How many stones do you think it takes to make a person? – Pietro Grossi, The Break
Billiards is a game of vectors which manifest in a wide variety of ways, from displacement, velocity and acceleration to forces and fields. The game can easily be reduced to a handful of formulae involving competing forces, masses and angles. It kind of takes the fun out of it really but the bottom line is that, if you were privy to all the variables, you should be able to make a ball do exactly what you wanted, for example, hit the top cushion and return to precisely the same spot from where it started out. Sounds like one of the simpler shots doesn’t it? But it’s anything but. Snooker, pool and billiards players make what they do appear easy but looks can be deceiving and there won’t be a single professional player out there who dismisses Lady Luck lightly.
Pietro Grossi's first novel to be translated into English, following on from his successful debut, Fists, which I reviewed back in August 2009, focuses on a billiards player, Dino, a placid, unambitious man living in a small provincial town in Italy. He’s not a professional. He plays because he loves the game. His day job is laying stones, paving stones, and he comes from a family of stone-layers whose craft has remained unaltered since medieval times. Times are a-changing though, even in this backwater, and it’s only a matter of time before he will be made redundant; either that or have to learn a new skill set, how to lay tarmac. This is something he never saw coming. He fully expected to lay stones until he retired.
Now you might think that playing billiards and laying stones have little in common but there you’d be wrong. Yes, there is science to both but there is also an art. First stone laying:
There was no precise logic to the way you placed the stones. It was something that had puzzled him when, still a child, trying to place a stone, he had asked his father what distance from the others it should go.
“Trust your eye,” his father had said, in that voice of his that always seemed to be breaking through a wall from another world.
Dino had straightened up and looked at his father with an almost scared expression. “What do you mean, trust your eye?”
He had raised his head and squinted at his son. “That’s right, your eye,” he had said.
In some strange way that he didn’t understand, Dino had realised that something was happening at that moment which would mark him for the rest of his life.
“Isn’t there a specific order?” he had asked.
Dino’s father had found it strange to hear those words used by a child, especially his own son, and for a moment he had sensed something new and unknown. “No, Dino, there’s no specific order,” he had said, in a voice that wouldn’t have been expected of him.
Now billiards. Just as Dino’s father refused (or was unable) to teach his son something he believed he needed to come to in his own good time, the same can also be said of Cirillo, “the master – a skinny little man with long hair like a gypsy, who beat everyone and held the cue as if it were made of crystal and stroked the balls as if they were a baby’s cheeks.” Cirillo refuses to give lessons, to anyone, and yet after three months procrastinating Dino finally screws his courage to the sticking place and strides up to Cirillo literally as the master was leaning across the table, ready to shoot:
“Will you teach me to play?” Dino had blurted out when he was close to the table.
Now no one but no one ever interrupted Cirillo, most never even ventured near his corner:
It was an inaccessible place, a country that didn’t exist and that certainly shouldn’t be disturbed for any reason – it was Mount Olympus, and even just knocking at the door of that realm of the gods was a step too far.
Italian 5-pin billiards
The odd thing is, instead of throwing a lightning bolt at the boy Cirillo humours him. He tells him to go away and then when he stands his ground still begging to be taught Cirillo informs him he doesn’t give lessons which the boy already knew and yet he still insists he wants to be taught so Cirillo finally says to him:
“Come back when you can make a break shot, aiming straight ahead of you, and manage to get the ball to come back to exactly the same spot it started from, neither a millimetre more nor a millimetre less, no further to the right, no further to the left.”
The boy is satisfied at that. For weeks he applies himself to this task and when one day he feels he's managed it he approaches Cirillo to tell him he’s done as he was asked only to be told, “Come back when you can do it every time.”
But this is not the Dino we meet in chapter one of this book. Years have passed, lessons have been learned (even if they weren’t explicitly taught), Dino’s father has died and Dino is now married to Sofia; he’s now employed by the council as a stone layer and is, in fact, the boss of a small team of men: Saeed – the outsider no one else would hire, Blondie – the strong and silent backbone of the operation and Duilio – the old-timer. They are a laconic and yet good-humoured bunch, good at their job and Dino has finally learned when a stone is straight and when it is not, even though, like his father, he could never articulate what one needed to do for it to all work out. And he feels much the same about his role in the society he finds himself a part of:
[A] crack had appeared, and something in the mechanism of his life had jammed.
To be fair the bomb would have been a hard sign for anyone to miss.
But there’s another bombshell before we get to that one. I said that Dino was now married. He and Sofia have been a couple for years and the only thing that has marred their contentment is the fact that Sofia has been unable to conceive a child; she has even been tested and told that she couldn’t have children. But they are a practical couple. They plan holidays, they aim to travel to so many places. Sofia records these plans carefully and they talk about them constantly but they never go and so it’s ironic, and a little sad, that when Sofia tells her husband, “I think we’re going to have a baby,” Dino’s first response, after sitting in silence for a while, is, “What about all the travelling we were going to do?”
It had become a kind of game – every now and again, one of them would come home with an idea for a new destination, and they would start to get excited about it, as if they were really leaving, and they would start imagining the places they would visit and how they would get there and who they would meet. They even bought a big notebook with a thick coloured cover, where they wrote down everything in preparation for when they left.
