The Past is a Foreign Country by Gianrico Carofiglio is the brilliant almost poetic story of a young law student's decline into a dark amoral pit, combined with an ancillary tale of the hunt for a serial sex offender.
The story of the law student Giorgio is told in the first person narrator style used in the Guerrieri books. The other strand of the novel features a young carabinieri Lieutenant Chiti and this is told in the third person.
I wonder how much of this book is autobiographical because Carofiglio writes with such clarity that he takes you right inside the character of Giorgio. The blurb calls Carofiglio's style spare and compulsive, I would describe it as lean yet lyrical.
We know that the two seperate strands will coalesce at some point in the story, and this is achieved with a simplicity that feels unforced and completely natural.
It is 1989 and Giorgio the 22 year old law student becomes involved at a party in a fight with some enforcers. The intended victim is the charismatic Francesco who is very grateful for Giorgio's help, and they become friends.
Francesco expertly charms Giorgio into his world of gamblers and beautiful women. He shows him magic tricks with cards and explains how he cheats at poker and seduces women. Giorgio becomes his partner in deceit as they make large amounts of money off the gullible, the rich and the not so rich who happen to believe poker is a game of chance.
Giorgio dumps his law studies, his girl friend and is alienated from his parents. He is tempted by the lifestyle, the easy money and by a bored forty year old married woman named Maria.
Short chesnut hair. Tanned skin. Not pretty, but with large, unsettling grey-green eyes. Taller than me. Quite a bit taller than me. About thirty-five, I thought as I looked at her, trying to think of a reply. I was to learn later that she was forty.
Meanwhile Lieutenant Chiti proceeds with his investigations in a systematic fashion hoping that the women who have been assaulted will provide information and a description of the attacker.
Giorgio begins to lose control of his life as Francesco suggests a holiday in Spain. They drive to Valencia accompanied by the music of Springsteen, Dire Straits, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen and Francesco's heavy metal. The motive for this trip is somewhat more sinister than seeking the sun on the beaches of Spain.
The blurb promotes Francesco as one of crime fictions most seductive anti-heroes. It is the quality and depth of Carofiglio's characterisation and writing that makes this dishonest slimey creep a candidate for anti-hero. His control of Giorgio is both disturbing and an example of the psychological peer pressure that blights the younger generation.
Carofiglio has been able to move beyond his Guido Guerrieri character and still write such a fine gripping page turner that he makes me impatient for his next book.
This novel won the Premio Bancarella [whose first winner in 1953 was Ernest Hemingway] and is currently being made into a film.