‘The princely progress of the human race’: Guido Maria Brera’s new Candido

La Nave di Teseo, the François vase (Museo Archeologico, Florence).

La nave di Teseo – The ship of Theseus: that is the name of the publishing house which brought out, no more than a few months ago, Guido Maria Brera’s latest novel: Candido. The ship of Theseus, just like the ship that, as reported by Plutarch, the people of Athens busily renovated agan and again, and which, however, they stubbornly kept claiming to be the very one that bore the son of Aegeus back to Greece. No name would have been more appropriate: Brera’s Candido is at the same time Voltaire’s Candide and something quite different. Animated by a quintessentially Voltairian verve, which Sciascia had also brilliantly rendered in his own, Sicily-set, work of the same name, Brera’s Candido is a profoundly disillusioned reflection on some of the problems affecting modern (Italian) society. It is a harsh critique of a certain model of ‘development’, presented as inevitably leading to increased inequality and, ultimately, totalitarianism.

Guido Maria Brera: Candido.

Brera’s Candido is a rider, an English word that the Italians have made their own and use to refer to a (food) delivery person (and, by extension, to any underpaid ‘slaves of the gig economy’). He is a rider in a post-pandemic, post-recession, dystopic, unnamed yet easily recognisable Milan, with its ‘old gothic church’ and its bosco verticale. Much like in Orwell’s London, streets in Brera’s Milan are dotted with telescreens, ceaselessly broadcasting the ruling Party’s propaganda. Pangloss, the Party’s spokesman lecturing from the telescreens, tirelessly repeats ‘tutto è bene, tutto va bene’ (‘all is well, everything is going well’), a sentence that grotesquely mimics the slogan written on many of the banners hanging down Italian balconies at the peak of the covid-19 pandemic: ‘andrà tutto bene’.

He further adds that being pessimistic or negative is a sure way of making the world a worse place, and that work and dedication are sure ways of hitting the big time and becoming free – one might almost be tempted to write this last bit in German. Surrounded by these gigantic telescreens, Candido rides happily on his bicycle to deliver food and drinks to the people in the Inner Neighbourhoods. The more food and drinks he delivers, he cheerfully reasons, the more credits he will earn, and the more credits he earns, the more time he will be able to spend in his little bedroom, chatting with his much-beloved Cunegonda. Little does he care or indeed realise that his Cunegonda is but a hologram generated by Voltaire, the ruling Party’s social network, which, one cannot help but noticing, is somehow reminiscent of another, much-debated Italian online platform, also named after a prominent eighteenth-century thinker, Rousseau.

One of thousands of pandemic banners: ‘All will be well’.

Completely out of place in such a dehumanised social reality, a bit like Italo Calvino’s Marcovaldo in post-war, booming Turin, Brera’s Candido is, however, fully integrated in the totalitarian system he lives in. Plus royaliste que le roi, plus candide que Candide, he makes the Party’s slogans his own. To his fellow riders complaining about the hardship of their condition, Candido replies with some of Pangloss’s best quotes; he reminds them that to deliver food is to contribute to the wellbeing of humankind, and that they would not complain so much if they only dared to be a bit more positive about life. When they look at him in astonishment, their mouths agape, he smiles and walks away, glad to have imparted some much-needed wisdom. Likewise, when his mother is compelled to sublet her own bedroom to make up for the credits he can no longer earn – he has been spotted in the company of some protesters and unjustly fired – Candido cannot help but rejoice that his old woman is no longer alone in the house.

Italian gig economy workers demonstrate for labour rights (Financial Times).

Eventually invited to take up an internship in the Voltaire headquarters, Candido is finally about to prove the world that he was right all along, and that everything is indeed for the best: he performs brilliantly and is soon promoted to the highest positions. And yet, just as the internship is about to come to a close, a sudden, momentary ‘glitch’ unveils the bleakness and squalor of the world he lives in: much like Alcina’s palace in Ariosto’s Orlando furioso, the seemingly idyllic Voltaire headquarters are revealed to be the monstrous seat of corruption. Confirmed in his intuition by bookseller Martino, Candido hurries to apologise to his mother and friends. A modern, more proactive, but perhaps equally self-destructive Bartleby, Candido begins to say no and stand up against the system. He joins a massive protest and… well, I am not a huge fan of spoilers and have no wish to hurt any of my four readers. But it is worth noting that other countries are much more advanced than Italy in their race to becoming large gig economies, and that, unfortunately, even academia appears to have been dragged down that direful path. Oh, ‘magnifiche sorti e progressive’!

– Ruggero Sciuto