Anyway, after hearing the news what is there to do? He kisses his wife’s forehead, puts his jacket on, goes out to play billiards and on the way home disturbs Rosa, the old florist, to take a rose home to his wife.
Shortly after this Dino learns that all the roads in the town are to be covered with asphalt and he has a choice to make, but with a child on the way it’s no choice at all really. Then a little while later there was the bomb. Someone planted a bomb in the town hall. At least people were saying it was a bomb – only a few windows are blown out – but still what reason could anyone have to plant a bomb here?
Of course there are reasons. It’s suggested to Dino that there is corruption on high, that people are receiving kickbacks, that the contract to recover the streets is all about money and who knows who. Surely not.
Months pass and Dino does his best to adapt to his new life, he dons the “ungainly blue uniform” the workers are required to wear and trudges behind ‘Molly’ the mechanical monster that is set to crawl through the town spilling its black sludge all over the streets he and his family had cared for all these years. And then finally he can’t stand it any longer. He says to Cirillo:
“I can’t do it. I can’t spend every day in that black shit. It was different before. Before, everything seemed the way it ought to be. Before, I didn’t ask myself any questions. Before, I spent the days counting how many stones it would take to make my child. Now I spend the days trying not to ask myself any questions, especially how much more of that coal-black cancer I’ll have to spread so that my child can have a life.”
And the master has an alternative to propose, a tournament:
“It’s called the Ingot Tournament, because the winner gets a gold ingot. They’ve been doing it every year for I don’t know how long. You know how much a gold ingot is worth?”
At this point in the book I groaned. How many films can you think of where an underdog enters a fight, race or dance competition only to beat all the odds? Rocky, The Mighty Ducks, Strictly Ballroom, Dirty Dancing all come to mind but there must be dozens. Thankfully the book doesn’t go in that direction at all. In fact in a couple of chapters the tournament is all over. And then there’s the second bomb and this time there’s no doubt that it’s a bomb and suddenly Dino’s ever-so-ordered life begins to completely unravel. And that’s where I’m going to leave you.
Although an Italian, Grossi's literary heroes are often cited as North Americans: Hemingway, Faulkner, Salinger. It shows in his writing which is controlled and thoughtful. In a 2009 interview with Nicholas Murray, though, he was quick to not make too much of this:
When you start talking about literature it is always difficult – if not impossible – to compress in a bunch of seconds or a bunch of words all the books and the authors you loved and who influenced you and your life and your writing. This is why next to my name always popped out American authors: because, at least for the moment, if I have to highlight the literature that mostly influenced me it is definitely 20th century North American literature. Having said that, there are endless European authors that made the man and the author I am: Tolstoy, Dumas, Svevo, Pirandello, Conrad, Austen, Shakespeare, Dante, Hesse... The list is so long that I really wouldn't know where to start from, and to be honest the greatness of these authors is so huge that to me talking about them is very difficult: it would be like a sailor trying to explain the importance of wind. – ‘Pietro Grossi: An Interview’, The Bibliophilic Blogger, 18 August 2009
When I reviewed Fists I had this to say about the book:
I don't do stars, you can't boil a book down to marks out of ten. I disagree with Il Sole 24 Ore [who said it was a “perfect book”] – I don't think this book is perfect but who am I to say what perfection is? Let me just say that it's the best bit of contemporary writing I've read for a very long time and I would be genuinely excited to hear about something new by him.
And I was delighted when I got asked to look at The Break. Billiards is all about straight lines – "The shortest route possible for the best result. Precise simple rules." – and that is what the writing is like here. It doesn’t wallow in long descriptions and chooses its words carefully. In that respect it’s very much the literary novel but it is also a novel that is very easy to read, perhaps a little too easy because the chapters just fly by if you’re not careful. But if I was looking for a single word to describe it I’d probably go with ‘subtle’: delicately complex and understated. It doesn’t do the work the reader ought to be doing, drawing parallels, making connections but it does have a point to make and it’s made at the very end of the book. This book may work on a small canvas but it deals with big issues. Amanda Hopkinson, in her review in The Independent, said that, “The Break is small and perfectly formed.” At 220 pages it’s not that small but I have to agree with her. I was certainly not disappointed by this second book in English, again translated by the clearly more than capable Howard Curtis.
As with Fists the Pushkin Press have produced an attractive volume, with a striking wraparound cover (Van Gogh’s The Night Café this time). The card is extra-thick and is French folded and the leaves are of good quality paper all of which is becoming increasingly important these days when choosing a print copy over an e-book.
Pietro Grossi was born in Florence in 1978. After his school-leaving certificate, he decided to take a holiday and travel around the world. Back to Florence and after studying a year at the Faculty of Philosophy, which confirmed his dislike for the academic world, he set off again, first to Turin, where he attended Baricco’s Holden School of Creative Writing, and then to New York where he spent one year studying cinema, translating a novel, working for a production company. He made his debut in 2000 with Touché and in 2006 followed this up with the award-winning Pugni [Fists]. His latest books in Italian are Martini (2010) and Charm (2011).