The Story of My Purity

The Story of My Purity
Francesco Pacifico
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, March 2013
304 pages

I don’t know much about providence, but it seems extraordinarily lucky that Francisco Pacifico’s first novel to make it into English translation—a ribald picaresque of Catholicism, breasts, and a conspiracy theory wherein Pope John Paul II was a Jewish puppet—was released within a week of Benedict XVI’s resignation. With the whole world is watching the Vatican for a hint of scandal, what more could an author ask for?

Pacifico’s book follows a down-on-his-luck Roman and relatively recent convert to Catholicism, Piero Rosini. By day Piero works as an editor at an ultra-right wing Christian press—where his most recent editing assignment is the book proposing the papal conspiracy—and by night he goes home to an empty new housing development on the outskirts of Rome. There, thanks to his newly-minted celibacy, he doesn’t have conjugal relations with his wife, and instead spends a great deal of time visiting the nearby Ikea.

Into this descends temptation, in the form of 1) an aspiring writer who draws Piero into a modern-day salon at a local café; and 2) his sister-in-law’s fabulous breasts, about which Piero cannot stop obsessing. Soon he has decided, nervous-breakdown-like, that he must flee to Paris for the summer and collect himself, apparently unaware (or maybe very aware) that the only place more full of temptation than Rome is Paris—and there things there go from bad to worse.

I also feel obliged to tell prospective readers—particularly female ones, if my wife’s unimpressed reaction is anything to go by—that Pacifico is probably at his most exuberant, laugh-out-loud best when describing Piero’s tortured relationship with women’s bodies, and especially his sister-in-law’s breasts. Whole, poetic paragraphs—and pages, and even a minor plot arc—are devoted to the existential angst and agony wrought upon Piero by that single bosom. A sample sentence:

And now here I am in bed, in the nuptial bed, with my wife, thinking immoderate thoughts about those tits chastened by frayed sweatshirts, by bras as stiff and ugly as wooden spoons, entertaining the outrageous idea that nature had taken millions of years to refine and perfect Ada’s round, majestic breasts, and that in a few years they’d start to droop, and that, while there was still time, it was imperative that somebody should fondle them in their full glory and at their greatest extent, should weigh in his hands these perfumed bosoms, fragrant with lavender and fabric softener.

Yet there’s something deeply loveable, I think, about a character so pathetically paralyzed by his own, wilfully quashed desire—and something deeply gripping about watching him struggle with whether to give in. In many ways, Piero is an older, more Italian, but no less insecure Holden Caulfield, casting around metropolis and looking, helplessly, for direction. You can’t help but root for him a little.

Yes, the translation at times hiccups, stumbling over its Italian cadences, and the deus ex machina ending leaves a little to be desired. But at its core, The Story of My Purity is exactly what it bills itself as: a good story, exploring a young man’s struggle with the purity of his faith, perhaps, but also with the purity of himself; with the fear that, no matter what he does, he’s somehow letting down the ‘real’ Piero.

It’s a feeling, I think, with which even the most self-assured can empathize. As we all wait to see how Francis will shepherd his flock through the challenges of the day, Piero’s journey gives us a hopeful portrait—of a sober believer who eventually works out when to “draw a line between spiritual life and good sense.”

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