Stefano Benni

"Marguerita Dolce Vita"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple FEB 28, 2007)

"I'm Margherita and, as you may have guessed,
I weigh less in panties than I do fully dressed."

Margherita Dolce Vita by Stefano Benni

Fourteen-and-a half-year-old Margherita, who describes herself as "a girl past her sell-by date," shares the magical, romantic world of the Dust Girl, a ghost who acts to defend the Great Meadow behind Margherita's house in the quiet Italian countryside whenever it is threatened by development.  Despite her belief in ghosts and magical spirits, however, Margherita, the speaker of this wildly imaginative and satiric novel, maintains a sophisticated and critical point of view as she tells her story of the changes which take place in her neighborhood and within her own family when new neighbors erect a large, black, seemingly windowless cube-house, right beside their own old house.

The ironically-named Del Bene family, who built the Cube ("like Scrooge McDuck's money vault"), quickly begins to absorb Margherita's parents and the rest of the neighborhood within their aggressively materialistic orbit.  Soon the meadow is sprayed to kill mosquitoes (and everything else), a gypsy encampment is "encouraged" to depart, and abandoned cars are removed.  The Del Benes are so attuned to what everyone is thinking that they know how to bend everyone to their will, and Margherita begins to think they have supernatural powers. 

Lenora Del Bene, the wife in the family, convinces Margherita's mother to get a new hairdo and clothes, and Frido Del Bene wins over Margherita's father by making him a partner in a new business--"legal, of course"--which will be located in the shed behind Margherita's house.  Margherita's younger brother Heraclitus is won over with an early copy of a long awaited video game, and her older brother falls in love with teenage LaBella Del Bene, who toys with him. 

Margherita resists the blandishments (and bribery) of the Del Benes, who, as Margherita sees it, gradually come to play a far too important role in the lives of her family and her community.  When they begin to encroach upon the Great Meadow, the ghostly Dust Girl plots an unforgettable revenge.  Events become more complicated, the conflicts develop more dramatically, and a dark, bang-up conclusion results.

Margherita's spot-on (and mordant) observations about what is happening in her world are leavened by her hilariously unique images, coined words, puns, and word play, which keep the novel from becoming didactic.  Her mother, whom she describes as looking like a "used tea bag," spends the day smoking virtual cigarettes and watching TV soap operas.  A kiss between two soap stars, as seen on the new giant-screen TV, leads Margherita to remark that "the dueling tongues look like a pair of dueling meatloaves."  Margherita's father, who collects anything that can be salvaged, has fought his growing bald spot by "recruiting about two thousand hairs that used to live near his left ear and force-marched them over to live in the desert spreading across the right hemisphere of his head." 

The first of Italian author Stefano Benni's novels to be translated into English, Margherita Dolce Vita deals with important social and environmental issues—including the destruction of forests and natural habitats, consumerism, the growth of cults, the power of advertising, and the ostracism of "outsiders"—but his use of magic realism creates a darkly comic, even absurd, view of the world and keeps the tone light—at least until the serious conclusion.

In addition, Benni avoids sounding moralistic by concentrating on fast-paced story-telling—and by creating characters who themselves are either story-tellers or story-lovers.  Margherita considers herself a poet.  "My specialty is bad poetry.  Think about it: the world is full of mediocre poets, but it's hard to find truly bad poetry."  Her grandfather, who lives in the storied past, tells imaginative tales in which the past and present overlap.  Her mother lives through soap operas, her younger brother plays and lives video games, and her older brother, in his attempts to court Labella Del Bene, lives a romance novel. 

Fun to read, the narrative offers new ways of thinking about contemporary problems without becoming ponderous. While some readers may find the observations and satire a bit obvious, many others will be so captivated by Margherita and her point of view that they will empathize with her dark assessment of life:  "The fairy-tale has gone all wrong: the killers have become masters of the earth."  

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About the Author:

Stefano BenniStefano Benni was born in Bologna, Italy in 1947. He is widely considered one of Italy’s foremost novelists. His trademark mix of biting social satire and magical realism has turned each of his books into a national bestseller. He also writes poetry and short stories, plays and is a journalist and director.

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