Ancient Rome? Whatevs, Dude.

Theme:  International Thrillers
Italy~Valerio Massimo Manfredi

The Ides of March by Valerio Massimo Manfredi and translated by Christine Feddersen-Manfredi is not one of Europa Editions best efforts.  Having succeeded in bringing Mediterranean Noir to the masses across the pond, Europa has carved a nice, respectable niche for themselves.  Undoubtedly, they have put out some solid titles by new and old authors alike – Alina Bronsky, Jane Gardham and Damon Galgut –  to name a few. With Muriel Barbery and Damon Galgut they have commercial and critical success.  That’s why I was surprised while reading The Ides of March at how unimpressed I was.  It seems a lackluster effort that doesn’t compare with the standard of their rest of their titles. 

Don’t get me wrong, I wanted very much to like Manfredi’s thriller set in Ancient Rome.  The idea itself is great:  Manfredi re-imagines the week before Julius Caesar’s assassination in 44 B.C.  And Manfredi is capable and deft enough with the pacing of the novel as he alternates between plots and locales to engage the reader and keep her engaged.  The parallel plots – one to kill Caesar and the other to prevent his assassination – coupled with short, quick scenes provides a through line of narrative tension.  But what is disconcerting is the lack of depth to the characters and the language.  I could even overlook the underdeveloped characters(if anyone is all fascinated with this era and these historical figures, it is easy to fill in the details), but the cliches and language was challenge to overlook because it kept pulling me out of the story.  Granted, I am reading this with perhaps a more critical eye than the average reader, but any person familiar with the story of Caesar and this era might encounter the same effect.  What is bothersome is that the words don’t seem necessary.  In this passage in which a commander gives orders to his two men, Manfredi employs the word ‘fucking’ but instead of enhancing the dialogue, it detracts:

The concise nature of the message leads me to believe it’s come from Nebula.  Dirty son of a bitch, but he’s rarely wrong.  I can’t tell you any more, but I want you to realize that the lives of a great number of men–perhaps the destinies of entire cities and even peoples–depend on this message reaching its destination in time.  It must be delivered orally to the old guard post at the eighth milestone on the Via Cassia.  I don’t care how you get there, take any fucking direction you please, and I don’t care if you have to sweat blood to make it there on time, but for all the demons in Hades, before you breathe your last, you get out your fucking message.  Is that clear?

Sounds more like a speech from Patton than a commander of Ancient Rome.  Not only does is it not necessary in the above speech, but the word ‘fuck’ wasn’t around then.  It just wasn’t.  And even if it were, it wouldn’t have been used liberally as the reader is led to believe by Manfredi’s representation Caesar’s epoch.  And it’s not just that word, but ‘son of a bitch’ seems anachronistic.  As a writer of histrical fiction, these are things that take me directly out of the story and make me feel slightly insulted as a reader.  It seems lazy.  And it this language choice may be the work of the translator, but since it’s his wife, I highly doubt it.  What perplexes me about all of this is that Manfredi is a writer and a historian.  And a journalist.  And an archaeologist.   It seems counter-intuitive, if not genetically impossible, that he would make those choices.  As author of the famed Alexander trilogy, Manfredi can write much better.  Maybe I am haranguing over semantics, but in this case, it’s warranted. 

And the other curious weakness is the character stereotypes.  Of course, times were different then, but if most of the men in the novel are the brawny, proud soldier obsessed with honor, how is the reader to know the difference between the good and the bad?  Not that all novels are that simplistic, but it’s obvious that the structure of this novel is one the pits good against evil.  So, merely to give characters defining physical characteristics is not enough.  The reader needs more.  Again, maybe because this story is so unbelievable on its own, Manfredi leaves it to the reader to fill in the details.  But I can’t help but feel a bit cheated.  Even more reason to deepen the characters since the storyline has been supplied by history.  Silius, Caesar’s loyal friend, gets a cursory introduction for such a major character in the novel:

Silius nodded and left the room with Calpurnia.  He had always helped and supported her and was her husband’s–his commander’s–shadow.  Centurion of the legendary Tenth Legion, a veteran with twenty years’ service, he had salt and pepper hair, dark, damp eyes, as quick as a child’s, the neck of a bull.  He followed her like a puppy. 

This seems a bit cliche-ridden and does nothing to give us something to hang onto because none of these descriptives help the reader get to recognize him throughout the novel or to get to know him in any meaningful way as a character. 

It is not the Manfredi’s tale isn’t a good read, it’s just not good enough.  But if you’re willing to overlook the language and weak character development, the plot and pacing will keep you reading.  For some, that may be enough.  But I have come to expect more from Europa and hopefully, to expect better from Manfredi.

P.S.:  I am still a huge fan of Europa.  Especially since they are launching a new line, Tonga,  curated by the inimitable Alice Sebold which will focus on ‘dark, literary fiction’.  Excited for this first title!

The Ides of March
By Valerio Massimo Manfredi
Translated by Christine Feddersen-Manfredi
Europa Editions
Paperback, 288 pp.
ISBN: 9781933372990

Other Valerio Massimo Manfredi titles to read:

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