The devil that you know
Anton Grasso: Il-Kittieb, Horizons, 2012, 263pp. €5.87
I started reading Anton Grasso’s Il-Kittieb with some trepidation after realising that this was a reissue of a book published 30years ago.
A sense of déjà vu kicked in, only a few pages into the story and Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby kept flashing to mind.
The strange couple, the aspiring yet struggling artist, the pregnancy, devil-child and the rest all pushed my recall buttons, but then my memory is replete with clichés of the uncanny as I used to deliciously feast on such books.
Suddenly it dawned on me that I had read this book when I was younger and must have forgotten all about it. As the pages turned, the story slowly came back to mind.
Il-Kittieb delves deeply into the troubled relationship of Christopher and Marianne, a married couple with one child. The husband becomes obsessed with the idea that one day he will be a world-renowned author in spite of being discouraged by several critics including his very own university professor.
Grasso depicts, at a painstaking pace, the internal ruminations of Marianne from whose perspective we see the main part of the story.
She dearly loves her husband and is ready to stand by him through the trial and tribulations he puts her through to succeed in his dream.
By chance he hears of an international literary competition in Rome which calls for entrants to up and leave their country to personally deliver their competing entry.
Christopher sees this as his chance to become famous and uproots his family to give in his latest novel. On the very first day they arrive in Rome, yet again by coincidence, they meet another couple who declare that they have recognised the young aspiring novelist from a book jacket of his first novel, which had sold very poorly.
From there onwards Christopher, unknowingly and not, becomes immersed in a diabolic plot to ensure the birth of the anti-Christ.
In the background we get a scant sub-plot involving a behind-the-scenes peek at the political intrigues that go on in the papal quarters at the Vatican.
Thirty years ago, such a book might have been controversial, as it dealt with several sensitive issues such as the church’s stance on priests getting married, which amazingly is still a delicate topic.
Moreover, the sparse but, for those times, blatant sexual references must have raised some eyebrows. Nowadays, these sexual depictions seem to be mere innuendoes compared to what a modern audience is exposed to.
Grasso can certainly handle poetic devices in his prose writing as he uses them so abundantly. The author’s achievement in this book is his dissection of Marianne’s thoughts as the reader spirals with her into the verge of a nervous breakdown.
He is an intense psychological writer who definitely excels in creating a suffocating atmosphere worthy of a contemporary gothic novel.
Il-Kittieb demands a patient reader: readers who are looking for an action packed slasher will be disappointed but if a more psychological and atmospheric approach is preferred, then this book will probably appeal.