WHEN the God of Genesis created the first man and woman, he set them in a garden. They introduced the disorder of sin and, as a consequence, were forever dispossessed. That exile not only forced them into a wild and willful world but also alienated their descendants from the Eden for which they were intended.
To this day, everyone who plants a garden undertakes, on some level, an act of return. When we cultivate for beauty or pleasure we catch a gauzy intimation of that original paradise our first parents frittered away, a place without toil, sickness, pain or loss.
It's no accident that the protagonist of Andrea Canobbio's compelling new novel, "The Natural Disorder of Things," is a successful garden designer. At first blush, the book presents itself as one of those "literary mysteries" at which the Italians excel. Canobbio, however, is too knowing and artful a writer to wink at his readers and push slyly against the conventions of genre. Refreshingly, he's also too respectful of his protagonist, the designer Claudio Fratta. One of the satisfactions of this intelligently engrossing fiction is that its author allows us to feel both compassion and exasperation for this disheveled, creative, flawed, smart, wounded mess of a human being who is both the story's narrator and its center.
"The Natural Disorder of Things" is the author's fifth novel, though this finely tuned translation by Abigail Asher is his first book to appear in the United States. An accomplished poet, Canobbio also works as an editor at the Italian publishing house Einaudi, where he has overseen books by Philip Roth, Ian McEwan and Haruki Murakami, and elements of their work clearly inform this author's sensibility, though in a distinctive and original way.
"Natural Disorder" unfolds as Claudio's internal monologue delivered in the present and future tenses. The result is a kind of unfolding that subtly evokes a gardener's pruning in which the process of cutting away reveals concealed connections and unexpected structure. When we meet Claudio, it's hard to tell whether he's at the end of his tether or being strangled by it. He is a lionized and sought-after designer profiled in international magazines and applauded for his willingness to get his hands dirty working alongside his landscaping crew.
Internally and externally, though, Claudio's a mess. The father at whose side he learned his art has been driven into bankruptcy and destroyed by loan sharks. Fabio, the younger of Claudio's two brothers, died of a drug overdose. Their mother grieves. His other brother, Carlo, a Marxist university professor, is divorced and brings his two young sons to visit their unmarried uncle in his ramshackle farmhouse on the weekends. Uncle Claudio cooks for them all and plays with the boys while endlessly mulling over the family's history of disintegration, eating and drinking more than he should and plotting revenge against the men who caused his father's end.
Claudio's unspoken conviction is that, without vengeance, he never will bring order to his personal history. As he pursues it, a chance encounter in a dark parking lot with the alluring Elisabetta Renal lends the story a layer of erotic obsession and a set of connections that ultimately push the narrator toward the resolution of his familial mysteries.
One of the intriguing aspects of Canobbio's novel is its evocation of contemporary Italy, where prosperity and demographic change have remade a tradition-bound society. Like many of today's Italian men, Claudio has remained single well into middle age. (Italy today has one of the lowest birthrates ever measured by demographers.) There are no big family meals or warm times around the table, though Claudio clearly longs for them. Tradition notwithstanding, both his mother and his brother's former wife are helpless in the kitchen. Musing about the family Christmas holidays he'd like to have, Claudio concludes, "Neither my mother nor my sister-in-law has any idea how to cook a stuffed guinea hen -- but for that matter they can't even make mashed potatoes. I'll have to cook; the kids count on me."
On Saturday, Claudio heads to the "home improvement center" to get a tube of superglue, waits half an hour to get into the parking structure and then fills his shopping cart with things he doesn't really need. His foreman, Witold, is -- like the rest of his crew -- a Polish immigrant who worries that Claudio will replace them all with Albanians or Kurds, who work more cheaply.
"Someday Witold will get fed up," Claudio thinks. "After we finish the job at the data center, he'll announce that he's willing to take a risk ... and that he's decided to launch out on his own; he doesn't claim to be a garden designer, but he could have a small garden-maintenance business with Jan; the work would be duller but continuous and the market is bigger, because there are more fake gardens than real ones -- far more, no?"