Sometimes writers take the long way around. PragueLife contributor Andrew Giarelli did just that with his new literary thriller The Talking Statues, published by Vienna’s danzig&unfried.
Giarelli, a journalism and literature professor at Prague’s Anglo-American University, had been researching a book on Rome’s “talking statues” since 2002. The 500-year-old tradition of anonymous satires on the news, posted on six different statues, led him down one path and then another, and another….
“It felt like I would never finish,” Giarelli recalls. “I went to Rome almost every summer for a month, first from my home in Portland, Oregon and then from Prague when I moved here to teach.” He gave conference papers and public lectures on how street poets from the 1500s to today have placed their witty verses on the statues, calling it an early form of tabloid journalism. He even got a go-ahead from a university press for a scholarly book. But daunting centuries’ worth of pasquinate, named after Pasquino, the main statue, filled Rome’s national library archives and new ones were always appearing.
As the novel’s protagonist Charlie Sala muses: Thick with Roman dialect and slang, they course the labyrinth of Italian politics, as hard for an outsider to penetrate now as in the 16th century, when Romans woke regularly to find Pasquino and sometimes the others plastered with shocking news about buggering bishops and cuckolding countesses. Giarelli persisted, each summer trip suggesting new research for the next. In 2008 he learned his original publisher had been sold to another, who told him his book was “in limbo” and suggested he re-cast it to cover just the contemporary pasquinate.
“I couldn’t bring myself to throw away all that work,” he says. “So, I ignored them.” Instead, he started a second decade visiting now from Prague, following more new research paths — for a publisher who no longer existed. Observing the statue, the novel’s Sala thinks: If battered Pasquino had a face, he would surely be laughing at Carlo Flaminio Sala as they stood together in Rome’s exquisite waning September light.
“It remained an obsession, or maybe a personal joke,” Giarelli says. “Okay, maybe it was also my excuse to keep visiting Rome, which I love.” Meanwhile, in 2012 he published a massive travel book about the city, American Romanista. But the talking statues book eluded him.
“Then one spring day in 2015 I was telling a grad student at the University of Vienna, where I sometimes also teach, about the endless project,” he recalls. “She said, ‘You should turn it into a novel.’”
In June 2015 Giarelli started writing about a scholar writing an endless book about Rome’s Talking Statues, setting it in 2011 just as the terrorist group ISIL was destroying ancient Near Eastern monuments and sponsoring black market sales of looted objects. The main character meets an enigmatic Czech lighting designer also using the talking statues for a Prague show, and together with the ragged crew of street poets called pasquinisti they are sucked into a plot involving terrorists, rogue priests, secret messages between buyers and sellers of stolen ancient goddess statues, and a climactic 3D video projection onto the statues revealing all –
“All the usual,” Giarelli laughs. “But it’s not like The DaVinci Code! It’s way more complex than that. But not as complex as an Umberto Eco novel.”
Giarelli wrote the novel mostly in cafes and bars: Old Town’s Týn Literary Café, New Town’s Ponrepo and Světozor cinema cafes, and Žižkov’s Shotgun Club, where he finished it in April 2017. Then came the usual disappointments, two and a half years’ worth.
“It was rejected by 80-100 agents and publishers,” he recalls. “Some wrote really nice things – a couple even said the writing was too good for today’s market.” As 2020 started, he gave up.
“That’s what they always say about first novels, right? The best place for them is your bottom desk drawer.” But then the pandemic hit.
“I seemed to have lots more free time. I started studying ways to self-publish. I had done my first book on Amazon Kindle and had not promoted it, so it barely sold. But this time I started planning marketing campaigns, crowd funding, met with Czech and German translators – until I realized a full-scale international self-publishing launch would require a lot of money.” Then another University of Vienna colleague reminded him about a friend who had a small publishing house that did carefully edited, lovingly designed editions.
“To be honest, she had told me about danzig & unfried before, when I had international bestseller fantasies. Back then I said no. But when the lockdown started, I had time to check them out: their books are beautiful, most but not all in German, on a wide range of subjects. I contacted the publisher, Ernst Grabovszki. And here we are.”
“Today’s book market is becoming more and more international due to increasing digitization,” Grabovszki says. “It is therefore only natural to publish books that can be read all over the world. A literary thriller like Andrew’s is of course particularly welcome.”
The Talking Statues will be available as an e-book and print from most online book platforms starting March 15. Bookstores can order it wholesale from Libri, Germany’s leading book distributor. Here are some options for purchasing:
Italy: Paperback and e-book da athesiabuch.it (Bolzano).
You can purchase Andrew Giarelli’s travel book “American Romanista” here: https://www.amazon.com/American-Romanista-Andrew-Giarelli-ebook/dp/B00AH1HUNW