This book is a literary exploration of the culture of Southern Italy as it dragged itself into modernity after the Second World War. The book won the Prix Goncourt in 1957 and, if it fails to be a masterpiece , it is precisely because it seems to have been written to win a literary prize.
There are the obvious nods to the Italian literature of the South. The book is an exercise in local colour and yet one fears that the local colour derives from an assiduous reading about Southern Italy rather than from a life lived in it.
The extended central sequence in which the wife of the judge has a doomed fling with the son of the local mobster is so obviously a pastiche of the French nineteenth century novel that it casts doubt on the good faith of much of the apparent realism of the rest of the novel.
However, despite this flaw, the book is a fascinating commentary on power and sexuality in a culture caught between feudalism and capitalism, sneering, brutal and corrupt yet suppressed into codes by habit.
It is a culture that is recognisable as having the same set of norms that would have applied to the region under the Romans and Robert Knapp’s recent ‘Invisible Romans’ would make a good comparative companion piece.
The book is rich with references to the relationship of past to future, the manipulation of the ‘rules’ by both men and women and the winners and the losers in the game. The plotting is exquisite.
Sexuality plays a major role, above all the sexual tolerances and viciousnesses (completely incomprehensible to Northern Europeans) by which life becomes tolerable so long as honour is not compromised. The male use of power to win sex is endemic as is female cunning.
In short, it is a brilliant fictionalisation of a society but one that amounts to a sociological treatise. It is detached and intellectual – and so very post-war French.
One almost questions whether it does not have some Marxist origin, except that Vailland writes throughout with such detachment and even sympathy for every character trapped within the ‘Law’, creatures of the social, that the observation implies no political programme.
The rather peremptory ending suggests that the story could just have gone on and on but just with different permutations of the relationships between characters who, though well written as flesh and blood, are better seen as ‘types’ – or perhaps pawns on a chessboard with the Law as gamesman.
This 'Law', of course, is not to be confused with the formal process of Law which is presented as just a sub-set of a greater 'Law' - as intrinsically political, corrupt and based on injustices that also match Knapp's account of the situation amongst the ancient Romans.
The promoters of the book seem to have had difficulty in finding a way to sell it to the public since, while the Prix Goncourt win would have helped it as might the Booker in London today, a literary-sociological description of a poor quasi-feudal society needs more punch than that.
They tried to sell it as a mystery based around the theft of a wallet and they over-played the rather brief section in which the Law is symbolised in a cruel, macho game, but these represent just the mcguffin that isn’t and an allegorical plot device respectively.
Not quite a masterpiece but a highly intelligent book that reads well in its detached intellectual way.