July 8, 2020

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Italian train ride derails into terror

"I must’ve fallen asleep."

Those words introduce us to the enigmatic Mr. D’Angelo, a businessman from Milan on his way to complete a real estate deal in Sicily. His train has broken down, stopped dead in the middle of the overheated and godforsaken countryside.

It’s not the last time Mr. De Angelis, whose first name we never learn, will wake up to trouble. Things will get worse. Nightmarishly worse.

There will be no deal. Instead, there will be gangsters. There will be child prostitution, there will be murders. There will be angry mobs looking for victims: Mr. De Angelis, the pale northern Italian visitor, will be a likely candidate. Sun-drenched tourists will drink their cappuccino and enjoy their granita and see none of this terror, but readers in the skilled grip of The Transaction will feel it to their bones.

Author Guglielmo D’Izzia could not possibly have known he would publish this first novel during the onset of a global pandemic, and that in many ways, his protagonist would experience and reflect the discomforts of that pandemic.

Mr. De Angelis starts out on a normal journey which evolves into a parade of unanticipated assaults, none of which he understands. His customary comforts have evaporated: the landscape of his life is now foreign, danger is everywhere. There’s no guarantee he will survive. He needs to protect himself, but he doesn’t know exactly how.

This new and menacing environment leaves him (as well as the reader) wondering who he really is, just as the pandemic has threatened the mental health of many people who previously had no awareness of mental health at all.

The Transaction evokes a second dimension of contemporary times — that everyone in its realm with a voice and a vocabulary, no matter how crude, is entitled to claim anything as true, without consequence. It’s the world of social media given flesh. The isolated population of Figalia roils with suspicious rumours, dawn to dusk. Even the silence of the wee hours cannot be trusted here.

The parallels between The Transaction and our historic moment are stunning, but this slender novel is a compelling read even in normal times. D’Izzia, a native of Sicily now living in Toronto, has provided a vivid and unusual platform to observe the island which has inspired an abundance of literary and cinematic work. (Consider the dark portraits of organized crime, poverty and violence with Sicilian roots in the works of Mario Puzo, of film directors Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola.)

D’Izzia writes like a rolling video camera whose lens lingers lovingly on miscreants, degenerates and grotesqueries of all descriptions. Some characters leap off his pages screaming, insulting each other, eating nauseating food, while others merely lurk in the shadows, rancid and threatening.

The author spares no one. Benevolence has no face in this story. This Sicily is reminiscent of the backward Georgia wilderness featured in the film Deliverance, transposed to the Mediterranean.

Many critics have lauded this new writer for his descriptive prowess, comparing his style to Franz Kafka and Albert Camus, but rejecting the credibility of the protagonist De Angelis. True, De Angelis is warned countless times to get out of the quicksand in which he’s landed. He refuses to leave. He needs to know the truth behind the events which have overtaken him.

Readers get to decide whether he’s a wise man or a fool.

If you pass on The Transaction, you will almost certainly see this story on the screen, be it large or small. It has great potential as a sophisticated masterpiece of physical and psychological horror.

Lesley Hughes is a Winnipeg writer.


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Updated on Saturday, June 13, 2020 at 2:13 PM CDT: Corrects protagonist's name to De Angelis.

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