Review by Grady Harp
A welcome new publishing house on the scene is New Vessel Press whose mission in the literary field is to offer translations of foreign literature into English. Their choice of books is a fascinating one - they have the courage to bring to us in the 21st century some books that have been condemned in the 20th century (the present book COCAINE is an example), while uncovering authors of quality to place before the English reading public.
A bit about the author: Pitigrilli was the pseudonym for Dino Segre (9 May 1893 - 8 May 1975), an Italian writer who made his living as a journalist and novelist. His most noted novel was Cocaïne (1921), published under his pseudonym and placed on the "forbidden books" list by the Catholic Church because of his treatment of drug use and sex. He founded the literary magazine Grandi Firme, which was published in Turin from 1924 to 1938, when it was banned under the newly enacted anti-Semitic Race Laws of the Fascist government. Although baptized as a Catholic, Segre was classified as Jewish at that time. He had worked in the 1930s as an informant for OVRA, the Fascist secret service, but was dismissed in 1939 after being exposed in Paris. His father was Jewish, and Pitigrilli had married a Jewish woman (although they had long lived apart). Pitigrilli had traveled in Europe in the 1930s while maintaining his house in Turin. His efforts beginning in 1938 to change his racial status were not successful, and he was interned as a Jew in 1940, following Italy's entrance into the war as an ally of Germany. He gained release from the internal exile that year, and wrote anonymously in Rome to earn money. After Mussolini's government fell in 1943 and the Germans began to occupy Italy, Pitigrilli fled to Switzerland, where his second wife (a Catholic) and their daughter joined him. They lived there until 1947, then moved to Argentina. Segre and his family returned to Europe in 1958, settling in Paris, from where they occasionally visited Turin.
COCAINE (here translated by Eric Mosbacher) is a wild adventure that approaches the surreal. Set in Paris in the 1920s, our odd hero is Tito Arnaudi who invents lurid scandals and gruesome deaths, and sells these stories to the newspapers. But his own life becomes even more outrageous than his press reports when he acquires three demanding mistresses. To say more would be to deprive the reader of the fascination of uncovering al the subplots and naughty aspects of not only Tito's behavior but also that of the myriad bizarre characters who serve as the props for this Salvador Daliesque adventure. Pitigilli seemed to enjoy stirring the kettle with as much sex and drugs as we are now used to seeing even on television and in movies, but when this book was written the world was a different place and the novel was placed on the forbidden list by the church and the authorities.
It s most appropriate that the new Vessel Press found it fitting to print an Afterword by Alexander Stile who In 1991 published a study of five Italian Jewish families under Fascism. He documents that Pitigrilli acted as an informant for the Fascist secret police OVRA during the 1930s, until 1939. Stille noted that the Fascist secret police used intelligence from these conversations to arrest and prosecute anti-fascist Jewish friends and relatives of Pitigrilli. Stille used many documents and accounts by members of the clandestine anti-fascist movement Giustizia e Liberta` (Justice and Freedom) operating in Turin. An Italian post-war government committee investigating collaborators and OVRA concluded about the writer: "...the last doubt (on Pitigrilli being OVRA informant number 373) could not stand after the unequivocal and categorical testimonies ... about encounters and confidential conversations that took place exclusively with Pitigrilli.
So here at last is an important novel available now in English in an edition that introduces the presence of a publishing house with a fine purpose. And that fact is as refreshing as the reading of this very entertaining novel.