cover image The Chimera

The Chimera

Sebastiano Vassalli. Scribner Book Company, $23.5 (313pp) ISBN 978-0-684-80260-2

This is ``the grand story of a girl who lived from 1590 to 1610 and was called Antonia.'' So says the narrator-an unnamed present-day writer-at the opening of this morally outraged yet skin-deep novel set in the Italian countryside. Antonia is an orphan taken in by a well-meaning pair of farmers. As she grows toward maturity and beauty, she draws the affections of the village boys and the enmity of a cabal of older women, whom the narrator refers to collectively as ``the Gossips.'' When she crosses the local priest, a rabid and money-mad tyrant, things take a turn for the sinister. Before long, Antonia stands accused of being a witch, blaspheming priests, cursing neighbors and coupling with the Devil-in short, of being ``a Luther in skirts.'' There are shades of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose here, in that much of the text is given over to authorial commentary and to accounts of infighting between wings of the Catholic clergy. The novel is also rife with graphic descriptions of inquisitions and tortures. Vassalli, a veteran Italian novelist making his American debut, writes nimbly enough to breath life into the dustiest of subjects. Unfortunately, he fails to look far into his characters; Antonia, a silent witness to her own story, is little more than a cipher until the final scenes of the book, when, as she awaits execution, we get some insight into her inner life. (July)