La Super­ba

Ilja Leonard Pfei­jf­fer; Michele Hutchi­son, trans.
  • Review
By – March 22, 2017

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.

Relat­ed Content:

Gila Wertheimer is Asso­ciate Edi­tor of the Chica­go Jew­ish Star. She is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist who has been review­ing books for 35 years.

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