Non avevo capito niente

Diego De Silva (b. 1964, Naples) is a writer, journalist and scriptwriter who deals with social and political themes pertinent to his native Naples, especially as these relate to the destructive effects of the Neapolitan crime syndicate Camorra. The author of seven novels to date, De Silva is best known for the character Vincenzo Malinconico, a delightful 42-year-old slacker attorney who first appeared in the 2007 novel Non avevo capito niente (I Hadn’t Understood) (Einaudi). The novel, which won the Naples prize for fiction and was a finalist for Italy’s Strega prize, continues to appear on Italian best seller lists and has quickly become a cult classic.

Non avevo capito niente is a hilarious glimpse into the life of Vincenzo Malinconico, as told primarily by Vincenzo himself. Vincenzo, whose surname appropriately means melancholy, has virtually no legal clients. So he fills his days pretending to work, whiling away the time with his eccentric office mates, lunching clandestinely at an airport Burger King with his slightly overweight, college-aged daughter, trying to establish a relationship with his introverted, delinquent-obsessed teenage son, and fantasizing that his unfaithful psychologist wife will one day beg him to take her back. But all of that changes the day “two miracles” happen to Vincenzo: He’s assigned to defend Mimmo ‘o Burzone (Ital. Mimmo il Borsone; Eng. Mimmo the Money Bag), a butcher for the Camorra, and Alessandra Persiano, the most beautiful attorney in Naples, gives him her cell phone number…

The success of Non avevo capito niente is owed as much to its outlandish content as it is to Vincenzo’s engaging language. As Vincenzo explains in the novel, he suffers from a “disturbo morfosintattico (morphosyntatic impairment)” that renders him incapable of controlling his sentence structure (in other words, he tends to ramble and often goes off on tangents). And despite his obvious Neapolitanness, Vincenzo never utters a word of dialect (but he is quick to pronounce judgment on those who do). Instead, he speaks neostandard Italian, which is rich in colloquialisms and Anglicisms.

NOUNS in -aggine and -ata
One interesting feature of neostandard Italian involves the creation of new nouns with prefixes and suffixes. Common suffixes are –aggine, which is equivalent to the English -ness, and -ata. Vincenzo is particularly fond of these nouns.

coglionaggine (coglione + -aggine = testicle or ball + -ness, meaning brainlessness)
Rimango lì a contare le pecore della mia coglionaggine mentre la guardo accelerare la manovra di sgombero, esitare, fermarsi sulla soglia, chinare la testa colpita da un improvviso attacco di pena o giù di lì, parlarmi di nuovo, rimanendo di spalle però
(I stand there counting the sheep of my own brainlessness as I watch her speed up the maneuvers involved in getting ready to leave, hesitate, stop in the threshold, bow her head in the throes of a sudden attack of misgivings or something worse, and speak to me again, but with her back to me.)

neocafonaggine (neo- + cafone + -aggine = neo- + boor + -ness, meaning neoboorishness
Detesto la neocafonaggine telefonica, che con l’avvento del cellulare ha invertito le posizioni di chi chiama e chi risponde.
(I detest the telephonic neoboorishness that, with the advent of the cell phone, has reversed the roles of caller and callee.)

cazzata (cazzo + -ata = dick + -ata, meaning bullshit)
Mi rendo conto che sto dicendo una cazzata, e allora tento di recuperare.
(I realize that I’m spewing bullshit, and so I try to make up for it.)

puttanata (puttana + -ata = whore + -ata, meaning fuck-up)
A quel punto, mi rendo conto della puttanata che ho fatto, ma rimango coerente.
(At that point, I realize the fuck-up I’ve committed, but I stay cool.)

ADVERBS in -issimo
The absolute superlative in Italian is created with the suffix -issimo, which corresponds to “extremely” in English. Although it’s formed with adjectives or adverbs in standard Italian, it can also be formed with nouns in neostandard Italian, as indicated by Vincenzo’s use of “stronzissima.”

sputtanatissimo (sputtanato [derived from puttana, or whore] + -issimo = worn out + extremely, meaning ultratrite)
Tricarico sembra piuttosto attratto dal poster del bacio all’Hotel de Ville di Robert Doisneau, che personalmente trovo sputtanatissimo.
(Tricarico seems rather attracted to the poster of Robert Doisneau’s “Kiss by the Hotel de Ville,” which I personally find ultratrite.)

stronzissima (stronzo + -issima = asshole + extremely, meaning mean-ass)
Ma qui non sono ammesse transazioni: è una stronzissima giungla, hai capito, si vince o si perde, e non è che puoi cavartela coi discorsi equilibrati.
(But we’re not talking about transactions here: It’s a mean-ass jungle, you understand? You win or you lose, and it’s not like you can work things out with a nice discussion.)

VERBS in -are
Anglicisms are another common feature of neostandard Italian. Vincenzo uses a several verbs that have been derived from English nouns and verbs. Interestingly, when new verbs are created in Italian, the -are verb ending is the most typical, as evidenced by the verbs below.

snobbi (from snobbare, derived from the English noun snob, meaning to turn up one’s nose)
Una volta tanto che ti capita una causa vera che fai, la snobbi?
(For once you get a real case, and what do you do? You turn up your nose at it?)

dribbla (from dribblare, derived from the English verb to dribble, meaning to sidestep)
La patanona mi dribbla tranquilla e sale, per niente scossa, sul treno.
(The hottie calmly sidesteps me and boards the train, not at all shaken.)

flirtato (from flirtare, derived from the English verb to flirt)
D’accordo: il Borsone esce di galera contro ogni aspettativa, io ho fatto un figurone, il Gip ha flirtato con me per tutta l’udienza, eppure qualcosa non mi convince.
(Okay: Borsone gets out of jail against all odds, I look like a real genius, the preliminary judge flirted with me for the whole hearing, and yet something doesn’t add up.)

Concluding Remarks: If you’re curious about the Neapolitan-Italian mindset, Non avevo capito niente is the book for you. Vincenzo’s ADD-style musings on his life, music, relationships, the Italian judicial system, the Camorra, and SO much more provide tremendous insight into contemporary Naples and Italy, not to mention a wildly entertaining and often moving read.

In Translation: In February of this year, Europa Editions published Antony Shugaar’s superb English translation of Non avevo capito niente under the title I Hadn’t Understood. If you’re interested in learning more about the book or about Italian literary translation in general, I urge you to read Publishing the World’s interview with Shugaar, who cleverly compares Non avevo capito niente to an orange.

On the Internet: Although there are numerous Diego De Silva fan pages on Facebook, the author doesn’t have his own personal page, and there is little information about De Silva on the Internet aside from that on Wikipedia. What you will find, however, are a lot of sites that reference particularly funny and insightful quotations from Vincenzo as these appear in the various novels. Check out Wikiquote for Vincenzo’s pearls of wisdom from Non avevo capito niente.

Note: If you’re as big a fan of Vincenzo as I am, you’ll be glad to know that there are two additional novels featuring this character: Mia suocera beve (My Mother-in-Law Drinks) (Einaudi, 2010) and Sono contrario alle emozioni (I’m Against Emotions) (Einaudi, 2011). Gotta love those titles!


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