Over the volcano

Marius Kociejowski has many analogies for the city of Naples. He opens a door in a room full of “baroque excess” in the Museo Diocesano to find himself in a frescoed church, partially destroyed by fire in 1390, from which another door leads into a small space decorated with more ancient artworks. The door sequence, the hidden treasure, the temporal recession, together seem to him to serve “perfectly as a way to understand Naples”. So does the fact that the city sits above a void: “The sinkhole has become a feature of Neapolitan existence, whole buildings disappearing in cavernous spaces below.” And so does a hall of mirrors, and an echo chamber, and an ouroboros (the emblematic snake that devours its own tail), and the vast cave full of seething magma that underlies the Phlegraean Fields, and the inkpot with which this book begins, which was understood by an eighteenth-century scholar to provide definitive evidence that the earliest use of the pen could be dated back to the Jews of ancient Egypt, but turns out to have nothing to do with clerical labor: the inkpot is actually a jewelry box .

So Naples is protean, layered, baffling, full of secrets and surprises, some of them going back to the earliest phases of human cultural history, some of them (Vesuvius, for instance) hundreds of thousands of years old but still volatile, some of them bewilderingly new, like the “baby gangsters” – few of whom live beyond the age of twenty – who have taken over areas of the city from the Camorra and who scare people most because they are so anarchic. A lot of the analogies that Kociejowski uses to evoke the city could be equally well applied to his sprawling, labyrinthine, exuberantly discursive book about it.

Kociejowski is a poet and an antiquarian bookseller. One of the engines powering his writing is a poet’s relish for language, be it modern street lingo or “technically flawless” fifteenth-century pornographic verse (“there is no better medium than Latin in which to deliver a wagonload of ordure”). The other is an omnivorous erudition. Words, facts, allusions pour forth unstoppably. Torrents of subordinate clauses, impeccably constructed, hurtle the reader from century to century, from topic to topic. Between the bottom of page 85 and page 89 Kociejowski has covered the death of a theater director, potholes in an underpass, allegations of corruption relating to Neapolitan road construction, the unique timbre of the tamorra (a drum used in southern Italian folk music), Ancient Samnite funeral dances, the chairlift that takes one up the side of Monte Solaro on Capri, Marcello Mastroianni being required to thin his famously luxuriant hair to play a Fred Astaire impersonator in Fellini’s Ginger and Fred (1986), the atomic clock in Boulder, Colorado, the prefiche (professional female mourners) whose lamentations are recorded in a film from the 1960s, the Sicilian poet who was court panegyrist to King Alfonso V of Aragon and Naples from 1442 and a performance at the back of a museum gift shop by an old woman, once a diva of the canzone napoletanawho claims “I have an orchestra in my throat”.

On and on and on it goes. Reading this book is a bit like listening to an immensely garrulous polymath whose tongue has been loosened (but syntax unimpaired) by wine or drugs (plenty of both such substances in this book), or who has been inspired by the sulfurous fumes that, according to to the monk Giles of Viterbo (1469-1532), fueled the ecstasy into which the Sybil lapsed before prophesying from her cave (whichever cave that may have been from among the several surrounding Naples said to be her shrine).

Kociejowski calls his book a “circumbendibus” and quotes one of Fellini’s scriptwriters: “In Italy, the shortest line between two points is an arabesque”. Each chapter is built around a profile, or two or three linked profiles, of living or recently dead Neapolitans whom he has chosen as Virgils to his Dante. (The Inferno is ever-present as a precedent for his book about a landscape of subterranean fire.) He is drawn to performers for whom the street is their stage, or studio. He interviews a pair of pseudonymous artists who began by painting graffiti on trains, and who now decorate the metal doors of the basements in one of the old city’s most dangerous districts. Both in his interviews and in his historical references, he picks chancers, tricksters, those who go too far. He gives a whole chapter to Pulcinella, the prototype for Mr Punch, relishing the puppet’s violence and his candour in the face of mortality. He respects seriousness, but wants it spiced with flamboyance. Cagliostro, Casanova and Maradona are all here, along with Petronius, who kept on cracking jokes even as he was dying.

This is not a book about political history, or about secular power. There is nothing here about the Bourbon monarchy, or Garibaldi, or the fascist assembly in Naples at which Mussolini called for a march on Rome. Kociejowski is more interested in Purgatory than he is in the Parthenopean Republic. The Second World War and the occupations by first the Nazis, then the Allies, are seen literarily – through the prisms of accounts by Norman Lewis and Curzio Malaparte – and mostly with reference to prostitution. Organized crime is a looming presence, but experienced as if from the street (the scream at night, the general unease), rather than in any attempt to describe the hierarchies and operating practices of the Camorra or the ‘Ndrangheta.

There are plenty of poets, including Leopardi, who died here in 1837 having eaten nearly three pounds of the cinnamon-flavored sugared almond known as confetti di Sulmona, after the town where they are made: “its other claim to fame”, as Kociejowski informs us in a characteristic swerve, “being that Ovid was born there”. John Ruskin thought Naples “the most loathsome nest of human caterpillars I was ever forced to stay in”. To Herman Melville it was the “gayest city” in the world: “No equipages flash like theirs; no beauties so haughty, no palaces so sumptuous.” Mary Shelley has her “Last Man” picking up scattered oak leaves from around the Sibyl’s cave and finding writing on them, in languages ​​ranging from Egyptian hieroglyphs “as old as the Pyramids” to modern English.

That polyglot drift of leaves is another image of the city and, perhaps, of this book and its writer. The Serpent Coiled in Naples is a not only a portrait of a city, but also a portrait of the author as a questing beast, hunting doggedly through the muddle and mess for looking-glasses in which to see himself. “I have never been anywhere”, he writes, “that so perfectly mirrors my inner spiritual anarchy as Naples does.”

Kociejowski is funny. He switches easily between high style and comically bathetic colloquialism. He is alive to the ancient while keeping a sharp eye on modern Neapolitans. He is talking to the leader of a paranza, the team responsible for staging the annual ceremony in honor of the Black Madonna. As they talk the man’s mobile phone keeps ringing. “He dashed it against the ground to the gasps of the surrounding Italians who place as great store by their talking pieces as they once did by their swords.” He can be brisk. “There is talk of late, scientifically driven, that bees have consciousness. Who could ever have thought otherwise?” He can be downbeat. Comparing the tarantella, whose origins he traces to Dionysian rites, with the twist, he adds drily of the latter that “rather than leading to erotic excess it produced a rather nasty stitch in one’s side”.

The phrase “holiday reading” might sound dismissive, but this is a book to be dipped into at leisure (whether in an armchair at home or on a terrace overlooking the Bay of Naples). And it is a holiday in itself, with all the ingredients of a first-rate one: natural wonders, the evocative remnants of a many-layered ancient culture, unfamiliar food (the author interviews a chef), haunting music and an edge of scary strangeness, all of it explored in excellent company. Marius Kociejowski has had happy times with Neapolitans, “but then maybe I’m a rogue, a fibber, and a cutpurse”, he says. He likes to see himself as a bit of a scallywag, but he is also an excellent raconteur, with a capacious mind as crammed with glittering oddments as that sequence of rooms leading off the Museo Diocesano.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett is the author of The Pike: Gabriele d’Annunzio2013. She is now working on a book about George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham

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