To construct a whole novel playing with and relishing all the nuances, idiomatic expressions, novel coinages of the word sangue (“blood”) is no mean feat. Fashioning a believable world encompassed within this one semantic field but open to an infinity of others is extraordinary. Francesco Verso has achieved these exploits admirably. But BloodBusters is much more than this: it can be defined as tongue-in-cheek “speculative fiction” (the expression with which Margaret Atwood describes some of her works, see, for ex., http://www.wired.com/2013/09/geeks-guide-margaret-atwood/).
The bases of Verso’s world in this work are deceptively simple and at the same time horrifically possible: state taxes are paid not only in money, but also with the citizens’ blood, literally. The metaphor “taxes are sucking my blood” becomes a reality: each citizen is to contribute to the “coffers” of the Italian state a specific amount of their own blood. There are also banks which have accounts in blood. Of course, tax evaders abound (from the poor to the politician to the cardinal). BloodBusters is a company that is charged with apprehending these evaders and collecting the amounts of blood they owe: the company’s employees go around armed with syringes, tourniquets, and other paraphernalia needed for this oftentimes bloody activity. As expected, there are also evaders who donate blood to Robin Blood, a charitable organization furnishing blood to hemophiliacs and other patients who do not have their own reserves or are under the state’s radar. The protagonist, Alan Costa, is one of the most experienced BloodBusters, an expert in making “holes” and bringing lots of liquid blood to his employer. There exists Blood Lottery, and Day of Blood. 30% of the collected blood (from the withdrawals/tax returns during the Day of Blood) covers transfusions and hemo-derivatives, 20% go to the personal blood reserve (REP Riserva Ematica Personale); it is not clear where the rest of the blood withdrawal amounts end up: some in shady businesses, others in the production of an iron-rich snack, Ematogen, which all the citizens need, as they lose iron while being taxed. A fantastically devilish circle of business which is susceptible of corrupting and corruption thrives in the setting most proper to withstand such activities: Rome. Alan Costa has a debt to pay to his employer, Emory Szilagyi (nicknamed Emogoblin): a shifty, crafty, weasel-like character who seems to have an impossibly strong hold on everyone. The protagonist discovers troublesome facts about Emory and therefore he must decide whether to keep the status quo or to find another solution. He decides to give his blood as a form of payment to replace the debt of an evader so that she can leave the blood prison and be with her son.
What follows concentrates on BloodBusters’ language and the novel’s cultural implications.
It is customary to expect of a literary author that he/she be able to delight in and play with language, to take it into places no one has traveled before, and to create unique worlds full of wonder and excitement. Written in the first person, this novel uses modern colloquial Italian judiciously interspersed with youth slang, including Roman dialect words (for ex., pischello), perfectly mirroring the states of mind of the protagonist. BloodBusters builds on the commonly-used words and expressions and gives them specific fictional meanings (for ex., the levels of experience with the BloodBusters gang start at the level of sanguisuga [Italian: blood sucker] “leech”).Commonplace blood metaphors are overturned conforming to their new context and collaborate with new coinages to build this world (e.g., tassazione ematica “hematic taxation”, stai diventando un emofobo “you are becoming a hemophobe” pagare in sangue contante “to pay in blood cash”).
It plays on the meaning of well-known titles and absorbs them into the fictional narrative (Emocalypse Now [Apocalypse Now], Robin Blood [Robin Hood], Star Balls [Star Wars], and the title itself, BloodBusters obviously playing on the composition in Ghostbusters).
Verso takes full advantage of the Italian lexical characteristic which allows words of the same semantic field to be derived from two or three etymologically different sources: thus, sangue from Latin and emo– from Greek; now also blood from English.Conforming to the postmodern guiding force of slogans, Alan Costa creates his own, such as “E la mia idea del mondo e` che non importa se il bicchiere e` mezzo pieno o mezzo vuoto, importa quello che ci metti dentro.” (p. 202; My idea of the world is that it does not matter if the glass is half full or half empty, it matters what you put in it).
However, the novel is not only about blood, splatter, violence, metropolitan chaos, dystopia, all accompanied by the appropriate and eclectic sound track. It deals with many aspects of politics, and it pokes fun at clichés (Italian North-South divide; the beauty of a woman, the expectations of the Church, and many others). Most of all, however, it brings to the fore some questions of cultural nature which Alan Costa has to deal with on his own, and which require some thought on the part of the reader. Although they are never asked outright, they seem to vex the protagonist, such as When is it enough to give to a charity? (In the novel, a character is almost bled to death while being charitable.) How can doing good really improve society? What is the spark which ignites an individual’s desire, willingness and need to help others in a society which is run on crass individualism? Interestingly enough, these are some of the questions tackled in Francesco Verso’s other novels, but from different perspectives. Is love the answer or is it irony? Those who read will find out.
*Published together with the ex-aequo winner of the Urania Prize, Sandro Battisti, for his L’impero restaurato (Sandro Battisti and Francesco Verso, Il sangue e l’Impero, Mondadori, 2015).