Careful tending, rich growth

Times Staff Writer

WHEN the God of Genesis created the first man and woman, he set them in a garden. They introduced the disorder of sin and, as a consequence, were forever dispossessed. That exile not only forced them into a wild and willful world but also alienated their descendants from the Eden for which they were intended.

To this day, everyone who plants a garden undertakes, on some level, an act of return. When we cultivate for beauty or pleasure we catch a gauzy intimation of that original paradise our first parents frittered away, a place without toil, sickness, pain or loss.

It’s no accident that the protagonist of Andrea Canobbio’s compelling new novel, “The Natural Disorder of Things,” is a successful garden designer. At first blush, the book presents itself as one of those “literary mysteries” at which the Italians excel. Canobbio, however, is too knowing and artful a writer to wink at his readers and push slyly against the conventions of genre. Refreshingly, he’s also too respectful of his protagonist, the designer Claudio Fratta. One of the satisfactions of this intelligently engrossing fiction is that its author allows us to feel both compassion and exasperation for this disheveled, creative, flawed, smart, wounded mess of a human being who is both the story’s narrator and its center.


“The Natural Disorder of Things” is the author’s fifth novel, though this finely tuned translation by Abigail Asher is his first book to appear in the United States. An accomplished poet, Canobbio also works as an editor at the Italian publishing house Einaudi, where he has overseen books by Philip Roth, Ian McEwan and Haruki Murakami, and elements of their work clearly inform this author’s sensibility, though in a distinctive and original way.

“Natural Disorder” unfolds as Claudio’s internal monologue delivered in the present and future tenses. The result is a kind of unfolding that subtly evokes a gardener’s pruning in which the process of cutting away reveals concealed connections and unexpected structure. When we meet Claudio, it’s hard to tell whether he’s at the end of his tether or being strangled by it. He is a lionized and sought-after designer profiled in international magazines and applauded for his willingness to get his hands dirty working alongside his landscaping crew.

Internally and externally, though, Claudio’s a mess. The father at whose side he learned his art has been driven into bankruptcy and destroyed by loan sharks. Fabio, the younger of Claudio’s two brothers, died of a drug overdose. Their mother grieves. His other brother, Carlo, a Marxist university professor, is divorced and brings his two young sons to visit their unmarried uncle in his ramshackle farmhouse on the weekends. Uncle Claudio cooks for them all and plays with the boys while endlessly mulling over the family’s history of disintegration, eating and drinking more than he should and plotting revenge against the men who caused his father’s end.

Claudio’s unspoken conviction is that, without vengeance, he never will bring order to his personal history. As he pursues it, a chance encounter in a dark parking lot with the alluring Elisabetta Renal lends the story a layer of erotic obsession and a set of connections that ultimately push the narrator toward the resolution of his familial mysteries.

One of the intriguing aspects of Canobbio’s novel is its evocation of contemporary Italy, where prosperity and demographic change have remade a tradition-bound society. Like many of today’s Italian men, Claudio has remained single well into middle age. (Italy today has one of the lowest birthrates ever measured by demographers.) There are no big family meals or warm times around the table, though Claudio clearly longs for them. Tradition notwithstanding, both his mother and his brother’s former wife are helpless in the kitchen. Musing about the family Christmas holidays he’d like to have, Claudio concludes, “Neither my mother nor my sister-in-law has any idea how to cook a stuffed guinea hen -- but for that matter they can’t even make mashed potatoes. I’ll have to cook; the kids count on me.”

On Saturday, Claudio heads to the “home improvement center” to get a tube of superglue, waits half an hour to get into the parking structure and then fills his shopping cart with things he doesn’t really need. His foreman, Witold, is -- like the rest of his crew -- a Polish immigrant who worries that Claudio will replace them all with Albanians or Kurds, who work more cheaply.


“Someday Witold will get fed up,” Claudio thinks. “After we finish the job at the data center, he’ll announce that he’s willing to take a risk ... and that he’s decided to launch out on his own; he doesn’t claim to be a garden designer, but he could have a small garden-maintenance business with Jan; the work would be duller but continuous and the market is bigger, because there are more fake gardens than real ones -- far more, no?”

One of the subtexts to Claudio’s story, in fact, is the continuing Italian tension created by the reverence for la figura (the beautiful appearance) as opposed to lo sostanza (the substance) of an issue.

Italians are very fond of dogs, and they play a vital and continuing role in “Natural Disorder.” Among the losses Claudio mourns is that of Gustavo, his own pet, and he weighs the future with another dog:

“I think I’ll start walking in the woods again, maybe because I’ll get a new dog, maybe because I’ll stop wanting to eat and drink for two.... I’ll declare Gustavo officially lost and I’ll ask the famous photographer to sell me the dachshunds.... Sure, Gustavo was a more satisfying dog: he was lovelier, more charming, more loyal, and he had no family. Dachshunds have secret, hidden ambitions ... they seem more suited to the times that lie ahead. Certainly to the life that lies ahead for me.”

There are times when a garden, through neglect or unfortunate circumstance, falls into ruin. Unruly nature reasserts itself, and the coherence of the gardener’s original intentions is fractured. Such places often possess a melancholy poetry that is beyond beauty. Just as the garden echoed Eden in some small way, so its loss faintly recalls that first exile into mortality.

Canobbio unsentimentally brings Claudio to precisely that place. His narrative comes to a breakneck, virtually cinematic conclusion that knots all the plot’s threads into a convincing, though shockingly unexpected, dramatic conclusion, giving way to a reflection too bittersweetly true to reveal. Claudio proceeds toward it in this fashion:

“I get out of the car and head unhastening toward the woods, through the warm and acrid shade of the chestnut trees, along the path.... Just a few seasons of neglect would allow the woods to devour it again and bring back the natural disorder of things. The impassive tension of the plants, the continual pressure -- the imperative is ‘Grow!’ Some time ago, a local farmer asked me to sell him firewood from the forest; he said he’d bring over his power saw and clean the place up, cutting away all the young shoots and leaving only one big tree every 20 feet or so. I never called him back.”

By the time Claudio reaches his destination, there is an end to things and, if not exactly a reckoning, a reconciliation he can accept. He has returned to that place where resignation is a virtue and has recovered his own imperfect Eden in the garden of decline.