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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Past is a Foreign Country

Gianrico Carofiglio

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To purchase The Past is a Foreign Country

Title: The Past is a Foreign Country
Author: Gianrico Carofiglio
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004 (Eng. 2007)
Length: 244 pages
Original in: Italian
Availability: The Past is a Foreign Country - US
The Past is a Foreign Country - UK
The Past is a Foreign Country - Canada
The Past is a Foreign Country - India
Le passé est une terre étrangère - France
Die Vergangenheit ist ein gefährliches Land - Deutschland
Il passato è una terra straniera - Italia
El pasado es un país extranjero - España
  • Italian title: Il Passato è una terra straniera
  • Translated by Howard Curtis
  • Il Passato è una terra straniera was made into a film in 2008, directed by Daniele Vicari

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Our Assessment:

B- : spiral into depravity, in very uneven presentation

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Boston Globe . 22/8/2010 Hallie Ephron
FAZ . 2/2/2009 Hannes Hintermeier
The Guardian . 22/9/2007 Matthew Lewin
The Independent . 7/11/2007 Boyd Tonkin
Sunday Times . 9/12/2007 Joan Smith
The Telegraph . 10/11/2007 Jake Kerridge

  From the Reviews:
  • "The translation by Howard Curtis is poetic and compelling. Reading Giorgio’s descent into depravity is like watching a slow-motion car wreck as the reader wonders: Will there ever be a line Giorgio won’t cross ?" - Hallie Ephron, Boston Globe

  • "Carofiglios Prosa ist simpel gestrickt, aber er weiß, wie man Atmosphäre erzeugt. Stärker als in den Krimis versteht er es hier, die Geschichte stets einen Finger breit über der Wirklichkeit spielen zu lassen -- sie schwebt in der flirrenden Hitze Apuliens. Die Konstruktion zwingt ihn freilich in ein starres Korsett. Die Frage, wie die beiden Enden des Seils miteinander verbunden sind, lässt nicht viele Lösungsmöglichkeiten offen. Das blutige Finale stellt die Frage nach Gut und Böse dann mit so massiver Handgreiflichkeit, dass die Moral von der Geschicht' als arg plakativ verbucht werden muss." - Hannes Hintermeier, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "How do young men from good backgrounds get drawn into a life of crime and violence ? Well, here's a fascinating, succinct and stylish thriller from Italy that makes the process more than believable." - Matthew Lewin, The Guardian

  • "Pacily translated by Howard Curtis, Carofiglio's writing has a drive and focus that expertly balances suspense and reflection. If his prosecutions begin to match his prose, then the capi of Italian crime have had plenty to worry about of late." - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

  • "(A) stunner, an intense psychological drama (.....) Self-deception and corruption are at the heart of this unforgettable novel, which also offers a kind of bitter redemption" - Joan Smith, Sunday Times

  • "The novel drifts along aimlessly, and there is a perfunctory subplot about a Carabinieri investigation into a series of sexual assaults which really serves no purpose other than to set up the denouement of Giorgio's story: the detective, Lieutenant Chiti, is too lifeless to rise even to the level of cliché. But give it a chance and you may find, to your annoyance, that you're hooked." - Jake Kerridge, The Telegraph

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:

       The Past is a Foreign Country is narrated by Giorgio Cipriani. Framed by a short opening and closing chapter set in the present, the novel has Giorgio revisit his past, late 1988 and 1989, when he was in his early twenties and when he befriended -- or came under the sway of -- Francesco Carducci. Giorgio was studying law, progressing well and quickly with his studies; heartthrob Francesco was studying philosophy, two years (and falling further) behind Giorgio. Giorgio comes to the attention of Francesco, and then falls into his orbit: a seductive one of easy money, because Francesco is a card sharp who is happy to enlist Giorgio for his games and manipulations.
       Giorgio comes from a simple family and seems always to have been rather a good boy and dutiful son. He has an older sister who seemed to be on the right path but dropped out of university, got pregnant, joined a commune. And now it is Giorgio's turn to rebel. At first, there isn't much rebellion, but he lies to his girlfriend about his rendezvous with Francesco, and he doesn't tell his family about his tag-team card-cheating outings either; he hides the money he wins, too -- and some of what he buys with his winnings, like the fancy car.
       Giorgio is soon leading a double life that proves ever-more seductive, and soon enough it's the only life he's leading, putting aside his studies, ignoring his family. Francesco, however, remains something of a mystery, and Giorgio can't entirely figure him out; nevertheless, he follows close to blindly, even as the stakes -- and Giorgio's culpability -- get higher. Francesco explains some of the tricks of his trade to him -- including the card tricks that are their bread and butter -- but Giorgio doesn't always seem to learn the entire lesson. So, for example, Francesco tells him fairly early on:

