It’s always welcome news when a translation of an author’s work becomes available to English-language readers. All the more so when the writer is highly popular in his own country but little translated here. Such is the case with the novel La Superba, a mix of the comic, the bizarre, the poetic, and the sexual, in which fantasy and reality intermingle and the border between them is not always clear.
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer is himself a literary mix. He made his debut with a collection of poetry in 1999, and has since published stories, plays, travel articles, essays, political satires, more poetry, and novels. La Superba, published in Dutch in 2013, won the Netherlands’ most prestigious literary award.
The first-person narrator of the novel is one Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer, a writer who has left the Netherlands to live in Genoa, Italy, where he intends to write a novel. Since this is the path the actual writer Pfeijffer has taken, living in Genoa since 2008, the reader knows there are autobiographical elements in this story.
The narrator is in love with Genoa. At the beginning of the novel, he buys himself a new wardrobe “so that I can slip into this elegant new world a new man.” It is indeed a new world for him, as it would be for any immigrant, but it turns out to be far from elegant. This beautiful city — known as “La Superba” — has an ugly underside that he encounters in the bars and as he walks the labyrinth of alleyways.
At intervals, Ilja the narrator speaks directly to the reader, as “my friend,” as he muses on the novel he intends to write, “someday.” For now, he is compiling his notes, which comprise the novel we are reading. So Ilja (some call him Leonardo) is both an observer and a participant, with people, places, and experiences providing his source material.
The theme of migration pervades La Superba, with every immigrant’s pursuit of dreams that a promised land is supposed to turn into reality. In Pfeijffer’s hands, it’s a multi-layered theme. Ilja, an immigrant from northern Europe, encounters immigrants from Senegal and Morocco, all seeking to remake their lives in Genoa. A British ex-pat has lied about his past to create his new life; immigrants from Africa lie to families back home, telling them they are succeeding, borrowing money to send them to keep the lie going. In fact they are living in poverty, unwelcome wherever they land. Symbolizing all of Europe, Genoa is “beautiful and heartless,” a place that “seduces and destroys.”
Italians have forgotten their past, Pfeijffer writes, when families boarded ships in Genoa, crossing the Atlantic to the promised land of “La Merica” for the chance of a new, better life. Today, those who cross the sea with their dreams “are chased away like rats because they are doing exactly what their hosts did five and one hundred years previously: hope.” La Superba is not a polemic, but in lines such as these, Pfeijffer can pinpoint and perfectly capture a complex issue.
From fantasy to description to humor to observation, this is an intriguing novel that wanders from here to there, taking a reader through its own labyrinth.