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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Brief Lives of Idiots

Ermanno Cavazzoni

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To purchase Brief Lives of Idiots

Title: Brief Lives of Idiots
Author: Ermanno Cavazzoni
Genre: Stories
Written: 1994 (Eng. 2020)
Length: 171 pages
Original in: Italian
Availability: Brief Lives of Idiots - US
Brief Lives of Idiots - UK
Brief Lives of Idiots - Canada
Les idiots - France
Idioten ! - Deutschland
Vite brevi di idioti - Italia
directly from: Wakefield Press
  • Italina title: Vite brevi di idioti
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Jamie Richards

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Our Assessment:

B : nice little collection of examples of a variety of foolishness and more

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
L'Express . 2/6/2010 Baptiste Liger
Der Spiegel . 1/10/1994 Margit Knapp
Wall St. Journal . 18/12/2020 Sam Sacks

  From the Reviews:
  • "Ajoutez à ces cas cliniques quelques suicides plus absurdes les uns que les autres et vous obtiendrez l'un des livres les plus drôles de l'année. Avec un humour aux accents surréalistes, Cavazzoni raconte les destins tragi-comiques de ces hurluberlus. Mais, au fur et à mesure, ce sont nos petites obsessions ou grandes maniaqueries que nous voyons en miroir. Car les idiots, ce ne sont pas forcément les autres." - Baptiste Liger, L'Express

  • "Kurze Lebensläufe der Idioten dagegen: Hier treibt Cavazzoni das Martyrium auf die Spitze und findet zu seiner bislang radikalsten Form. Entschlackt von übertriebener Bildungshuberei, entrümpelt von den ausufernden Bildern und Zwangsvorstellungen des Hieronymus. Pointierter, klarer und auch aggressiver ist dieser Text geraten. Mit gnadenloser Gelassenheit berichtet der Autor von den gescheiterten Versuchen, das Leben erfolgreich zu leben, von den Fehltritten und Traumata eines bunten Völkchens sympathischer Italiener." - Margit Knapp, Der Spiegel

  • "(T)hese sketches are modeled after the hagiographic lives of the saints, except that the willfulness and pertinacity that led to glorious martyrdom are here the traits of simple pig-headed stupidity. (...) Don't ask me why, but the image of young Renato compulsively hitting himself with rocks seems a fitting conclusion to 2020." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Brief Lives of Idiots is indeed a collection of pieces about people who are, in various ways, mentally enfeebled, ranging from those whose intellectual growth has been stunted to those who become preöccupied with an idée fixe to a few examples of people simply acting very foolishly. (Yes, the chapters focusing on those with actual physical disability in the form of limited mental capacities -- such as one on 'The Republic of Born Idiots', about the Bastuzzis, "a community of idiots left to their own devices" -- can make for somewhat discomfiting reading nowadays, but most of the pieces feature characters whose idiocy is of a different nature.)
       As Cavazzoni explains in a 'To the Reader'-preface:

     What follows is one calendar month. Each day holds the life of a kind of saint, who experiences agony and ecstasy the way traditional saints do.
       There are thirty-one pieces in this sort of calendar of lives, in imitation of a typical 'lives of the saints'-collection but with a rather different (and, in some ways, not so different) cast of figures. Most of the entries do center around individuals, though in some -- as with the aforementioned Bastuzzi family -- the portraits do extend beyond a single individual. Bolstering the cyclical calendar-feel, every seventh entry is of a somewhat different form, basically not dedicated to an individual idiot but rather focused, more or less, on suicides; most of these include several, rather than just a single example.
       The idiocy of most of the lives described here is one of some kind of foolishness. The figures tend to the obsessive or repetitive, focused on one thing or idea, often to the bitter end: 'The Martyr to Feet' finds a Dr.Dialisi's life destroyed after buying a pair of shoes that struck his fancy but proved painfully too small for his feet: he can't let go, or have them fixed, and: "whereas he used to be a man without any interests or desires, from then on he became a man who thought of nothing but his shoes". As happens with several of the fools in this collection, it's an obsession that eventually kills him.
       Some of the characters seem to have led relatively normal, full lives before cracking, while others have always been this way; either way, the conclusion of one of the pieces goes for almost all of them:
That was her life. Nothing else happened.
       If some get stuck in their loop of obsessed sameness, others' foolishness manifests itself in suddenly new-found ambitions. The opening tale finds a Mr. Pigozzi reading about someone's 1976 escape from East Germany in a homemade airplane made from old car parts -- and:
     Since Pigozzi had an old Fiat and didn't get along with his wife and daughter, he started playing with the idea of taking off one day and never coming back.
       Typically, however, his efforts fall short; Pigozzi proves not to be, as the title of the piece had suggested, 'The Aeronautical Expert'. Part of the fun of Cavazzoni's pieces is not merely in his characters' failures, but in how they fail; not only is Pigozzi's escape-attempt a complete failure, it isn't even recognized for its grandeur and ambition: one witness doesn't recognize his would-be plane as a flying machine and simply thought: "he was trying to mow the lawn" with some newfangled machine, while his family then tells everyone that his spectacular crash was a simple car accident.
       The suicide-pieces are slightly different from the rest, but particularly good fun. Each of the four is a variation on the theme, with the first, for example, describing 'Working Suicides' -- people who kill themselves in some work-related way, down to the creative:
     A professor of Roman law provoked a nervous student so much during an exam that the latter grabbed the gavel on his desk and hit him in the face and then the temple. The professor had wanted to die for some time; he said no one needed Roman law anymore and that it only served to torture professors and students from generation to generation.
       Here too, as well, Cavazzoni finds cruel twists to take the wind out of the sails of the suicides' hoped for moment of significance and glory, as in:
     A poet who composed meaningless poems using a calculator committed suicide by gas inhalation to give his poetry a general sense of drama. But the police report simply states he left the gas on, possibly by accident.
       The second set of suicides collects 'Collateral Suicides', where the hapless ones trying to do away with themselves manage to inadvertently take someone with them; a third set focuses on 'Near Suicides', where most of the figures have second thoughts at the last moment; while the final one describes 'Star-Crossed Suicides', yet another example of would-be suicide going all wrong.
       The foolishness of the idiots collected here ranges from a man obsessed by the speed at which the earth is moving through space -- an insane 108,000 kilometers an hour, after all -- to 'Luigi Pierini, Calculating Prodigy' (who can't quite do enough with his remarkable talent) to 'The Failed Whore'. The one who can't get over how fast the earth is moving can't help but conclude that: "We're a bunch of nuts" -- but he means all of mankind, unperturbed by the speed at which everything is going by; of course, in reality he is the odd man out, just like the rest of these idiots, fixated on something in a way that sets them apart from going on with life as normal, as most everyone else is able to do.
       The variations are entertaining, and some are very clever -- and one truly haunts, described in 'Memories of Concentration Camp Survivors'. The fool in that case spent two years at Mauthausen during the Second World War -- without recognizing that as such, or his experiences as unusual. Even his own emaciated condition, and that of the other prisoners, doesn't strike him as strange:
He was very thin when he went in, since everybody in Pescarolo had been thin for ages, as it's such an underdeveloped area. The other people in the concentration camp were thin too. He didn't know where they were from, so he thought it was just a general attribute of the population.
       A neat little collection, especially for dipping into, a few pieces at a time.

- M.A.Orthofer, 24 December 2020

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Brief Lives of Idiots: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Italian author Ermanno Cavazzoni was born in 1947.

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© 2020-2021 the complete review

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