Adrián Bravi insists you look over your shoulder and squint until your eyes bleed. His most recent novel, The Combover, originally published in Italian as Il riporto (2011), is a swamp—its narrative at once as rich, as eldritch, as pedestrian and unspectacular—whose subtle, insidious suck will have you half-metabolized before you recognize it for what it is. Its gutters, its digressions, are quick, bright black, flaring, and, like a mix of flies and charading fireflies clustering over a corpse, if not easily missed, then perhaps too easily dis-missed: They are the crux of this work’s mesmerism, mechanism and generosity.
In The Combover, a compromised hairdo is enough to catalyze damnation. The work is ironic, hyperbolic, and asymptotic in its reach for the absurd. In fact, several of Bravi’s protagonists have a knack for fixating on minutiae, for blowing what most would consider inconsequential out of proportion, for getting hung up, in fact, emotionally strung up, on bagatelles. In La Pelusa (2007), a librarian’s unremitting perseveration on the dust that accosts his library lays the ground—or the patina—for all-out psychic chaos; in Restituiscimi il cappotto (2004), a would-be suicide begrudgingly defers his departure because someone—how audacious?—has borrowed his coat, thereby spoiling everything. Arduino Gherarducci, The Combover’s bitter, neurotic anti-hero, exhibits a logic that is sometimes equally difficult to sympathize with and understand.
In the character of Arduino, Bravi mobilizes a psychic world premised on complicated forms of hostility, dissatisfaction, loneliness, and pent-up rage, a world which, for all that, remains fixed on hair: on ‘lack of hair’ and ‘styles of lacking hair’ as moral categories, and on the fact that Arduino’s preferred style of lacking hair, a comb-over, has been skewed: One of Arduino’s side-burned-yet-serious students approaches him inexplicably one day during a lecture (Arduino is an expert on bibliographic data-exchange formats), and, with a gesture exuding both grace and necessity, exposes his pate. A prank? Or perhaps—as Arduino thinks, toting about Spinoza’s Ethics, pursuing his own half-baked, deliriously caustic line of reasoning—this student came into being for the exclusive purpose of bringing him to shame. The text leaves the imagined impetus for the act as ambiguous and incomprehensible as Arduino’s response to it: fugue. He quits civilization. Intending to make it to Lapland, he finds himself instead in northern Italy, dwelling in a cave.
Though he believes he is removing himself from a world of potential hair-rufflers, Arduino is in fact only exchanging one set of hair rufflers for another, for the wilderness, with its winds, rains and branches, is itself an antagonist, and, beyond this, its woods are teeming with ‘the sick and infirm’: a band of elderly and other aspiring convalescents who flock to the anchorite Arduino, much to his snowballing chagrin and horror. They bring jams and lasagna, tribute in the form of munitions; they perform, as Arduino cowers, cornered, a paradoxical form of apotheosis, executing ritual violations (stroking his head from back to front) so as to better exploit his comb-over, which, is (treacherously, he thinks) curative.
Arduino’s exploitation reaches nearly corporate extremes: he is buffeted about like an inadvertent pop-sensation: The old, cloyingly virtuous, formerly ailing Giuseppina takes it upon herself to manage his client-base and make his schedule, all the while in the vexing, metaphysical thick of Bravi’s wilderness, home of the red roe-buck, entwined snakes, locus of apparitions, staged evasions and disembodiments, Arduino cedes to the idea that he might learn to live “without getting too fucked up about [his] hair and those [data] formats.” That or else, spurred by his burgeoning hatred for the sick and infirm, might end up adding circles to a Dante-esque hell.
There are many caves in this story: wells imbued with spectral, melancholy voices, empty, naked centers, glabrous, or glabrating heads. It is clear that, within Arduino’s male-centric reality, baldness is a state laden with significance: it is a wound, a void: “every man in the world has a bald patch hidden within him”; it is, like the more explicit skull, a memento mori: bald men “reconstruct on [their] scalps the landscape which all men, sooner or later, will see snatched from them.” Arduino casts his combover with an additional moral valence as well: it is a way of being honest, a way of emphasizing by concealing baldness and thus implies that he is far more virtuous than the deplorable ‘shorn head,’ Costantino Toldini, who, by shaving his scalp conceals the fact of what it lacks naturally. Arduino’s comb-over is, additionally, a way of situating himself with respect to his paternal line, a homage to his deceased father (his best friend and the subsequent hub the novel’s nostalgic lucubrations), and a defiant, even proud recapitulation of his father’s suffering: he, too, was tormented because bald.
The father’s suffering is only alluded to, and, like Arduino’s suffering, which, in the game of show versus tell, is stated more than textured, lends itself to allegorical reading. Perhaps because of the seemingly trifling nature of its purported source (baldness), and because of the strange mesh Bravi has managed to confect with the text, using strands of humour which are variously light, ironic, wicked and dark, it becomes possible to reconfigure baldness and whatever social ridicule is directed towards it as viable stand-ins for deeper sources of anxiety, or for alienation itself. The various meanings with which Arduino invests baldness and comb-overs put him at odds with the social world: The text’s ‘barber’, its ‘janitor,’ its ‘barroom habitué,’ each of these characters is simply a version of the Joe Schmo who would insist, over and against Arduino, that he would look good shaved.
