtroom for the circus ring to be a clown in robe and who eventually returns to the law becoming Justice of the Peace at the back of beyond. And along the way he tries to find out what true love actually is living with a philosophical circus-rider.

Pitigrilli was the pseudonym of Italian writer Dino Segre born in Saluzzo, Italy, in May 1893. He graduated from the Faculty of Law at the University of Turin, but never entered a law profession because by then he had already made his literary debut with Il Natale di Lucillo e Saturnino (1915; The Christmas of Lucillo and Saturino). In addition, he got into journalism writing literary criticism. His first humoristic novels with erotic touch to be a success were Mammiferi di lusso (1920; Mammals of Luxury) and La cintura di castità (1921; The Chastity Belt). They were immediately followed by the author’s most famous novel, Cocaïne (Cocaina: 1921), which caused a big scandal in many countries and was put on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Prohibited Books Index) of the Roman Catholic Church. Notable among his other novels are La Vergine a 18 carati (1924; The Virgin of 18 carat), The Man Who Searched for Love (L’esperimento di Pott: 1929), and I vegetariani dell'amore (1931; The Vegetarians of Love). After World War II, Pitigrilli went into exile (first in Argentine, later in Paris) because he feared prosecution for having willingly served the Fascist regime as a spy and denunciator. He continued to write novels almost until his death, but none of them restored his fame. Pitigrilli died in Turin, Italy, in May 1975. 

The story of The Man Who Searched for Love opens in a Paris courtroom in 1929. Thirty-five-year-old Paolo Pott is presiding judge in the trial of a woman whom he believes not guilty. Nonetheless, he has to pronounce a sentence against her because his two associate judges voted him down. Annoyed, even enraged Pott calls them cretins in front of everybody in the courtroom. He knows that this is the end of his career, but he couldn’t care less. Already for a while it makes him sick to see how enforcing the law by the letter means distorting true justice. Consequently, he doesn’t hesitate to resign from his post. In his free time Pott has long been attending lectures in philosophy at Sorbonne University where beautiful, intelligent and enigmatic Jutta Schumann caught his attention. Gradually, the two fall in love, and yet, the young woman keeps virtually all information about her person to herself. One night she suggests going to the Cirque d’hiver and when he shows her the tickets, she mysteriously declares that he won’t see her before a quarter past ten. This turns out to be the time when she enters the ring as circus-rider on a tall white horse. Just when Pott runs out of money, the opportunity arises at the circus to take the place of a clown who was elected mayor of his home town. Thus judge Pott becomes clown Pott in his robe and he is a big success. Also the relationship with Jutta works out fine. After several months he gets the offer to go on tour with his numbers. Since both he and Jutta are tired of circus life and hungry for adventure, he accepts although there’s no work for her. Constantly on the road, their life as a couple turns into dull routine and love fades almost unnoticed… 

The title The Man Who Searched for Love suggests a protagonist who drifts from relationship to relationship, but in fact there is only one love story displayed as part of his life-long experiment to explore the nature of love. In my opinion the focus of the novel is much rather on Pott’s attitude towards society, though, and on his growing disillusionment that eventually makes him enter service as a Justice of the Peace in Africa. Already on the first page it becomes clear that the author loves to indulge in irony that often turns into acid sarcasm, not to say cynicism. Pott as well as many other characters have a very low opinion of people, especially of women, and some condescending remarks are really hard to swallow although Pitigrilli surely exaggerated for the sake of fun. As a matter of fact, misanthropy seems to be characteristic of this author because in a milder form it also shows in his earlier and world famous novel Cocaïne. For the rest, the book is an entertaining and absorbing read, in its original Italian version that is. The only English edition seems to be from 1932 – and of course it’s out of print now. 

There is much in The Man Who Searched for Love by Pitigrilli that I thoroughly enjoyed despite the disgraceful light under which women appear in it. I especially loved the author’s sense of humour – probably because it struck the chord of the (disillusioned) law graduate in me. Unfortunately, there’s much truth in the biting criticism of society that the author expressed with such skilful irony and that certainly provoked many polemics. The novel was definitely more in my line than Cocaïne which was just “sex, drugs”… and Charleston. Thus I gladly recommend it although you’ll have a hard time finding a copy of the English edition, while Cocaïne keeps being in print.

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