Street fight in Naples : a book of art and insurrection by Peter Robb
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2010 ISBN 9781741754124
Peter Robb is a unique voice in Australian letters. From his first book Midnight in Sicily, he has delved into odd corners of the murkier side of human nature by looking at art, food, and the other vices that beset us. From the title it's obvious that this work's focus is that Queen of Cities, Naples. Robb lived there for many years although it was only after he returned to his native country that he could write this book, which in true Robb fashion combines his own memories with snippets of history and speculation to create a great work of literature.
As it is for the rest of Robb's oeuvre, it is hard to briefly describe this book . A type of history, mostly of Spanish Naples; a critique of Neapolitan artists both famous and less so; with the climax a retelling of the rebellion led by Masaniello in 1647. The book is much more than this, all anchored by Robb's reflections on his own experiences from his time there.
What Robb is really writing about is human nature, and the character of the Neapolitans themselves: ever-adaptable; proud; foolish; and violent. Robb describes how the painters of the seventeenth century not only were daring in their use of the poor as subjects for their religious paintings, but that they also resorted to threats, violence and perhaps even murder to ensure that no outsiders came in and took commissions away from them and their studios.
The natural beauty of the city and its surrounds barely hides the squalor of many of its inhabitant's existence, something that has not changed for millennia. Another constant is outside control of the city: Greeks, Romans, Normans, Spanish, French have lorded it over the city and surrounds, and even the Italian State at times is seen as an occupying power. Naples has rarely been master of its own destiny, except for brief periods of rebellion, which were mostly crushed within a short period of their outbreak.
Robb however is uninterested in giving the reader a mere narrative history. As is often the case in his work, he explains by allusion and side-tracks: we may learn the history of fishing in the Bay of Naples through his description of a painting of the marketplace, or the legend of the founding of the city via his description of a sweaty train journey to a popular beach. The reader can never be sure in Robb's work just where he's leading, or what might be imparted by the end of the book.
It is this style of exposition, and the exact choice of words used to "expose" (I use the word deliberately), that makes Robb a unique writer. While I love his work (even his lighter-weight magazine pieces are great), I can readily understand why some people may find his work wordy, obtuse and almost deliberately obscure.
I think that, to Robb, the way he layers these stories and snippets is how he feels he can get to the real kernel of what Naples is, now and 350 years ago. The way he juxtaposes his subjects shows how much has stayed the same even in the midst of revolutionary change. The reader's mind is drawn into this web of stories - as labyrinthine as the streets of Naples themselves - and is never sure whether what is being discussed is an historical event or a painting; something that happened in 1400, 1647, or 1980. But it doesn't matter, as it is one story, of a city and that city's people.
There is no doubt that Robb has a deep and abiding love for Naples, even as he shows us the corruption and venality of those who have governed it. He also has a deep respect and affection for the workers and peasants, even as he acknowledges their vices and foolishness.
Like Midnight in Sicily and A Death in Brazil, Street fight in Naples is a work of massive craftsmanship, created by a unique mind.
This rather pedestrian review does it no justice whatsoever.
Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell