An aging intellectual, still struggling with the aftermath of a mysterious and debilitating illness, seeks solace in a series of sexual encounters with much younger women. Simply put, this is not a new theme for a novel, but author Fabrizio Ulivieri manages to deconstruct the conventional notion of love and sexuality and to add layers of psychological and emotional depth to his tormented main character and his lovers. Although the descriptions of explicit, often extreme sex are attracting a lot of attention to Rugíle, Ulivieri’s latest novel, much darker, primeval fears powerfully emerge as the focus of this narrative. Rugíle is indeed an odyssey of the senses, an attempt to transcend the boundaries of normalcy but, above all, is a mournful, cerebral elegy, an exorcism about impermanence, fear, aging, and death. The unnamed protagonist and his lovers are all doomed souls. He is an older Italian man, cultured and of good social standing, who pursues young, exotic lovers in an almost vampire-like mode partly to recapture his lost youth, partly because he is fascinated by the otherness. He doesn’t like Italian women, whom he considers vulgar and foulmouthed. He finds mature women repulsive. Their wrinkles evoke the decaying of the flesh in death. Instead, he needs to feed on youth and vigor. His women are Asian, American, and Eastern European and each hides a tragic past, a troubled family history or an addiction to unspeakable sexual obsessions. But each also brings a perspective on other cultures and other social mores that entice him. They represent possible portals to possible multiple universes. They also are the only remaining possibility to experience love. The protagonist, who at the beginning of the book states that he has lost respect for women, engages in a series of sexual encounters that lead him to experience fifty shades of feelings. He also undergoes several shades of tragedy: three women meet a tragic death. Ipazia, a bi-sexual nymphomaniac with whom he has an intense relationship, miscarries their child and later dies ravaged by cancer. A troubled Skype friend, Ingrid, dies through suicide. Lastly, a car accident ends his life and that of the woman he could have loved. Rugíle, the title character, is addicted to oral sex to the point of servicing men for payments. She takes the protagonist on an unusual path involving a complex exploration of entanglement, ultimate transgressions, acceptance, complicity, and the re-shaping of the concept of love itself. Two cities, Florence in Italy where the protagonist lives and Vilnius in Lithuania, provide the main backdrop for the characters’ interaction. While Florence’s geography is mostly represented thorough the description of various trendy locales such as the bookstores, literary cafés, and upscale restaurants where the protagonist meets his lovers, the segments of the story that take place in Vilnius stress the city’s vibrancy and soulful beauty. They also offer a glimpse on a post-totalitarian, post-modern society trying to forge/reclaim its own identity.
Other cities or countries that play an important role in the characters’ lives, such as Korea, Japan, The United States, and, to a lesser extent, Milan in Italy, are a relevant element in the protagonist and the women’s own tormented life journey. Kami, a Japanese woman, struggles against the strict rules of Japanese society, Ipazia carries a tragic family legacy connected to her country’s political and territorial divisions. American-born Camilla lives in a duality, torn between her consumer and sex-driven, efficiency-obsessed American culture and the more laid-back Italian lifestyle.
Ulivieri writes with ease, in a fluid narrative. The book starts with an explicit masturbation scene that, like all other similar situations, is described in detail and in a detached, aseptic fashion. Since there is no space left to the reader’s imagination and this defuses the narration’s erotic charge, one wonders if Ulivieri wants to remind us that the novel is more about an unrequited quest for knowledge and immortality and that sex is only one avenue to pursue. The novel’s tragic ending is also a liberation, a gateway to the cosmic dimensions that the protagonist had long attempted to comprehend. At the end of each chapter, a summary directs the reader to delve into the deeper connections and the reverberation of our actions on a wider, cosmic scale. It also makes references to the laws of Quantum physics and other scientific theories. Not everyone is well-versed in Quantum physics or string theory and some readers may find that the use of this literary technique slows down the narration and may appear a bit too didactic. Ulivieri states that Rugíle is having a great success with young people and Millennials. It is indeed a contemporary novel, filled with so many echoes of today’s reality: virtual intimacy, social media, mass migrations, proxy wars, stagnation, uncertainty, and the general malaise that permeates our existence, the impermanence on which the characters’ life is based upon.
Fabrizio Ulivieri lives in Florence, Italy.
He is a professor of Italian language and literature at the Istituto Europeo. He has published several novels, including Il ritorno che non volevo, L’ eterno ritorno, Il sorriso della meretrice (2013), Cecilia,storia di un’aliena a Firenze (2014), Amore Šaltibarščiai e pomodori rossi: Biografia di un amore dall’interno, and Rugíle. He is the author of the essays Il Culo e la riduzione fenomenologica, and Albert Richter: un’aquila fra le svastiche. Il ciclismo tedesco fra nazismo e esoterismo, 1919-1939, published in 2007.
Anna Ciampolini Foschi lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. She is a short story writer, anthology editor and journalist. She is a co-founder of the Association of Italian Canadian Writers and the co-founder and co-Chair of the F.G. Bressani Literary Prize, sponsored by Vancouver’s Italian Cultural Centre. About Rugíle, she says: “The novel’s genre was rather new to me. Writing a review from my point of view was an interesting experience.”