The narrator of A Very private gentleman, Martin Booth’s 1991 novel, is staying in an unnamed Italian mountain village. He is, as the title suggests, a very private individual. Whether he is a gentleman or not is a matter of opinion. The man is so secretive that despite living in an isolated village, away from civilization in every direction by several miles, for several months, and being a foreigner, he has been successful in not letting the villagers know so much as his real name. The villagers have given him a nickname—signor Farfalla, Mr Butterfly. They call him Farfalla because he has told them he is a miniature artist, a painter of butterflies. To the young woman, Clara, with whom he sleeps regularly and who, he believes, has fallen in love with him, he tells that his name is Edmond. That is not his true name either. Being an artist allows the secretive narrator to have no schedule to his days; he is not fettered by the demands of daily routine which would allow others to guess where he would be and what he would be doing on a given day. Add to this the fact that he is English—at least the villagers thinks he is, because he speaks the language like a native—; which means that he has a license to be, or appear, eccentric. No wonder, then, that the local Italians refrain from prying too much into signor Farfalla’s personal life. However, this being an Italian, and not English, village, signor Farfalla, despite being a foreigner, is not treated with the trademark English mixture of scorn and jealousy.
So there he is, this solitary Englishman—although at one point in the narrative, he claims not to be either English or French (or, for that matter, German, Swiss, American, Canadian or South American), he describes in some detail his life in an English village before he took to the peripatetic life that has brought him to this Italian village (also, he does not like French, which gives the game away)—leading a quiet, bucolic existence in the Italian countryside, going on mountain hikes, ostensibly to observer butterflies. He may be secretive, but he is not reclusive. He does not isolate himself from the village life surrounding him, and, during the course of his stay, makes friends with several locals. He wines and dines regularly with Father Benedetto, the local Catholic priest, whose life-story he listens to over evening dinners; he has a nodding acquaintance with people in the bar at which he is an ‘irregular regular’; he gets along well with the owner of a second-hand bookseller with whom he talks about books (Signor Farfalla is a book-lover); and he is friends with a wealthy entrepreneur of sewers and water-catchment drains. However, he has no truly close friends. Such friends, he reckons, know too much and become too involved in one’s well being. Signor Farfalla does not allow himself to have friends; he has only acquaintances, and, while he allows some of them to ‘look over the outer ramparts of his existence’, the shutters come down if any of them, such as the second-hand book-seller, shows more curiosity than he feels comfortable with.
Signor Farfalla may be a solitary man, but he does not believe in solitary sexual pleasures. He regularly has threesomes with two young women in a local brothel, both students—one called Clara whose buttocks are ‘small but rounded’, although her breasts are ‘nothing to write home about’, and the other called Dindina who has ‘firm breasts, and a tight, smooth belly’ (no information is provided about her buttocks). Dindina is not as pretty as Clara, or as clever. Clara is clearly falling for the charms of the old English rascal, but she does not get so much as to step inside the courtyard of the building in which he lives.
Signor Farfalla may be secretive; he may feel compelled to warn the readers repeatedly that attempts to trace him would be futile; but he is also an unstoppable monologuist and an incessant anecdotalist. He is an acute observer of what is going around him. At one point, he describes himself as ‘merely an observer, one who stands in the world’s wings to behold the action occurring.’ However, as the novel unfolds, the reader begins to suspect that there does not have to be an action—in the sense of an activity—occurring for the narrator to record it in his notebook. Anything will do. The reader is provided, in microscopic details, the arrangement and the interior decoration of the apartment in which he lives; the piazzas in the nearby villages and the shops and bars therein (and their interiors); the panoramic view of the valley and the mountains from the loggia of his apartment; and, later, once he lets the reader know his true vocation, the nature of his job, complete with technical details which, on their own, would form a hefty booklet.
So what exactly is signor Farfella’s true vocation? If he is not a miniature painter, then who is he? Farfella, the reader is informed about hundred pages into the novel, is in fact an expert gunsmith. He has, over the years, been involved intimately with the unsavoury, nefarious and villainous elements, all over the world—from Europe to North and Latin America to East Africa. No assassination, it would appear, can take place without signor Farfella’s gun. Secretive he may be, but signor Farfella does not find it too difficult to talk freely about his achievements; he has a justifiably inflated sense of self worth. At one stage he talks with ostentatious nonchalance about the role he—rather the equipment he made—played in the assassination of Rafael Trujillo, the dictator of the Dominican Republic. Farfalla has lived by his wits and—give credit where it is due—has not only successfully dodged assassins—he calls them shadow-dwellers—sent by those who are desirous to bring a swift, if violent, end to his career, but on one occasion he has also sent the shadow-dweller on his way to meet his maker. Blessed with a well developed sense of theatrics and command of language to convey the grandiosity of his missions, Farfalla declares himself to be the salesman of death; he is death’s booking clerk, its bellhop.
