Book Review : "Viper" by Maurizio de Giovanni


"Maybe heaven and hell exist for that reason, so that they can switch places and pretend to be the perfect place for everyone."

-- Commissario Ricciardi, "Viper"

"Heaven and hell seem out of proportion to me: the actions of men do not deserve so much."

-- Jorge Luis Borges


It is Easter in Naples, a time of rejuvenation for the spirit, and the casting away of the dead cold of a winter gone by. As the city readies herself for the festival of rebirth - the ultimate theological triumph of faith over death, tragedy strikes in the premier establishment of the night - Viper, the most beautiful (and most expensive) prostitute in the city, is found dead in her room, smothered by a delicate pillow. Thus begins another adventure for Commissario Ricciardi and Brigadier Maione. Maurizio De Giovanni continues his engaging exploration of "Hunger and Love," but this time, sets it up against the context of another pair - Virtue and Sin.

As the investigation progresses, Ricciardi and Maione come to understand the complex dynamic between the inhabitants of the bordello, as well as face fragments of Viper's life outside her profession. As a prostitute, Viper, real name Maria Rosaria Cennamo, was everything that the religious authorities detested and condemned at every given opportunity, including her death. In one of the most contemporarily relevant and topical events in the story, Ricciardi goes against a blatantly discriminatory edict of law issued by the Fascist Party, an act that serves to humanize the death of a woman alternately objectified for male consumption and reviled for her choice of profession. It is also an event that sets up Doctor Modo in public opposition to the Party, and provides the parallel thread of conflict.

Giovanni expertly weaves the traditional rituals and culinary explorations of Naples into the main narrative. Although perceived as stereotypical in the current vernacular, the roles the women of the households serve illuminate the conditions of their daily routine, and their attempts to express themselves through the limited means of domestic channels (cooking, housekeeping etc.)

I thought that it was quite an interesting tell about our cultural and social obsession with the concept of 'morality,' in that, the English language has no single word that serves as the direct antonym of the word 'sin.' My interpretation of the juxtaposition of Sin and Virtue in this novel, is the duality between "being virtuous" and "being a sinner." The author wants to emphasize the act of pursuing a particular moral or social path when confronted with Love or Hunger, or both. While Love and Hunger are both abstract notions as well as real experiences, they are often used as justifications to commit an inhumane act under the pretense of a morally virtuous motivation. The novels in the series have so far advocated successfully that while love and hunger are primal and universal in their presence on an individual level, the addition of societal norms and codes - however arbitrary - now provide a new perspective to examine them from a collective, yet easily malleable, point-of-view.

Highly recommended!
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