The Ballad of the Low Lives by Enrico Remmert
If ever a novel was written with the vainglorious hope of a Hollywood adaptation in the back of one’s mind then Enrico Remmert’s The Ballad of the Low Lifes is that novel. Published by Toby Press, this Italian offering has a plot so predictably, embarrassingly obvious it’s almost a crime in itself, it possesses characters as two dimensional as cardboard and a prose style that would make Italo Calvino spit out his Double Espresso. Yet, somehow, I loved every minute of this book. Ballad of the Low Lifes is as slick as freshly boiled pasta. Forgive me, but seriously, it is. In the same way the camera can draw a viewer inexplicably into the very fabric of the big-screen performance, Remmert’s polished shoe-shine prose puts the reader dead centre in this glossy retelling of a worn-out, and let’s face it, sodden genre. Remmert, to help sharpen his focus, adopts a simple present tense, using “you” as its subject. This helps to bring the reader closer to the action (ie we read the book as if we are the narrator himself, quite literally from his point of view).
Starting with its Palahniuk/Fight Club-like opener (I can almost see some Brad Pitt type heartthrob muttering each syllable): “First: Everybody cheats. Second: Everybody deserves to be cheated ...” (Pg.35), The Ballad of the Low Lifes is relentless in its cinematic ambition. Does this device seem familiar? Surely the screen-play has already been submitted? It has. Okay, I’ll stop. I’m ahead of myself.
The novel is narrated by worldly wise Vittorio and takes place in Turin. It follows the daily trivialities of two young grifters (see I told you so): Vittorio himself and Milo. Living out of each others, and everybody else’s, pockets one thing has occupied their scheming minds for a very long time: The Big C. The Big Con to you and I – or the “gentle reader” as we’re so often addressed. Added to the mix are Cristina and Uncle Grissino. Cristina serves as the thorn in Vittorio’s and Milo’s side – being simultaneously the object of Vittorio’s hopeless desire and the girlfriend of uncaring Milo. Uncle Grissino, the brains behind the operation, is the conduit that connects them all and makes the Bid C possible. Vittorio’s philosophical ramblings, spewed onto the page whilst either wondering drunkenly alone on foot or speeding along the streets on his Vespa, are the novels fitting backdrop and a gentle aside from its fast-paced plot. And so what is the Big C? I won't give much away but I’m sure you can imagine just exactly what unfolds in these kinds of escapades. If you can't just think one dodgy dispatch business, lots of double-crossing, sex, tears and gullible consumerism and you’ll soon get the picture. Remmert’s characters are quite stereotypical of such narratives. Vittorio is intelligent, Milo is hungry for success and money, Cristina is distrusting, bored, neurotic and sexy. And finally, Uncle Grissino is older, wiser yet aloof. Surely such volatile combinations are doomed to fail? It wouldn’t be much of a tale otherwise would it? Or would it?
Our narrator Vittorio is a compassionate, perceptive literature graduate teeming with the usual pent-up male existential angst. Vittorio is raggedly unhinged and constantly wondering just where his place is on this lump of rock we all inhabit? His quote-a-fact-philosophy is rather pedestrian, but appetising all the same. Remmert is savvy though and throws in odd cultural references that don’t jar the narrative structure or knock the spiralling plot out of kilter but, in fact, hook the reader into Vittorio’s world. Vittorio’s shoe-horned musings are, at least, in keeping with a drop-out at odds with the world. Vittorio’s our compassionate vagabond, our quixotic wastrel, our Shakespearean why-haven’t-I-been-given-at-least-one-chance knave. For example, Vittorio’s ruminations are given a warm touchy-feely slant by Remmert: “A fat bumblebee is trying ponderously to get through the glass of the window, buzzing and charging persistently, and if it would just move a foot or so to the right it would find the other pane open, but it doesn’t, and it reminds you of you ...” (Pg 63). Vittorio’s roguish warmth permeates throughout the entire book and I suppose, rather begrudgingly, this is the novels strength.
Aubrey Botsford’s translation is both clear and uncomplicated and is sympathetic to Remmert’s cinematic surge. So, forgetting how much I loved this novel, The Ballad of the Low Lifes is a decent, rather leisurely read. It makes some socio-political points regarding the rules we live under. It’s well written as far as pace and imagery is concerned, but, like many novels of this ilk, it will leave you lukewarm with indifference. It’s just not that important, but then again, I can’t help thinking: why does it have to be? Read it now or wait for the film if you want to.