- Mark Frutkin (Author)
Fabrizio's Return. Knopf Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Norman Ravvin
Mark Frutkin's novel, Fabrizio's Return, is a fantasia on a number of themes key to post-Renaissance high culture. Set partly in the late seventeenth century, but for the most part in mid-eighteenth century Italy, its narrative turns on such questions as the meaning of sainthood, the challenge of science to faith, the ability of art—both visual and dramatic—to reveal truths about our lives, and it even briefly addresses the subject of crypto-Judaism. Though these are notably weighty issues, which allow Frutkin to frame his story with portraits of ecclesiastical, noble and artistic power, the novel's tone is light. It is told from a number of points of view, and makes effective use of dialogue to drive its action along.
The narrative's two key figures are a would-be saint, Fabrizio Cambiati, and Michele Archenti, a Jesuit and "devil's advocate," who is sent from Rome, decades after Fabrizio's death, to investigate his worth as a miracle worker and a model for the Church. The townspeople of Cremona are awash in stories of Cambiati's saintly powers: “They said his left hand sparkled and gave off rays of light, that the candles in the church lit themselves when he passed. Once, it was said, he was praying in the cathedral and Christ stepped down from the cross and took his hand.”
Fabrizio's Return offers a lightly sketched social history of Christian Italy, but the narrative is more of a romp than a study of Church history. It makes use of magic realist flourishes—figures appear and vanish in flashes of light and mist—and romance breaks out in unruly ways. Fabrizio's town, Cremona, is ruled by an imperious Duke, whose daughter, Elletra, fills the role of the young idealistic lover whose transgressions endanger both herself and her beloved. One can feel the influence of Shakespeare and the comedies of his contemporaries on the narrative. Fabrizio and "his manservant" Omero concoct failed alchemical experiments in their lab; is a side narrative, enacted by a "family of commedia dell'arte players" rings of groundling fare, ed both as light relief and to mirror the central action.
Frutkin mounts a modest critique of the Vatican at the mid-point of the 1700s. The death of Pope Benedict XIV leads to the investiture of Clement XIII of Venice. The back-room dealings related to this transfer of authority endanger the Jesuits, and Archenti is betrayed by a man he considers to be his friend in Rome. A pair of itinerant figures—one a Hieronymite priest, the other a murderer who has done lengthy penitence for his crime—operate as voices of conscience and prophecy in contradiction to official corruption. Archenti's downfall within the Church is interpreted indirectly by the lessons he learns from these haunting figures. And the discovery of his own compromised ancestry places him in an even more ambiguous position.
Reflecting Frutkin's three collections of poetry, Fabrizio's Return is a novel of lambent light, of wordplay, and of characters portrayed in painterly scenarios: "By the end of the long day's interrogatory, after the duchessa had left, the devil's advocate felt he was not closer to the truth than before. He stood at the window of his room, gazing out over the roofs of the city. Again the sun was hidden above the grey, though the clouds were imbued with a faint golden glow, and the few streaks of falling rain seemed edged in gold."
The author's poetic flourishes uniquely stamp archetypal materials—both characters and narrative strategies—that we recognize from other literary sources. It is refreshing, in a novel of high drama, which takes aim at weighty questions of faith and fate, that the author manages to keep things light. Whether Fabrizio is a saint or not, he is a comic figure, at once mysterious and likeable.
- A Cruel Separation by Gordon Bölling
Books reviewed: The Last Crossing by Guy Vanderhaeghe
- Partners in Crime by Aritha van Herk
Books reviewed: Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
- Ends of Days by Brett Josef Grubisic
Books reviewed: Beatrice & Virgil by Yann Martel, Player One: What Is to Become of Us by Douglas Coupland, and The Sky is Falling by Caroline Adderson
- La fondation incertaine: uchronie et fantômes de l'histoire by Stéphane Inkel
Books reviewed: Le livre des fondations: Incarnation et enquébecquoisement dans Le ciel de Québec de Jacques Ferron by Jacques Cardinal
- Dreaming of Sport: Memories and Cartoons by Andrew Bartlett
Books reviewed: Hockey Dreams: Memories of a Man Who Couldn't Play by David Adams Richards and Home Game by Paul Quarrington
MLA: Ravvin, Norman. Classical Riffs. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 26 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #191 (Winter 2006). (pg. 184 - 185)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.