Anyone who tells you that life isn't a constant series of manipulations is either a liar or a fool. The real difference isn't between manipulating and not manipulating. The difference is between manipulating consciously and manipulating unconsciously.
       Giorgio certainly seems willing to allow himself to be manipulated. He allows himself to get drawn into Francesco's biggest operation yet, which doesn't involve card-playing and has the potential for an enormous payoff (or disaster), and, finally, is drawn into what he recognizes is the abyss:
I felt a sense of inevitability. This was my destiny. Everything was about to go to hell, once and for all, and I couldn't do anything about it.
       A signal failure of The Past is a Foreign Country is that that sense of inevitability is unconvincing; there's no reason for Giorgio's impotence -- indeed, by this point the only explanation for him following this path is a desire for complete self-destruction. Yet Carofiglio has not created a character/narrator that properly (or any other way) conveys what propels him down this path, at this point or earlier. Sure, the card-game excitement is described well, and is obviously seductive -- but Carofiglio doesn't convince in why Giorgio would take the next steps (and especially these final ones). Equally disappointing, the abyss turns out to be a shallow pothole on the road of life .....
       Francesco remains a mystery-man, with Giorgio never much bothering to try to figure him out, and their peculiar friendship isn't entirely convincing either. Yes, Francesco shows Giorgio sides of life he'd otherwise never get a taste of, but Giorgio's spiral into a sort of depravity remains a fairly gentle one.
       Giorgio's narrative is occasionally interrupted by chapters about a young police lieutenant, twenty-six year old Chiti, in charge of an investigation into some brutal assaults on young women here in Bari. The investigation putters along for a while, until finally there is a break in the case; where this is going is pretty clear from the start, but how feebly it is brought to a close is disappointing. The police-investigation thread of the story is, fortunately, a fairly slim one -- relatively little of the book is devoted to it -- but it still interrupts the flow of the rest of the tale. Sure, the two threads ultimately come together, but the only tension left is in the resolution, and Carofiglio doesn't take the bleak, black turn that might have given the novel a bit of a punch.
       The title comes from a book Giorgio picks up one day (before he's in too deep), its epigraph the opening line from L.P.Hartley's The Go-Between, "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there". The book itself is:
A story of adventures, taboos violated, initiations, shame, love and lost innocence.
       In other words, it's what will become Giorgio's story, just set three decades earlier; indeed, Giorgio already sense as he reads the novel that: "the story was about me".
       Carofiglio, unfortunately, does not manage to convince with Giorgio's story: The Past is a Foreign Country remains a psychological thriller without the psychology (and a messily put together book). Many of the scenes are quite good -- especially the heady rush of the card-cheating -- but it's a mess of a book. The framing device -- opening and closing chapter set in the present, while the rest is the account of the past -- doesn't help: perhaps if Carofiglio had developed it better. As is, the past remains too foreign a country, in a portrait that is simply never convincing, and in a story that is exciting only in bursts and ultimately fizzles completely.

- M.A.Orthofer, 24 September 2010

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The Past is a Foreign Country: Reviews: The Past is a Foreign Country - the film: Other books by Gianrico Carofiglio under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Gianrico Carofiglio is a prosecutor in Italy. He was born in 1961.

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© 2010-2021 the complete review

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