BORN TWICE

Giuseppe Pontiggia, Author
Giuseppe Pontiggia, Author , trans. from the Italian by Oonagh Stransky. Knopf $23 (208p) ISBN 978-0-375-41310-0
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Veteran Italian writer Pontiggia illuminates "the distance that exists between the disabled and us" in this compassionate, deeply moral novel, his first to appear in English. When high school teacher Frigerio's son Paolo is born, a physician's ineptitude leaves the boy with permanent disabilities. Frigerio and his wife, Franca, are informed by a therapist that Paolo suffers from a neurological disorder that slows his learning and permanently hinders his motor skills, though he is quite lucid and intelligent. The novel comprises brief vignettes over Paolo's first 30 years, in which Frigerio offers wry observations about his complicated relationship with the boy and about the way others react to him. Frigerio parses doctors' examinations for hidden meanings, noting that conversations are conducted so that "no one ever has to say the truth." Franca provides a thorny counterpoint—kind to Paolo and justifiably impatient with Frigerio—but she is perhaps less realistic about the child's condition. Frigerio muses on the many ways people—most notably an odious, manipulative principal who uses a bad leg as a psychological weapon—exploit their own disabilities. Franca and their other son, Alfredo, have only bit parts; even Paolo often seems like a cipher hovering in the background. But Frigerio—dogged, intelligent and self-aware—will win readers over with an array of casual yet profound insights into the human condition ("Why not test for stupidity as a planetary epidemic?") and his fierce dedication to his son. (Oct. 18)

Forecast: Born Twice has been hailed in Italy as Pontiggia's masterpiece, and American readers who encounter it will find it hard to resist. Those who enjoyed Kenzaburo Oe's Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age should find it of particular interest.

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