Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 17, 2020

A Very Normal Man, by Vincenzo Cerami, translated by Isobel Grave

As the translator Isobel Grave explains in the Preface, Vincenzo Cerami (1940-2013) was an Italian novelist, poet and screenwriter, best known internationally for his 1998 film Life Is Beautiful.  But in Italy, it was his first novel, Un borghese piccolo piccolo, published in 1976 that brought him instant acclaim.  Within a year, it was made into a successful film, and it was subsequently translated into multiple languages.  But not into English.  For that, we had to wait almost forty years—until professional translator and interpreter Isobel Grave was appointed Cassamarca lecturer in Italian language and literature at the University of South Australia, and for the South Australian indie publisher Wakefield Press to publish Grave’s translation as A Very Normal Man in 2015.

Although this trailer is in Italian, it’s worth taking a quick look at it to see Cerami’s comic touch in the scenes where the central character Giovannia Vivaldi joins the Masons and, using secret signs, tries to convey his membership to those who matter.  But the trailer does not convey the horror that descends in the second half of the story.

For, if Giovanni is indeed an ordinary little middle-class man, the world is in trouble.  When the book opens, he is a public servant in Rome, anticipating not just his retirement (with pension attached) but also his only son Mario’s advancement into his vacated place.  To secure this appointment requires some manipulation of the system, but Giovanni knows who to ask, and all goes well.


But on the day that should have been the happiest of Giovanni’s life, Mario is gunned down in the aftermath of a robbery.  Giovanni witnessed this dreadful scene, and to add to his grief his wife subsequently has a stroke and—entirely dependent on her husband—becomes a silent witness to Giovanni’s confession about what he has done.  Able only to flash morse-code messages with her eyes, she is trapped with a man whose belief in the revenge he is entitled to enact, knows no boundaries.  For when he gets the opportunity to identify the gunman in a police line-up, he says nothing.  He follows the man, and exacts his own terrible vengeance.  This revenge involves many days of gruesome torture which—although economically portrayed—is sickening to read.

The reader who presses on on to see how Cerami resolves this situation, will be disappointed.  This is a story of the 1970s Italy we used to hear about from afar: corruption at all levels of society and violent unpunished crime.  Cerami portrays the participation of the petty bourgeois (borghese piccolo) in this world with black humour and savagery.

This theme of vengeance reminded me of Hell’s Gate, by Laurent Gaudé, translated by Jane Aitken and Emily Boyce. (See my review).  Also set in Italy, it tells of parents driven mad by grief and explores their different attitudes to taking vengeance when the justice system fails.

That witty cover design is by Liz Nicholson from designBITE.

Sue at Whispering Gums reviewed it too.

Author: Vincenzo Cerami
Title: A Very Normal Man 
Translator: Isobel Grave
Publisher: Wakefield Press South Australia, 2015, first published as Un Borghese piccolo piccolo, 1976, 117 pages
ISBN: 9781743053713
Source: Kingston Library



  1. Yikes. I think the torture scenes might be too much for me… :(


  2. Why do you think it waited so long for a translator? And will the Australian translation be sold/licensed overseas? Perhaps this is a new niche for Australian publishers.

    I’ve often considered that if a member of my family was harmed that vengeance may be preferable to justice.


    • I don’t know why some books take forever to get translated… maybe it’s because until comparatively recently, translations were hard to sell in English speaking countries.
      But once we had the internet, and (a) could find out about these books and (b) order them online if we wanted them, the market began to grow.
      Re vengeance: people often make the mistake of thinking that vengeance will make them feel better. But actually, moving on and living a good life is the best way to feel better.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve just read both ‘A Meal in Winter’ and ‘Four Soldiers’ by Hubert Mingarelli (in English translation) (thanks for the review of one, Lisa, and mentioning the other) and I now need to more away from the bleak (at least temporarily). I may read ‘A Very Normal Man’ at some stage, when I feel less overwhelmed.


    • Yes, I can see why something more cheerful is in order!


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