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the Complete Review
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To purchase Cocaine

Title: Cocaine
Author: Pitigrilli
Genre: Novel
Written: 1921 (Eng. 1982)
Length: 258 pages
Original in: Italian
Availability: Cocaine - US
Cocaine - UK (Kindle)
Cocaine - Canada (Kindle)
Kokain - Deutschland
Cocaina - Italia
  • Italian title: Cocaina
  • Translated by Eric Mosbacher
  • Previously translated (1933) -- anonymously, but possibly an earlier version by Mosbacher
  • With an Afterword by Alexander Stille

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Our Assessment:

A : grand fun, wonderful sharp writing

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 4/6/1933 .
Die Zeit . 27/6/1980 Ute Stempel

  From the Reviews:
  • "Sieht man von dem gelegentlich recht lauen Aphorismengeplätscher ab (...) dann ist dieser Roman keine Fratzenzeichnerei mit zynisch erhobenem Zeigefinger und schon gar nicht der Schmutz und Schund, als der er lange Zeit verteufelt wurde, sondern die psychische Topographie einer Zeit, die der unseren sehr ähnlich ist." - Ute Stempel, Die Zeit

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:

       Pitigrilli's Cocaine is the story of Tito Arnaudi, an Italian twenty-something who is a man of his times -- the decadent and amoral post-war period that isn't the fin de siècle but rather the end of all of them. This is a novel that was published in 1921 and yet barely offers a clue that a war just recently took place; its hedonistic protagonist not only doesn't care much about political and social issues, he's barely even aware of them. "I have no ideals", he admits, and by and large he simply refuses to have a care in the world -- an attitude that works well for him.
       Pitigrilli quickly, brilliantly sketches just what kind of a man Tito is in the novel's opening paragraphs, including the explanation:

     For several years he was a medical student. When he presented himself for the pathology exam they said: "We can't allow you to take it wearing a monocle. Either you don't wear the monocle or you don't take the exam."
     "Well, I shan't take the exam," Tito replied, rising to his feet. And with that he abandoned the idea of taking a degree.
       So, yes, Tito is a man of principles -- but, as such, anything but exemplary. (And while such a scene might lead readers to quickly dismiss the character and the novel, Pitigrilli immediately wards that off by making enough of a case that there's more to both Tito and his story than such frivolity suggested.)
       Though the novel starts in Tito's native Italy, it quickly dispatches him to Paris, and that is the location for most of the action. Later, more desperate stations for Tito include Buenos Aires and then Dakar; not surprisingly, his return to Turin is one of ultimate resignation. Paris is where the action is, and Cocaine is a fond portrait of that metropolis. (Though hardly even loosely autobiographical, Pitigrilli did know the city well, working as a correspondent in Paris in those years.)
       What drives Tito from place to place is the love of a woman -- Maddalena. Sent to a reformatory when she is spied kissing then-still medical student Tito, the stay reforms her into everything her straitlaced parents wanted to prevent, and after her yearlong stay she soon has: "become the mistress of a big industrialist and of a wealthy priest" -- and adopted the name Maud. The loss of Maddalena, when she is sent to the reformatory, is what drove Tito to Paris -- but Maud soon follows him there, setting a pattern that also leads them to South America, Africa, and ultimately home. But Maud is as much of a free spirit as he is -- "an embryonic international, intercontinental, transoceanic adventuress capable of accliatization to males of all races", Tito recognizes when he first sees her as Maud --, at least as far as intimacy goes, and she has more lovers than he does, complicating any sort of romantic relationship. Tito seems more willing to devote himself solely to her, but she can't help herself and still wants more (men).
       One of Tito's first Parisian adventures is exploring and writing about the world of cocaine-takers. He tries the drug himself, too, and seems to rather like it, but it doesn't pull him down to depths of those he mingles with; he dabbles in the drug in the novel, but never becomes any sort of cocaine-fiend. Instead, it is Maud who becomes his destructive habit, as he explains to her:
Cocaine, you're not Maud, you're Cocaine, my necessary poison. I run away from you, swear never to see you again, but then inevitably I come back, because you're as necessary to me as a poison that is my salvation and my death.
       So, yes, Cocaine is a modern love story. As the nickname/title suggests, however, maybe not the happiest of love stories ..... Certainly not the kind of romantic tale for little girls (or impressionable teenage ones) to read at bedtime, touching though Tito's devotion is, even when Maud, at just twenty-four, begins to go to seed (the result of an arguably -- Tito certainly argued it -- ill-advised operation). Indeed, the book's romanticism is of the same cynical, dark shade as everything else in the novel: Tito's honest (and loving -- really) assessment of Maud's prospects presumably isn't how a girl wants to be wooed: "You may still take in some shortsighted person thanks to your dye and your make-up, but soon you'll find yourself rejected like a badly forged bank note. You've the prospect of five or six more men and a few more affairs at most".
       There's not much realism to how Tito waltzes through life, but it is highly amusing. In Paris he gets himself a job at a newspaper. His greatest (and truly unlikeliest) success is writing about an execution that he doesn't attend, but eventually they decide it's better if he not contribute to the paper, his editor worried:
     You're capable of announcing that the Pope has had himself circumcised to enable him to marry Sarah Bernhardt
       But in Tito's charmed world that doesn't mean he loses his job -- they even increase his salary, as long as he promises to do nothing.
       Yes, as Maud/Cocaine at one point tells him:
     But Tito, don't you see that you're not talking like an inhabitant of this world, that you're talking like a character in a novel ?
       Pitigrilli steeps his novel in the atmosphere of its cynical times, but showing a deft comic touch he never allows Cocaine to become too dark. He does absurdist understatement beautifully, as in the hard-to-pull-off joke about the death of Tito's Armenian lover's husband, whom Tito taught to swim (but without him ever quite getting the hang of "floating like a corpse" ... until, well, he did).
       Yes, Cocaine is light and thin, and often seems little more than frothy, but the writing is excellent throughout, and there's a real story arc here, one that's beautifully, cynically finished off in Maud's final actions. Cynical, yes, and arguably offensively amoral, Cocaine is still grand entertainment, exceptionally well done.

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 September 2013

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Cocaine: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Italian author Pitigrilli (actually: Dino Segre) lived 1893 to 1975.

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