IN THE NAME OF ISHMAEL
By Giuseppe Genna

Guiseppe Genna’s Milan is a dark place. A place where it’s always raining, where the shadows hide a multi-layered dimension of half whispered truths while the city lies prone, its bloated underbelly thrust into an indifferent sky. To say this novel is a shade depressing is comparable to calling The Pianist an upbeat musical. It’s a stygian, shattered cavity of a novel that should have you folding the cover closed after the first chapter. And yet, as a result of Genna’s unfaltering skill as a wordsmith, you stick with it. You dog-ear the pages and make an unwilling detour into a hellish environ of strung out lawmen, pedophilic cultists and psychologically damaged bystanders.

      The city itself is a monochrome tableau, a warren of back streets and brothels as far removed from the tourist haunts of the Duomo and Brera Gallery as you can imagine. And while the two dominant narrative threads remain separated by a mere 39 years of history, the feeling that Milan has always been a desolate, corrupt location remains pervasive.

      In 1962 we encounter inspector David Montorsi, bravely trying to keep a sense of duty intact while struggling with the ritualistic murder of a 10-month-old child. At home, his neurotically charged wife attempts to come to terms with pregnancy while also questioning her reasons for remaining with her transient spouse. And this is just the opening. This is a Milan before the tentacles of the secret society of Ishmael begin to push the city even further down a Dantean hierarchy of sin.

      In 2001 we find a second inspector, Guido Lopez, struggling to understand and avert another ritualistic child sacrifice. His Milan not only has the burden of the past, it – and Italy as a whole – is slowly being smothered by an intellectual and cultural invasion perpetrated by the second great landmass within the book. America. It’s an insidious, indirect form of invasion but an appropriation of territory nonetheless.

      While it might be easy to criticise Genna for selecting an obvious target for a nemesis, his characters’ condemnation of the US is so persuasive, so precisely targeted, that it’s nigh on impossible to not have some kind of visceral reaction. Lopez for example, in a simple observation of his Milanese neighbourhood, finds this cultural degradation wherever he looks. His street stinks of McDonalds and the corporation’s premises – outshone only by Blockbusters – is the only bright area on the street. He enters the restaurant and meticulously dissects the menu like some kind of disheveled and overworked food critic. “The Coke was too watery and full of ice, and he put it aside after one swallow, disgusted; it tasted of detergent.” Sight, taste, smell all overpowered by the corporate presence of the golden arches.

      The real vilification of the continent, however, comes with the centerpiece of the book; an account of the assassination of the oil mogul, Enrico Mattei.

      Usually lengthy quotes aren’t the style of Nthposition, but the beauty of Genna’s delivery, and the sentiments expressed through Mattei’s stand against the American oil cartels, do help to exemplify the general resistance expressed throughout the piece.

      At a press conference in Milan, Enrico Mattei says, “America is an experiment. The experiment of America is to replace man. With what? With the American… He is something more and something less than a man. He is faithful, and in this he is something more than a man. He is faithful because he is in the dark about everything…. But the American is something less than a man, in that he is *too* faithful. Being ignorant, he neither acts nor suffers. I know. I know very well what this continental experiment that is America will lead to. It will lead to the replacement of man by the American. Well, this, gentlemen, is called genocide.”

      As mentioned earlier, emotive stuff – even if you do take into account that this is a stereotypic America devoid of protest, political awareness or any kind of democratic individuality. For the readers in the current climate, however, it remains deceptively easy to accept the idea of Ishmael as a product of the only remaining super power. But Gena’s smokescreen-like suspension of disbelief isn’t just reliant on tapping a timely vein of paranoia. Accurately, he puts forward the idea that secret societies and the conspiracies they engender are a very short-term and politically driven phenomenon – you’ll find no ancient Bavarian cults governing global policy here (unless, of course, there’s a planned sequel revealing that the Illuminanti are indeed behind the works of Ishmael).

      The sect is ultimately revealed as a covert political arm of the US government – a ways and means, away from the international limelight, to guide foreign powers down a desired road of compliance, acceptance and sheep-like domestication. The only thing within the text that undermines this idea of Ishmael is the revelation of the sect’s perpetrator; none other than that master of the dark arts… Henry Kissinger. While the idea of Mr Kissinger being a baby swallowing puppet master might sit comfortably with some – especially in light of his activities regarding East Timor in 1975 (see Christopher Hutchins’ *The Trial of Henry Kissinger*) – he just doesn’t hold a great enough sense of menace whether inside the book or out. Genna himself doesn’t help matters with descriptive passages that continually cast the statesman in a base, arrogant and very human light. It’s down to inspector Lopez to actually voice the central concern of the reader, “Why, in fact, Kissinger? A man out of power, and not even of the highest rank, not a president but his counselor”. Couple this with the core fact that Ishmael is cult steeped in paedophillia with infanticide as its modus operandi, and the suspension of disbelief gets stretched to breaking point. Almost.

      Once again, it’s Gena’s descriptive power that carries you back into a state of total immersion, with the key to his success being an ability not only to shock, but to sustain that sensation across all 444 pages.

      Stylistically, the switch between blipvert-like images of horror – a dead baby, a chilling postmortem report, an assault on a prostitute, the inhumane use of a hammer – and poetic descriptions of locale and character, leave the reader feeling as if they had been through some form of police interrogation themselves. For every staccato blow of reality there’s an almost Joycean dissipation of narrative that causes waves of otherness and reflection. It’s only the jarring Americentric translation that gets in the way of this good cop/bad cop headlong advance of chapters. You could, if being generous, simply hold this up as another example of European cultural erosion. But, in the end, it just doesn’t wash with the anti-American sentiments expressed by the majority of characters.

      To say that this is an enjoyable read would be a barefaced lie. It’s not a book you like, it’s more one you feel you’ve survived and somehow learned from by the time you lay the final page to rest. It’s a powerful, occasionally beautiful work of fiction with such accurate encapsulations of inner-city decay and personality driven internationalism that it’s hard not to feed off the anger that sporadically bubbles up as you read.

      The only real criticism upon leaving the book is that even though the two police officers resolve to fight Ishamael in whatever form the society manifests itself, the idea that they have been chosen by the sect to play this exact role manages to diminish any light at the end of the tunnel. Hope, if there is hope to be found here, remains caught up in the positive review quotes from the earlier US release that appear on the cover. Evidence, if nothing else, that as long as we can always reflect and potentially act upon our shortcomings, then the ability to alter historic patterns of behaviour will never be lost to us.