Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Davide Longo's "Last Man Standing": Book Review

I like post-apocalyptic novels, and after reading the previous reviewers' responses, all over the map, pro-and-con, to this ambitious story, I wanted to try it out for myself. Some compared it to Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," and certainly it shares a father and child facing devastation. One mentioned J.M. Coetzee's "Disgrace," and we find the middle-aged (about the same age exactly, I reckon, 52 when the narrative begins) professor shunned after a sex scandal, and finding himself alone, amidst savage elements, canine and human, and facing his own existential loss. He determines to stay a "vertical man" as the Italian title has it, and in Silvester Mazzarella's smooth translation (my galley has one glitch, a gap where Richard is introduced), Leonardo the protagonist learns to stop backing down.

What does Davide Longo add to the familar arc of a man realizing his worth amidst hardship? Like the backdrop of two recent attempts to delve into a near-future ravaged by global breakdown, David Mitchell's "The Bone Clocks" or Michel Faber's "The Book of Strange and New Things," Longo places Leonardo, his daughter, and his ex-wife's stepson in a landscape we watch as unrest widens, banks close, communication ceases, and tribalism returns.

Longo only mentions Italy by name once, and he alludes to locations by initials as perhaps they are no longer cities, anyway....He tries to strip familiar places down so we see instead what they are a few decades from now: as Leonardo reflects in an empty church, the crucifix peers down as if a person giving a last glance to a place once loved well, and now left behind. Faith fades, death looms, and barter and extortion replace civility as women become commodities, youths feral, and old people victims or hostages, traded by rival roaming gangs. The "outsiders" mostly are repulsed, but beyond Italy's borders, mystery hovers, for nobody knows anymore what the earth contains, as information shrinks and survival takes daily precedence.

The shift from "with" to "without," Leonardo realizes early on, signals this new dark age. Refugees from Azerbaijan show Leonardo in an atlas from whence they came. "The man passed his hands slowly over the atlas as if sweeping crumbs away from his own country and toward Europe." (100) But they will find no welcome and neither will the Italians beyond the Alps. It looks as if each nation has secured its fortress frontier against each other, and those in what was the Italian nation find themselves grappling for news, loot, food, and shelter.

While I did wonder how Leonardo and others managed winter, given their lack of much protection, Longo succeeds better in showing how Leonardo's fellow men and women fare when similarly beleaguered. The "germs of evil," he wonders, may be innate within humans, or perhaps instead they were spread by infection, leading to degeneracy. This conundrum leaves Leonardo wondering, and like much in this tersely told novel, Longo refuses to fill in the blanks.

Ultimately, as the dangers increase, Leonardo asks if he is being subjected to "an act of purification. Or whether sentence has already been passed and a bizarre judge has placed a scaffold a long way from the cell." (194) Fire and water, goodness and balance, on the other hand, symbolize for Leonardo and those whom he tries to protect some meaning for hard-won wisdom, and as with "The Road" and many such tales, it's telling that Longo seems in the final sections to shrink from the horrors he has amassed, in hopes of peace and safety. This may let down some wanting more of a realistic story, but it may assuage the sensibilities of others needing respite after many pages of memorable but dispiriting dramatization of life lived near its end. While the elephant and some parts of the narrative seemed too contrived to convince as real-life predicaments, in total, "The Last Man Standing" manages to tell a powerful tale of a man's attempt at redemption, in a world without belief, only power and utter endurance. (Amazon US 9-24-14)

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