It’s difficult to remember when I last read a novel as chilling as Giorgio Vasta’s Time on My Hands. The writer, who is Italian, frames his story in 1978, when Italy was politically unstable (more than typical for the time). Aldo Moro, the former Italian prime minister, was abducted—his body later discovered in the trunk of an automobile. The Red Brigades, a terrorist group on the left, were responsible. The instability in the country becomes the inspiration for three eleven-year-old boys in Palermo, in Sicily, to implement their fantasies and bring about their own reign of terror in their community. The title provides the insight for these happenings: boredom, too much time, for three precocious young boys. There is, of course, a clear implication made by Vasta: if the government is so unstable, is it any surprise that individuals will attempt their own destabilizing acts? Even boys?
The story’s narrator, who takes on the code name “Nimbus,” describes himself as “an ideological, focused, intense little boy, a non-ironic, anti-ironic, refractory little boy—a non-little boy.” Ergo, a little boy with nihilistic adult visions. He’s also hyper-sensitive, possibly synesthetic. He believes that birds can talk to him, and he smells almost everything he encounters and is convinced that if he goes over to the family’s TV, he can smell the commentators on the tube. Of one occasion at school, he notes, “Before leaving the classroom I’d gone up to the teacher’s desk, sniffed the scraped wood of the teacher’s chair, then touched the blackboard with the tip of my tongue and swallowed the black taste of slate.” In his pocket, he keeps a piece of barbed wire so that he can etch his name on school desks, etc. When he becomes part of a trio of similarly inclined school companions, the other two boys choose the code names Flight and Radius and they begin calling one another comrade.
The rest of Nimbus’ family shares some of his quirks. His mother’s name is String; his father is Stone—apparently not nicknames. His younger brother, Cotton, is described on one occasion as carrying around a moldy bread roll for several days, sleeping with it. “I secretly watched him tend to his roll: he’d dip it in a cup that he’d filled with warm water, then put it out on the balcony to dry, and keep watch over it, getting up now and then to examine it. He would go into the kitchen and put it in the fridge for an hour, remove it and take it into the bathroom, wet it with a jet of water from the bidet, get out the hairdryer, plug it in, turn it on, and dry the roll for a quarter of an hour; then he’d
take it back into the kitchen, climb up onto a chair, and put it in the freezer for a few hours.” And, yes, he eventually consumes it, mold and all.
The first half of the novel mostly focuses on Nimbus’ quirky family, but then events charge along as the three revolutionaries begin to implement their plans. Unsure of their enemy, Nimbus asks, “Who were we fighting, and who was fighting us? Like Flight, I felt a need to be persecuted, and yearned for a constant and devoted—yes, devoted—enemy who would satisfy my needs by persecuting me. But I didn’t have such an enemy. Nobody was persecuting me.” That will all change as soon as the three young boys begin their acts of destabilizing the community.
No better place than school, beginning with small acts of arson, initially in waste baskets, etc. They take on the signature WIN, the acronym for “Wild Italian Nucleus,” and leave the word near each act of violence. The initial acts are fairly innocuous, hurting no one. They hang three dummies in a public area, again with their marker: WIN. But then they blow up their principal’s automobile and a child walking near-by is severely burned. They rationalize their act as an innocent one, something akin to an earthquake. The fact that an innocent bystander was harmed
doesn’t bother them. “We’re responsible for lighting the fuse; from that point onward we’re not involved.” With such morality, there are no limits. Moreover, since the authorities believe that all of these acts have been perpetrated by adults—children would never do anything like this—the three boys suddenly believe that they are invincible. “Being eleven years old makes us invisible.”
This is where things get ugly, beginning with the kidnapping of a fellow student from the boys’ school. Their goal is for “the whole country [to] take notice.” They’ve become attention freaks, convinced that they will never be identified. And this is where I must end my commentary on Giorgio Vasta’s troubling story. The rest you must discover for yourself. Yet I couldn’t help thinking of the recent Boston bombings. “Revolutionaries” can be home-grown, often very young men with nothing to do other than plot destructive activities for their own fame and glory. I say that because there is never a sense that the Wild Italian Nucleus has a clear political goal, other than instability and self-aggrandizement.
One further note. The translation, by Jonathan Hunt, had to be a challenge because of Nimbus’ quirky vocabulary, made-up words and non-sequiturs. They all contribute to the novel’s disturbing aura and demonstrate Hunt’s own skilled imagination.
Giorgio Vasta: Time on My Hands
Trans. by Jonathan Hunt
Faber and Faber, 308 pp., $16.00
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.