Escape is my first encounter with Dominique Manotti – a French crime novelist and specialist in the economic history of the 19th Century – and it’s a very enjoyable one indeed.
The novel opens in 1987 with the escape of Filippo and Carlo from an Italian prison. For the past six months, Filippo, a simple petty criminal from Rome, has been sharing a cell with Carlo, a former leading figure in the left-wing Red Brigades movement. During this time young Filippo has been in thrall to Carlo, mesmerised by his charismatic cellmate’s story of activism and violence against the authorities.
Carlo has engineered his escape via the prison’s waste-disposal chute, and Filippo, who happens to be in the right place at the right time, dives into the rubbish skip to join his cellmate as he makes his exit. Carlo’s associates are waiting for him on the other side, but no one wants Filippo tagging along for the ride. As a result, Carlo sends Filippo on his way with some sage advice, words that continue to flit through Filippo’s mind during the days and months to come:
‘We part company here.’ He places a canvas bag at Filippo’s feet. ‘I’ve put everything I could find in the cars in there for you. Clothes, two sandwiches, and some money.’ Carlo pauses, Filippo says nothing. ‘My escape will be in the news, I think. And they’ll be looking for you, because you broke out with me. You’ll have to keep a low profile for a while, until things settle down.’ A pause. Filippo still saying nothing. ‘Do you understand what I’m telling you?’
A nod. Filippo continues to gaze at the mountains.
‘If things get too tough here in Italy, go over to France. Here on this envelope, I’ve written the address of Lisa Biaggi, in Paris. Go there and say I sent you, tell her what happened. She’ll help you.’ Filippo takes the envelope without looking at Carlo and slips it in the bag. Carlo stands up.
‘Goodbye, Filippo. Take care of yourself.’
And he leaves, walking fast and without turning round. (pg. 5, Arcadia Books)
Carlo’s swift departure leaves Filippo feeling bereft and abandoned. He decides to head north across the mountain paths and two or three weeks later, he hits Bologna. On his arrival in the city, Filippo buys a newspaper and reads of Carlo’s death during an attempted bank raid in Milan. Moreover, two of Carlo’s accomplices were observed fleeing the scene leaving a member of the carabinieri and a security guard for dead. Filippo quickly realises he’s almost certainly a prime suspect for the crime, and skips to Paris in search of Lisa.
Lisa – a political refugee from Italy and Carlo’s girlfriend – is suspicious of Filippo and believes Carlo’s death may have been a planned assassination, a set-up involving the Italian Secret Service. Nevertheless, she finds Filippo an apartment in Paris (by way of her friend, Cristina), but wants little more to do with him. Once again, Filippo feels dumped and worthless:
He’d jumped because he’d followed Carlo, like iron filings to a magnet. His thoughts always returned to Carlo. His form, so clear, so close, within reach, a warm glow – Filippo closes his eyes and hold out his hand, as he used to do in their cell, but only encounters emptiness. He hunches over his sheet of paper; his drawings overlap. Above all, Carlo is a voice, a language, and stories. The memories of never-ending nights spent listening to him flood back powerfully, overwhelming him, those memories that he’d tried to bury, to destroy because he felt abandoned, betrayed. Carlo had the words to talk about the struggle of those heady years, the passion, the battle against slave labour, the thrill of the fight, the euphoria of victory, the agony of defeat and the joy of freedom, jubilant violence. Being prepared to put your life at risk, every day. For a while I wanted to forget everything about him. Betrayal. Impossible. Filippo is suffocating. The sheet of paper is now covered in black. He screws it into a ball, throws it into the waste-paper bin and picks up another. (pgs. 43-44)
Gradually, Filippo channels his frustration in a more positive direction. Filippo recalls how Carlo inspired him to find a way of expressing his feelings through language, and the young escapee decides to document his story. He sees this as a means of demonstrating his own importance, to show Lisa and Christina he means business. Filippo wants to claim Carlo as his own:
Those two [Lisa and Christina] will come to understand that Carlo is mine, not theirs, and that he never did belong to them. A story of men. (pg. 45)
Filippo writes the story, starting with the pair’s escape from prison and ending with the botched bank raid, embellishing his own role in events at every stage. His narrative is compelling, his characters realistic and free of the typical stereotypes of the genre, and his novel is snapped up by a publisher. Keen to position Filippo’s ‘story’ as a fictional one, the publishers advise him to change the characters’ names together with the date and location of the bank raid just to be on the safe side. On its publication in France, the novel is a major success and Filippo – expertly groomed and coached by the publisher’s in-house publicist – is in demand for interviews and public appearances. But as the novel’s fame grows, Filippo is at risk as the Italian police, the public prosecutor and intelligence services begin to suspect that the book presents the authentic version of events. And as Lisa, a former journalist, begins her own investigation into Filippo and Carlo’s story, her discoveries lead back to political events and acts of corruption in the recent past.
I enjoyed Escape very much. Manotti draws on The Years of Lead, a period of socio-political turmoil and terrorism in Italy that lasted from the late-sixties to the eighties, to provide some context for events in her novel. Acts of unrest and terrorism were attributed to far-right and far-left groups depending on the source, and corruption was rife. Manotti uses this framework to produce an intelligent and intricately-plotted novel with several layers and developments, one that held my attention throughout. At 160 pages, it’s a pacey and thought-provoking read on a political and emotional level.
Filippo, the novel’s central character, is very engaging and so much more than just a one-note street criminal. We understand his conflicted emotions: his admiration for Carlo during their time as cellmates; his feelings of rejection when Carlo abandons him; his need to prove himself to Lisa and Cristina. And we follow his transformation from naïve kid to self-assured literary star.
Escape also shows us how the relationship between reality and fiction is often complex. In an afterword to the novel, translator Amanda Hopkinson mentions that Manotti, a former political and union activities herself, has turned to writing novels ‘par désespoir’. As one of the characters in Escape reflects ‘If I want to try and salvage our past, there’s only one thing left for me to do. Write novels.’
Escape is published in the UK by Arcadia Books. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publishers.