Romeo of the Underworld
By Venero Armanno
Picador Australia, 1994
Reviewed by Kylie Hunt
There's something savage and real about Romeo of the Underworld. Venero Armanno makes you take it seriously from the first word — stronzo. Or to pronounce it properly — gutturally, as the author advises — shtroonzoo.
Stronzo is Sicilian for a "world-weary grubbiness" and that "gut-queasy sensation of realising you've made a mess of not only your own life but of the lives of those who have been luckless enough to become intimate with you". Sounds very '90s, doesn't it? And in one way, it is.
What the media keep telling us is the spirit of the '90s — the Kurt Cobain, nihilist "absence of belief and the belief that nothing matters" — is a very strong theme in the beginning of the book. This, combined with our post-modernist hero, Romeo, forever looking back to the Brisbane and the people he knew in 1976, almost made me decide to put it down and forget about the book.
Okay, so I'm not a true believer in Generation X. I can think of plenty of beliefs that matter. I just refuse to take seriously any article, play or book that tries to make me think that "gut-queasy sensation" is to be sought after or revered; I'd rather shelve it.
That is what I would have done, but for that beautiful onomatopoeic word, shtroonzoo, and the hope that the author would develop on this theme. Which, fortunately, he did.
As with most post-modernist texts, we've been issued a "new" word from the past. But this time the word, our "stronzo", is taken out of the hands of the newer and given back to the older generation to show its contextual meaning. I liked that; it was kind of like: "You want this word? Then let me show you what we think it did for us, then you decide if you still want it."
The book details two heterosexual love stories from two generations, playing parallel for the benefit of the reader. In both generations, the male character is pure stronzo. He believes he's found the love of his life, but then he also believes that something will end up taking it all away anyway, so why fight it? It leads us through the two twisting, tumultuous rides of young and old love, what can happen if life ceases to lose its meaning and how they dealt with it all.
But it's not quite the tale of two "star-crossed lovers" who believe above all in the power of love in fair Verona. The savagery of Romeo's underworld and his chance meetings in the Brisbane of today give the book a sharp edge at each turn which, through humour and passion, seems to tell the reader just how useless this stronzo is in the '90s.
Romeo of the Underworld is a very sharp, intelligent and enjoyable book. I hope some angst-filled Generation Xers get a chance to read it. Maybe it'll convince them that there are some things worth fighting for.