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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

La Superba

Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer

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To purchase La Superba

Title: La Superba
Author: Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer
Genre: Novel
Written: 2013 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 413 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: La Superba - US
La Superba - UK
La Superba - Canada
Das schönste Mädchen von Genua - Deutschland
  • Dutch title: La Superba
  • Translated by Michele Hutchison
  • Libris Literatuurprijs, 2014

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Our Assessment:

B+ : an enthusiast's Genoa-novel,

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The 'La Superba' of the title is the Italian city of Genoa itself, the place to which the narrator -- essentially, author Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer himself; that's also the name he goes by -- has decamped, tired of his Dutch homeland, where everything (even -- or especially -- bureaucracy) works pretty much exactly as it should. He's also escaping his local literary fame -- as he reminds readers a number of times, he's well known in the Netherlands, a prominent figure. (There's also that matter with the Dutch tax authorities, but that only becomes more of an issue later on.) Wanting to get away from all this, Ilja is drawn to the entirely less predictable port city, where Italian attitudes -- very loose and free -- prevail, and where he can be whoever he wants to be:

This is exactly the reason I decided to leave my home country and domicile myself in the labyrinth in all anonymity. Rather than forcing myself to conform to an invented imago that media pressure and my celebrity kept forcing upon me in a caricatured way, here in Genoa I've re-earned the freedom to be and become who I am.
       La Superba is a three-act work, with two intermezzi, in which Ilja struts across the Genoan stage. It is theatrical -- indeed, one of the plotlines involves his involvement in the possible purchase of a local theater (offering many entertaining lessons in Italian attitudes towards business and contracts, as well as the functioning of Italian bureaucracy and the legal system (quick summary: to be avoided at all costs)). The novel rambles along somewhat episodically, Ilja stumbling into a variety of adventures, of sorts -- a leg here, an affair there, said theater, etc. -- as well as encountering a colorful cast of local and expatriate/immigrant characters (the two intermezzi are each forty-plus page accounts of the lives of two of Ilja's local acquaintances (both also from abroad)). It can feel a bit loose, promising threads seemingly dropped, but, as the three-act arrangement already suggests, there is structure to the novel, and storylines are picked up again and, if not necessarily brought to a neat conclusion (that legal battle won't be over any time soon ...) still rounded off quite well.
       Ilja is a writer, and that plays a role here too: he's taking notes, trying to work this material into something (and of course he has -- the novel we're reading ...). So too he occasionally comments on his writing (and experiences) -- noting, for example:
     The thing I sometimes worry about is that some of the situations I get myself tangled up in here, and many of the people I really have actually met in this foreign décor, are so colorful, not to say grotesque, that they run the risk of being barely believable as fiction.
       Since he starts off with the most outlandish episode of all -- it involves a leg, and only a leg -- readers are well=prepared for what follows; indeed, the rest seems almost harmless in comparison. Unusual adventures and people, yes, but not beyond belief.
       Ilja repeatedly calls Genoa a labyrinth, but it's he's happy to lose himself in it: escape is not the goal: "I want to nestle in the city's innards". A local tells him: "Everything is hidden in Genoa" -- and that's exactly what he wants: not a predictable place like Holland, where everything is what it appears (and is supposed to) be, but this, all layered mystery. Game for almost anything, he revels in this strange place, and every aspect of it -- even in the initiation-rite of getting mugged.
       Among his encounters are also ones with migrants who have come to Genoa from Africa, searching for a different fantasy -- and trying to keep up appearances back home even as the reality of a European paradise proves to be anything but:
I'm in Europe and everyone in Europe gets rich and successful without trying. Every African knows that.
       And none are willing to shatter the myth.
       Another person Ilja befriends -- "my dearest friend in the labyrinth", he say -- is expat Donald Perrygrove Sinclair, "born with a gin and tonic in his hand". He's a wonderfully colorful character, and reveals his colorful past to Ilja -- but, of course, this is Genoa, where little is what it seems ..... The advice Ilja gets from one of Don's relatives -- "cherish the stories he had you believe" -- goes for most of La Superba, too: the fun is in the telling, the truth be damnded (or at least not worried about).
       Ilja admits: "Of course I invented Genoa". He projects what he wants onto the city, makes of it what he needs. But it helps a great deal that he enjoys himself so thoroughly in the process. Not everything goes well -- especially with women, including his pursuit of the most beautiful girl in Genoa -- but a joie de vivre (Italian style) dominates.
       Ilja even admits:
Everything I write is fake because I don't write when I'm myself. It's an escape from life on a rickety raft of language
       But it's certainly an enjoyable -- and sometimes very funny -- ride. Pfeijffer's style is easy-going, but the poet in him remains attentive to language throughout: for all the casual feel of the novel, it's also a carefully, even precisely written one.
       Good fun.

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 March 2016

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La Superba: Reviews: Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer: Other books by Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Dutch literature at the complete review
  • Other books from Deep Vellum

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About the Author:

       Dutch author Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer was born in 1968.

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