For most part, Farfalla is an entertaining narrator, not least because he has an opinion on everything, which he is not shy to express. France, for example. Farfalla does not approve of France. France is a ‘country of provincial banality, a land where patriotism flowers only to hide the bloodied earth of revolution, where history was begun at the Bastille by a horde of peasants running amok with pitchforks, decapitating their betters because they were just that.’ Swedish do scarcely better. They are ‘a humourless, sterile race. They regard life as an intensity to be experienced, not a rest from the slog of eternity. . . They are like bulldogs, always up-and-at-‘em, barking and making an efficient job of it.’ Opinionated? Yes. Prejudiced? Of course. Entertaining? Most definitely. Farfalla has similarly quaint views on religion, history, and art. He is not fond of Catholicism, which he views as a perversion of Christianity, and has pretty biting observations to make about its dogmas. History, Farfalla says, is nothing unless you can actively shape it. Christ was lucky because he invented a religion. Karl Marx was lucky because he invented an anti-religion. Everyone who changes history does so by destroying fellow man; to alter history, you have to kill your fellow man. Then, in an inexplicable attack of humility, Farfella admits that he is no Hitler, no Stalin, no Churchill, no Mao Tse-tung, but (lest you dismiss him as a nobody) he is the hidden one who makes changes possible, provides means to an end; he too alters history. A grander job description of a gunsmith would be hard to find.
The gunsmith is in the Italian village on a job. This job, he has resolved, would be his last. He has had enough of living shadowy existence, forever on the move, looking constantly over his shoulders for the ‘shadow-dweller’. He wants to put down roots somewhere, and enjoy his ill-gotten wealth for the remainder of his life. He wants to build a good library of books. He has, despite himself, come to love the Italian village he has been staying in for the past few months; he can see himself in the cosy armchair in Father Beneditto’s study, discussing theosophical issues over wine; he would love to live together with Clara (even though she has insignificant breasts), Dindina having left the village and whoring. However, as they say, man proposes and God disposes. Signor Farfalla becomes aware that he is being followed; a shadow-dweller has traced him to the village. The shadow-dweller makes no attempts to confront Farfalla, but follows him everywhere. A cat and mouse game begins and the peace of Farfalla’s mind is disrupted. He is not sure whether the shadow-dweller has been sent by one of the many disgruntled characters whom he has inconvenienced in the past, or he, Farfalla, is being double-crossed and the shadow-dweller is in the pay of his current employer, who does not want to leave behind any traces. Signor Farfalla, as the dust jacket of the novel confirms, becomes convinced that a treacherous circle is closing on him.
In A Very Private Gentleman (made also into a Hollywood film, I am informed, entitled The American starring George Clooney), Martin Booth, a prolific British novelist and poet (once short-listed for the Booker for his novel Industry of Souls), who died a few years ago of brain tumour, has created an anti-hero, who finds himself isolated in a foreign territory. At its surface the novel is a psychological suspense-thriller. As a thriller it just about works. The twist that comes at the end is, as twists should be, unexpected, but it fails to deliver the killer punch, perhaps because it is not central to the story. What makes A Very Private Gentleman a worthwhile read is its language. The narrator is verbose, yet very exact in his descriptions, conjecturing vividly the landscape in which the story unfolds. Booth has a beautifully inventive turn of phrase, and one marvels at the acuity of his descriptions: apparently banal activities such as biting into bread at a picnic or drinking wine are described in a way that is almost bewitching. There is a lot of discourse on many subjects, which, while unrelated to the main story, is nonetheless very entertaining and, at times, persuasive. It is almost like trimmings have stolen the show from the main dish in a banquet. And therein lies the weakness of the novel: A Very Private Gentleman is like a room in an Upper West Side apartment that is lavishly decorated and vividly painted to hide the fact that it is so small.