The Bishop’s Bedroom by Piero Chiara, translated by Jill Foulston

Originally published in 1976 as La stanza del Vescovo (Italian)
English translation first published in 2019

Summer 1946. World War Two has just come to an end and there’s a yearning for renewal. A man in his thirties is sailing on Lake Maggiore in northern Italy, hoping to put off the inevitable return to work. Dropping anchor in a small, fashionable port, he meets the enigmatic owner of a nearby villa who invites him home for dinner with his older wife and beautiful widowed sister-in-law. The sailor is intrigued by the elegant waterside mansion, staffed with servants and imbued with mystery, and stays in a guest room previously occupied by a now deceased bishop related to his host. The two men form an uneasy bond, recognizing in each other a shared taste for idling and erotic adventure. But suddenly tragedy puts an end to their revels and shatters the tranquility of the villa.

Typically my process for a book review begins by my jotting down a few words – usually adjectives – that I associate with it. My paper for The Bishop’s Bedroom simply reads: “Short”.

This stems from one of my biggest frustrations – book padding. In this case the digital edition has 183 pages but the actual content ends at page 144. When you consider that the book only begins on page 9 you are left with 135 pages and even that feels generous – the lines of text have been given plenty of room to breathe…

Enough ranting. Let’s talk about the book!

The Bishop’s Bedroom is told from the perspective of a nameless drifter who spends his time sailing around Lake Maggiore. He lives a rather carefree existence, meeting up with women – some of them single, some married – before sailing to another port.

In the early chapters of the book he encounters and befriends Mario Orimbelli who shows an interest in his boat and invites him to stay with him. After meeting Orimbelli’s wife and widowed sister-in-law, Orimbelli arranges to experience life on the water for himself. Of course, it turns out that once away from his wife Orimbelli reveals himself to be completely incapable of controlling his libido…

At this point I probably need to stop summarizing the plot because we are basically already halfway through the book. I can say that you will get a body and the circumstances of the death are not clear yet this is not the sort of book that is interested in giving you answers to what happened. It is really about the journey and the way the events he witnesses affect the narrator.

The Bishop’s Bedroom is perhaps best judged then as a work of literary fiction with genre elements rather than a purely genre work. This is, of course, not a form of complaint. Nor do I think it makes it irrelevant as a topic to cover on this blog. It does mean though that readers in search of a detective novel may want to pass this one by.

It reminds me a lot of Antonioni’s film Blow-up, not only in its questionable celebration of hedonism but also in the way it really explores how uncertainty about an event or their understanding of relationships can really get inside the head of someone and affect them. There are not really clues or much in the way of evidence or testimony yet the reader will come to have a feeling about the death, even if they will never get any confirmation about whether they were right.

Which is, I suppose, the point. The uncertainty is really what matters. Some may find it infuriating but I think it works in the greater context of the novella.

In some other respects I can see similarities with Patricia Highsmith’s work such as the development of the relationship between the protagonist and Orimbelli. While this is in no way a homoerotic relationship as in Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train or The Talented Mr. Ripley, the blend of admiration and repulsion has something of the same flavor.

Neither the narrator, nor Orimbelli however exert anything like the magnetic draw of those characters to the reader, just on the other characters. The entire first half of the novella is spent trawling around Lake Maggiore in search of carefree sexual conquests and both men, for all their claims to recognize women as having freedom, end up treating women like sexual objects or cuts of meat and trying to cajole and maneuver them until they give into their advances.

I will be the first to defend a writer’s decision to create an unlikeable protagonist – just look at my reviews of various Jim Thompson novels – but that character must have some complexity or be making some deeper commentary about society or humanity. Chiara’s character may change but not enough to make him an interesting or compelling protagonist to follow.

Still it is hard to deny that the author does succeed in making other aspects of the journey seem appealing, evoking a sense of place and carefreeness and of simply being on the water. While I found the angst about Orimbelli stealing “his” women a bit tiresome, I can say that the second half of the book does improve and it does have something to say about postwar Italian society and of the consequences of disengagement from the world around us.

Unfortunately it is not enough for me to feel like I can recommend this. The most interesting characters in the piece are the two women in Orimbelli’s life and they barely appear. Sadly the time spent with the men seemed as slow and aimless as the lives they chose to lead. Overall, I think this was just not for me.

The Verdict: More a work of literary fiction than a genre piece being neither mysterious nor suspenseful. Sadly it didn’t work for me.

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