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BOOK REVIEW : Novella Takes Modern Look at This Thing Called Identity : PERSONAL EFFECTS by Francesca Duranti Translated from Italian by Stephen Saltarelli ; Random House; $18, 152 pages

April 08, 1993|RICHARD EDER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A mouse-like scratching from the entrance of her Milan apartment leads Valentina to fling open the door. Her just-divorced husband, Riccardo, is removing the nameplate with a tiny screwdriver. Only his name is on it, of course; and once he screws it into the door of the apartment across town that he shares with his new wife, Valentina will have been erased.

Francesca Duranti's novella, as wryly melancholy as the voice of her protagonist, searches out the philosophical notion of identity and hasn't far to look. For Valentina, identity is things, the "personal effects" of the title. "One must have in order to be" is her gloss on Descartes' formula.

Valentina has not, therefore she is not; at least not since Riccardo, for whom she had cooked "365 X 10 X 2 meals," moved out.

He took with him most of their possessions and the framework of activity on which their marriage hung. He is author of a best-selling series of popular biographies of the church fathers; she provided the idea and did the research. Her work was subordinated to his.

When she attempted a project of her own, it was guaranteed not to take up much time: an essay about a writer who produced one novel and then killed himself.

In the plundered Valentina, Duranti has created a heroine who is both post-feminist and post-post-modernist. Literally so, since her mother was a rowdy feminist who cheerfully burnt her bras as long as she had the figure for them and now lives even more cheerfully a post-modern ethic of doing whatever she likes and finding that all things are relative. She even speaks well of Riccardo.

Cloudily mooching about her near-empty apartment, Valentina finds nothing relative whatsoever. Things are absolute and she has very few--"not enough . . . to serve as predicate to my subject."

She ponders the Medieval speculation that by slicing away the material layers that surround the soul, an essence would eventually be reached. It was like using a ham slicer and getting down to the bone. "I, however, am convinced that the 'I' begins to fall away with the first slice," she asserts.

Duranti, author of "The House on Moon Lake," has drawn a captivating portrait of her overstuffed wraith--compulsive eating is a way of acquiring "things," at least temporarily--immobilized in her predicament. However, though Valentina may be a pessimist, she is no slob, and she decides to get moving.

She will make a literary name for herself by seeking out and interviewing Milos Jarco, a mysteriously hidden Eastern European writer whose free-spirited work is greatly admired in the West but about whom nothing is known. This will allow her to visit a society where the ruling ideology preaches egalitarian distribution, as a result of which things tend to be too unattractive to be much wanted, or to serve, in Valentina's sense, as a touchstone of reality.

It is a logical, even a promising development. And yet "Personal Effects" thins out even as Valentina turns active and disperses much of its and her flavor. For one thing, there is a time problem. Although she lives in the Milan of the 1980s, the unnamed Eastern European country she visits not only antedates communism's collapse but does so by quite a few years.

The feeling is of the early 1960s. More seriously, Valentina's adventures among the country's cautious and closely watched writers, though often comic and deft, are the kind of thing that has been better done by John Updike, Malcolm Bradbury and others.

There are some telling vignettes from the days of communist grayness and constraint.

When she wanders into the Writers Club looking for facts about Jarco, Valentina is instantly the center of a celebration. There are toasts in geranium-colored liqueur, violently polychrome pastries, speeches and detailed analyses of Italian literature. There are profuse offers of collegial help, a shower of calling cards and an absolute reluctance to say anything about Jarco. When the party breaks up, the club secretary carefully wraps the remaining pastries to take home.

The mystery of Jarco, not to be revealed here, presents a cogent and double-edged irony.

Valentina's passionate affair with Ante, an infinitely kind and fanatically Stalinist writer, makes some effective points. Her "hard-line angel in open-toed sandals" is her opposite. Pleasure in things is an evil, he believes.

This utterly non-material materialist argues that the way to make workers work is to shoot them if they don't; they will receive "exquisite pleasure" from not being shot. To reward them with material incentives is to corrupt them.

No such person as Ante ever existed, of course; and this suits him as Valentina's philosophical counterpoise. As a character, though, he is lifelessly sweet, and the affair that takes up the book's second half is strained and unconvincing. Valentina is better muttering and snacking in her empty Milan apartment than venturing around Duranti's rather contrived and out-of-date Eastern Europe.

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