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Centuria: one hundred ouroboric novels.




Born in Milan in 1922, Giorgio Manganelli did not emerge into the literary world until the early '60s, when he joined Gruppo '63, the avant-garde literary movement whose best-known members included Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco. In the ensuing thirty years, until his death in 1990, Manganelli published more than two dozen volumes of fiction and nonfiction, and though his work has been translated into ten languages, only two of his novels have appeared in English, the first more than a decade ago. The second is Centuria. Originally issued in 1979, Centuria, Manganelli's eighth novel, won that year's prestigious Viareggio Prize and is one of the most original volumes of fiction in the past several decades.

Centuria consists of one hundred short "novels" (each originally composed on one sheet of paper), which are united by an "ouroboric," or circular, notion of time--in terms of both immortal existence and the narrower scope of individual human life--as represented by Ouroboros, the mythical serpent devouring his own tail. Manganelli's particular awareness of time has precedents in, among other sources, The Decameron and the twelfth-century, anonymously written Il Novellino. Manganelli's fictions, however, are highly compressed miniature novels, some of which seem to have the potential to be vastly expanded. They take place in various eras, from before the creation of the world to the future, when a celestial body in the form of "a vast city square" is seen floating around the universe.

Manganelli possesses a broad range of interests, but he really excels as a subtle humorist. In the twenty-seventh story, for instance, he describes a man living in Cornwall who believes, from the position of the clouds, that he should travel to Rome to meet the emperor. He does, but three days later the emperor is assassinated and the man from Cornwall is chosen to succeed him. "But he was not happy. He always wondered what those clouds had meant to say to him. Had he misunderstood? He was thoughtful and despondent. He grew serene the day the court official raised a sword against his throat." In the twenty-eighth tale, the Roman emperor, "excited by a strange and senseless design of the clouds," travels to Cornwall. He settles there but is ignored by the locals until a traveling history professor from Samarkand, Ohio, recognizes him. The emperor then becomes a celebrity: "He now has a watch and eats apple pie; they say that at the next elections he'll be a candidate for the liberals; and he will lose with honor."

Despite the short length of his "novels," Manganelli not only provides a great range of genres--ghost stories, love stories, tall tales, and so on--but also manages to end each story satisfyingly. His economic and essential use of language cuts to the heart of the matter, and, combined with his clever sense of humor, this makes Centuria an elegant and evocative book.
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Title Annotation:NOTED
Author:Pekar, Harvey
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2005
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