Books often take on something of the spirit of the places where we read them and, in retrospect, it can be hard to separate impressions of the story itself from its context. I read most of this quirky novel curled up on the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence (some weeks ago now) and so my memories are rather confused and dreamlike, but in a way that entirely suits the book. I’d chosen it deliberately for my trip, because The Innamorati is set in a fantastical version of mid 16th-century Italy, in a world infused with the spirit of the commedia dell’ arte.
In this otherworldly Renaissance, carnival masks take on the personalities of the theatrical characters they represent, bickering among themselves and transforming those who wear them. The servants are plucky, the lovers young and beautiful, and everything is redeemed by love. But this is also a strange place where the boundaries between myth and reality are thin enough to breach, where legendary creatures stumble through the cracks, and curses have a terrible power.
The mystical city of Labirinto is a lure for those who are grieving, bitter, lonely or cursed; and, for those few fortunate pilgrims who are admitted into the sprawling maze at its heart, there is the hope of salvation and happiness. Hoping to exorcise their demons – or following hot on the heels of their loved ones – a cast of characters converges on Labirinto; and I use the word ‘cast’ deliberately, because each of the figures relates to one of the stock characters of the commedia. Approaching from Venice are Anna, a gifted mask-maker, who hides the pain of a thwarted love behind fleeting liaisons; Don Gianluca, a priest, who is all too easily persuaded off the path of virtue; Anna’s friend Roberto, who cherishes a hopeless passion for her; and her bespectacled, ungainly daughter Mirabella, who dreams that one day she’ll have a romantic adventure of her own. From Milan comes the bereaved Simonetta, forced into prostitution by the ravages of the Italian wars and now obliged to run for her life, with blood on her hands. Close on her heels is her lover, the swashbuckling but isolated captain Rinaldo.
From the Italian coast comes the handsome actor Fabrizio, who’s desperate to play the role of the romantic lead, but whose golden good looks are undermined by a crippling stutter. His travelling companion is perhaps the strangest of the company: the mute shepherdess Erminia, whose ugliness is a mask of its own. Beneath this unprepossessing disguise, she is a siren, exiled from the sea and cursed to silence by the vindictiveness of the poet Orpheus. As this ragtag band assembles in Labirinto, they stumble into the people who will form the final members of their little company: the canny lustful servant Giano; the plucky beggar Zizola, who dreams of being loved; and the dull lawyer Lorenzo, whose pedantry stifles his poet’s heart. Beyond the gates of the labyrinth, each of these characters must tackle their own path to truth and redemption, in a place where the rules of the outside world no longer apply. Larger on the inside than outside, the maze shifts and changes to adapt itself to each new pilgrim, and the travellers find themselves faced with dangers and temptations – in a world of ghosts and satyrs, Bacchic frenzies, dragons, endless feasts, talking stone heads, and frozen banquets, it’s all too easy to lose one’s path.
It’s a strange novel, full of fantasy and imagination, but in some way it never quite hangs together. The characters, like the stock types of the commedia dell’ arte whom they represent, seem to lack real personality and depth. The relationship between the ‘real’ world and the mythological figures who pass through it isn’t always completely convincing; and within the labyrinth the story becomes simply a series of set-pieces which are impressive in their own right but don’t really work as seamless parts of a larger narrative. Throughout, it feels as if the journey is more important than the destination (a feeling emphasised by the slightly brisk conclusion). How can I even describe the feel of it? Try to imagine a hybrid between Captain Fracasse, the film Labyrinth, The Tempest and The Pilgrim’s Progress. That’s the best I can do!
I’ve been thinking about the book for more than a month and I still really don’t know what I think about it. Of course I loved it in many ways, because it combines so many of my enthusiasms. Renaissance Italy, myths and legends, the commedia dell’ arte, labyrinths, the odd flourishing of rapiers, and a dash of romance… yes, it was all lovely. But I wish I’d been able to get to know the characters a little better and to feel more emotional investment in their progress: as it was, the book never quite went beyond being a delicious extravaganza. If you share my affection for any of the themes in the novel, you’ll probably enjoy it, just as I did – but I don’t know how far it’ll tempt those who don’t already like their fiction with a spritz of fantasia.