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They were the most moving sight there, two young people in love dancing together, blind to each other’s defects, deaf to the warnings of fate, deluding themselves that the whole course of their lives would be as smooth as the ballroom floor, unknowing actors set to play the parts of Juliet and Romeo by a director who had concealed the fact that tomb and poison were already in the script.

I am woefully ignorant of the history of the Italian state. It has always been a source of great curiosity for me, though I have yet to take the time to educate myself. Di Lampedusa’s novel offers a sop to the one desire, describing the advance of Garibaldi’s republican forces and the history of the island colony of Sicily, while also inspiring a new fascination with the life of the author. The Leopard was published post-humously and is one of two books available to modern readers by the writer, the other a collection of critical essays.

The novel describes the slow demise of the Italian aristocracy, faced with the twinned forces of a republican uprising and a burgeoning nouveau riche upper middle class. Prince Fabrizio of Salina presides over his remaining family estates and shrinking interests, attempting to gauge the movement of history. The story begins in the summer of 1860, with the prince paying tribute to his king and afterward granting audience to his own tenants and peasantry. Rumours are growing of an invasion by Garibaldi’s armies. Fabrizio takes council to determine if his interests are threatened by the soldiery. His own nephew Tancredi, for whom he has guardianship, announces that he has joined the red-capped revolutionaries. In him, Fabrizio sees the future of his family line, siding with the tide of modernity that will wash away the Italian fiefdoms and principalities.

The prince has that fatal quality of tragic heroes, being more intellectual and disinterested in his own fate, allowing younger men to take charge. The novel links the passing of old traditions and class with the encroachment of age. Fabrizio’s interest in astronomy is described as a scientific echo of long-dead Roman paganism. He yearns for a more concrete sense of an unchanging, eternal world, seeing only upstarts and vulgar soldiers becoming the new architects of society.

One such bourgeois, Don Calogero Sedara, has a daughter. The rakish Tancredi, returning from combat, spurns the interest of Fabrizio’s daughter Concetta for the more ravishing, and wealthy, Angelica. He entreats his uncle to make the match between the two families. While Fabrizio is wary of elevating the Sedara family’s station, he admires his nephew’s cunning and opportunism. Tancredi’s own father wasted his inheritance and left him penniless as a young man. In this marriage he seeks out a stronger position for himself, just as throwing in his lot with the republicans ensured he was not on the losing side of the conflict. Fabrizio finally agrees to the match, conscious that in doing so the Salina family’s decline is assured, though the young man he regards as a son will thrive.

It is gratifying that this translation of Di Lampedusa’s manuscript by Archibald Colquhoun retains so much of the original’s wit and wordplay. The free association of Roman gods and the starry sky at night; the prince’s retainer describing how Angelica’s grandfather was known as Peppe Mmerda, fertilizer which eventually led to Tancredi’s beautiful fiancé; the allusion to Shakespeare quoted above, as well as references to Eisenstein’s Battleship Potempkin. Luchino Visconti’s film of the novel was itself a study in opulence confronted with low vulgarity, with the leonine Burt Lancaster in the central roll.

The story itself continues on into the 20th century, showing the eventual fate of the once mighty blond prince’s family, whose feline intelligence is passed on to his embittered spinster daughter Concetta. The significance of the title is a reference to Fabrizio’s nickname, as well as to the fair-skinned, light hair of the Italian nobility. The prince explains to an emissary of the newly formed Senate at one juncture how Sicily is a much conquered colony, having hosted Moors, Spaniards, even the English, yet takes a perverse pride in its permeable heritage. The republican movement unknowingly is simply yet another authority, an aristocracy in all but name, which will be tolerated by the people of the island as every other invader has been.

This is a poignant study of mortality, both of the aging Leopard himself and his entire class’ way of life. A sublime classical work of historical fiction.

Every time we killed a thousand Bugs at a cost of one M.I. it was a net victory for the Bugs. We were learning, expensively, just how efficient a total communism can be when used by a people actually adapted to it by evolution; the Bug commissars didn’t care anymore about expending soldiers than we cared about expending ammo. Perhaps we could have figured this out about the Bugs by noting the grief the Chinese Hegemony gave the Russo-Anglo-American Alliance; however the trouble with ‘lessons from history’, is that we usually read them best after falling flat on our chins.

Okay, a couple of notes. First off, yes, I snapped this book up because I’m a big fan of Paul Verhoeven’s film. If you haven’t seen it yet I would advise you to drop everything and check it out. It is one of the most darkly humorous sci-fi satires I have ever seen. Plus it has Neil Patrick Harris goose-stepping on screen in a mocked up SS uniform. Secondly, and maybe that last sentence gave you a hint, I’ve made myself a promise of not using the ‘f’ word in reviewing this book. Not that it isn’t…a word beginning with ‘f’ that rhymes with – ascist. Just that, in doing so, I immediately scupper the review.

I plan on doing that anyway, but I’m trying to establish ground rules here, c’mon! Be fair.

Anyway Heinlein’s novel begins with young Johnny Rico narrating to us a military ‘drop’ on an alien world inhabited by a race referred to as ‘Skinnies’. Equipped with large robotic suits of armour that allows soldiers to leapfrog over buildings, the humans bomb sites that will cause the mass amount of panic. At one point Rico throws an intelligent bomb into a crowded building that begins to audibly count itself down to destruction. He is one of Rasczak’s Roughnecks, a platoon that’s known for being mean and fast, dedicated fighters. Once their objective is achieved they pull out and we flashback to Rico’s first days in the army.

The majority of the book itself is occupied with the hero’s training and experiences in boot-camp. This was something of a surprise, but it eventually became clear to me what Heinlein is looking to achieve. Rico is inspired to join up by the example of his stern Moral Philosophy teacher Mr Dubois. Throughout the book Dubois is seen as more of a father-figure than Rico’s own businessman dad, who argues against his son joining up. Only enlisted men are offered the opportunity to become ‘citizens’, meaning only they can vote in elections, should they survive long enough to make it to the next ballot. When Rico signs up he becomes estranged from his father, who wanted him to go to Harvard and take over the family business. He only receives letters from his mother from then on, who tries to intercede between her husband and son. It is Dubois who actually reaches out to Rico, sending him a note to say how proud he is that a student of his volunteered to join the Mobile Infantry.

We are told that 2009 recruits signed up, including Rico. After relentless training, hard discipline, even naked survival treks through mountains – less than 200 grunts remain for graduation. Rico ships out and joins the fight against ‘the Bug’, an enemy race of giant arachnids that operate under a hive-mind and feel no mercy. By the time Rico graduates the human race is at war with the Bug, which has struck Earth and wiped out Buenos Aires. He soon learns that life is cheap and the Bug never quits. We follow his progress up the ranks during the conflict.

Verhoeven received many plaudits for his subversive take on Heinlein’s novel, but the author himself has written quite a work of subversion. In short this book is nothing less than an attack on contemporary liberal values, with the militarist state raised up as an utopia. The Bugs are equated to communists and Dubois dismisses Marxism with a pithy culinary analogy. Social workers and psychologists are blamed for teenage delinquency and ‘the Terror’ is cited as a pan-global 21st century epidemic of adolescent violence.

Basically this future society is a response to hoodies.

What’s more, we never really leave Dubois’ classroom. I expected action scenes, but most of the novel occurs in flashbacks. Rico continually reminisces about Dubois’ lessons on morality. And this is Heinlein’s philosophical outlook, in fictional form.

 

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