A perdifiato by Mauro Covacich, hardcover, 320 pages, Arnoldo Mondadori Editore (2003), ISBN: 8804512105
The Italian book "A perdifiato" ("At breakneck speed") is a novel where everybody runs, but it is not a sports novel, it is not a novel about running – no more than "Infinite Jest" is a novel about tennis or "Underworld" is about baseball. Here running is rather an escape. The desperate escape of Dario Rensich's from his life as an adult man. The escape of seven girls from the nightmare of mediocrity and anonimity. The escape of a woman from the irresistible temptation of becoming a mother. Dario's life will never be the same after his sixth place at the New York City Marathon. If he had actually overtaken those five Africans and won the race, it would have been even more overwhelming, of course. But watching those last instants on television, even his wife had hoped he wouldn't make it: First was too much – first among whites was more than enough to make an existential difference. In fact, he is now a popular coach, albeit a bit disappointed with his new assignment in Hungary rather than in California, as he had hoped. The Federation wants him to turn a team of middle distance runners into one of marathon champions – all girls, all extremely young and ambitious, all with the "lean and hungry look" of those who would do just about anything to emerge. Dario's departure coincides with what seems to be the fruitful conclusion of his odyssey in the world of adoptions, begun after absolute certainty of his own sterility: A baby girl is on her way to the Rensich home the very moment he is flying towards Szeged, a village on the Hungarian plain where storks return in the spring. Dario's arrival on Hungarian soil meets with an ominous scenario: After a fatal dose of cyanide, the doomed Danube is breathing its last agonized gasps, its swollen fish rising lifeless to the surface like the stillborn young of a poisoned womb. Dario's exacting demands on his supple trainees, the girls' tough training along the putrescent river banks, the halo of mystery enveloping the "Collegiuma" and its kaleidoscope of elusive characters – are they officials? spies? – all contribute to create a sinister symmetry with the waters' growing toll of death and the mounting sense of imminent catastrophe permeating the very conscience of the novel's protagonists. At this point, the outcome of Agota's dark magnetism on Dario is not difficult to guess, as the plot unravels its threads which, like the pulse-pounding final race, keep on taking surprising turns. Thoroughly engrossing, tense and ambiguous, this powerfully compelling story runs parallel to the athletes' disciplined and hypnotizing pace in a miraculous counterpoint of acceleration and pause. The reader is swept into the whirlwind of the unexpected – that whimsical turn of events behind even the most careful of calculations and the most meticulous of preparations, a fatal little mistake which might lead even the fittest, readiest and most deserving to a sudden halt, an unfortunate breakdown, a paralyzing lock only seconds away from the coveted finish line. The author, Mauro Covacich, wrote this book thinking of the marathon as a martial art, as an interior discipline, and thinking, in the meantime, of the pathetic weakness of every interior discipline in the face of the violence of pure happiness.