These characters place him in the same position as any person consciously practicing a ‘style’ (construed broadly) against the norms of the day: Arduino sees the outside world as “a constant series of traps”; he feels that he has spent a lifetime locked in a fight against those who would invalidate his enterprise, a lifetime like his father, sheltering his comb-over, dueling with metaphorical winds. These winds, in turn: the barber, the janitor, even Arduino’s wife, encounter him with blank bemusement: they cannot digest him. Arduino has clearly, though, to some extent internalized the social pressures that afflict him: he feels real shame when his comb-over is lifted, despite the fact that he is proud it emphasizes his baldness by concealing it, and despite the fact that a lifted comb-over would presumably be even more effective in accomplishing this emphasis.
Arduino’s obsession with his hair floats on the rest of his conscious experience like a cataract, shifting around, sometimes allowing a reality beyond what we are given access to (despite the fact that the work is written in the first person) to come into sight, though more often occluding it. His seizures, his nightmares, his depressed wife, his marital troubles, a lingering memory of a father warped by filial brutality (by Arduino’s brother, the bully), these are never dwelt on as extensively as the comb-over issue, unless they are auxiliary to it; instead they pepper his ruminations as a series of asides. As a result, the book has a kind of writhing unconscious, a peripheral vision that sees in colour as Arduino’s mind strays to his past (distant and recent), often alighting on its most violent or lugubrious details:
We lived in a first floor apartment close to the main square in Recanati. Below it was a take-away shop that gave out a terrible stink of grilled meat. The owner was a man who smoked a cigar that he always kept in one corner of his mouth. He roasted pork by the shovelful, and as time passed, he began to develop pig-like features, as if the spirit of the pig had left its body just as he was putting its flesh on the grill and had gone and attached itself to the first bastard it happened to come across…I couldn’t open the window without breathing in a stink of putrefaction.
These digressions lend an emotional depth to the novel that would otherwise be lacking. If Arduino’s physical and other outbursts at times seem mysterious, or seem insufficiently motivated, it is at least possible to suspect that there are valid causes for his rage strewn about the novel’s obstructed depths. After a seemingly benign phone call devolves into a cruel attack on his wife—really just a misdirected attack on his mother-in-law, who has, apparently outrageously, borrowed a book—Arduino states: “I don’t know what she said in reply. Once I’d put the phone down I felt much relieved. There was not much else I could say. If she couldn’t understand, it was hardly her fault.”
The cataract hovering over the text as Arduino streamlines his vision toward matters of hair places a reader of his overreactions in essentially the same position as his wife. For some readers at least, desire (wanting to know the ‘why’ of an outburst) and pleasure (wanting an answer to exist, but not wanting it: in truth wanting only the sense of textual depth that is its insinuated existence) might issue from the confusion.
Arduino’s escape from civilization, combined with his repeated insistence that one cause leads to another, that his student could have done nothing other than humiliate him, and that escaping civilization is his only viable response to humiliation, makes The Combover a variation on themes in Bravi’s earlier work, namely ‘displacement’ and ‘determinism’ as nested concerns. ‘Displacement’—specifically in the form of expatriation—has a privileged place in Bravi’s imaginary, perhaps because the native Argentinian has opted to base himself in Italy, and perhaps because he is one of those writers who chooses to move, always with incomplete comfort, between linguistic bases as well (he works in Spanish and Italian). ‘Determinism,’ in his work, lurks forever behind the will, a nag that assumes various narrative forms in order to better harass it:
In Río Sauce, Bravi’s protagonist abandons his birthplace because it is besieged by flood-waters, an act that is both impelled and willed: the fact of the flood impels it, but some of his relatives remain behind, carrying on with their lives as much as possible (the need to leave, then, was never absolute). In The Combover, alternately, as Arduino makes his way north, he becomes increasingly callous, in spite of several moments that smack of redemption, that nearly insinuate he has a choice in the matter of his own becoming.
Redemption, in this book, is a tease. Cruelty is reality, and Arduino’s trajectory—the line that connects early Arduino, the hostile, but merely petulant melancholic, to Arduino, the crazed assaulter of later pages (oh yes, the mother-in-law gets it, but only because Arduino would like to prove himself a healer)—seems, perhaps because it is too baffling, too absurd to admit of alternative explanations, fated, inexorable.
It is difficult to put your finger on just what The Combover is. The work has one foot in what is not quite the banal and another in what is not quite the metaphysical. Some of its tropes seem drawn from a twisted fairy-tale, as when Arduino severs his pigtail-like comb-over with a hunting knife. It is funny. It is not slapstick. It seems to vacillate between darkness and a lightness which some readers might equate with superficiality and which still other readers might simply insist is aesthetically valid entertainment (‘Why should it all be grim and heartbreaking?’).
Bravi’s book is quizzical in the best sense of the word; its intrigue as a novel lies in its un-decidability: it is both light and grim. Its sheer neuroticism and darkness are sometimes masked by its humour, but if they are behind trees on your first read, they will surely trail you out of it, loop back, snarl, and stalk you brazenly in the second.
Natalie Helberg is from Edmonton, Alberta. Some of her experimental work has appeared on InfluencySalon.ca and in Canadian Literature. She recently completed an MFA in Creative Writing with the University of Guelph. She is working on a hybrid novel.