Book Review: The Catholic School by Edoardo Albinati
The Catholic School by Edoardo Albinati is a semiautobiographical coming-of-age story, framed by the harrowing 1975 Circeo massacre—a brutal torturing and rape of two young women in 1975 at the hands of former students of Rome’s prestigious all-boys Catholic high school San Leone Magno.
Weighing in at over 1,200 pages, Edoardo Albinati’s The Catholic School is not a light read by any means. It took me almost a month to finish—a standard 300+ page novel usually takes me just two or three days—and I can only regard with awe Antony Shugaar’s work in translating this Strega-award winning behemoth from its original Italian.
Ostensibly about a brutal rape and murder that rocked 1970s Rome, and particularly the Quartiere Trieste in which our narrator lived, this semi-autobiographical volume is only a novel in the loosest sense. Around the nucleus of the Circeo massacre (or, as the narrator will refer to it in shorthand, the CR/M for Circeo Rape/Murder,) Mr. Albinati has built a long, exhaustive look at why the crime happened, why it was those boys and those girls who were the key figures in it, why it happened in that place and time, and the ramifications for both the author and for Italian society—often represented by his former classmates and teachers—in the forty years since.
For the young men, one still a teenager, and the other two scant years older, who carried out the CR/M were all graduates of San Leone Magno, the private Catholic high school that our narrator, Edo, attended. Many of the seeds of toxic masculinity that would allow the murderers to perpetrate such a horrifyingly brazen crime were sown, Edo believes, in SLM, with its curious mix of privilege, religion, right-wing politics, and an environment devoid of women. It’s not that he blames SLM for turning out psychopaths, just that he believes that it fostered a viewpoint where the only opinions that matter are male:
No one realizes just how far a boy would go in order to win the approval of his classmates and pals; the quantity of abuse that he can make up his mind to tolerate, whether inflicted upon himself or inflicted upon others, in order to earn recognition. The game was wearisome and repetitive: it was necessary to prove that we were men, that is, macho males, and the minute we were done proving it, we were immediately required to prove it again, each time starting over from scratch, as if it were always possible simply to lose the masculinity that had just been measured, as if that risk always lay lurking in ambush, as if already having proven a hundred times that we were men meant nothing, because a single misstep, just one failure would erase all the results achieved, wiping out the entire stake one had accumulated.
This mindset, he argues, made it so that SLM graduates cared more about impressing their peers with their machismo than anything else, at the expense of any women who happened to be in the way. And so the three young criminals, all men from privileged backgrounds, lured two teenage girls to a villa where they subjected their victims to terrible tortures. Edo’s examination of not only the crime—dissecting the psychology of rape and murder but also taking a deep dive into “mere” sex and violence—takes up a far heftier part of the book than the crime itself, which he only gets to about four hundred pages or so in, after a lengthy examination of the developing psyches of adolescent and young men.
Intertwined with these musings are Edo’s thoughts on Italian society of the 1970s, when sexual liberation and the idea that women had agency and deserved equal rights was first flowering into a heady environment with fewer social rules, that butted its head against the political violence that defined that country’s decade. Everyone had an ideology, it seems, and sometimes acts of terror were the only way to prove one’s commitment to the cause. Partisans would bomb or kill political opponents, even if said politics were less ideological than cosmetic: for instance, a Fascist might shoot a stranger under the conviction that the other man’s longish hair branded him a leftist, never mind what the stranger’s actual leanings might be. It was an era that, more than others, encouraged the villainous to persuade themselves of the justness of their heinous actions, even as society’s innocents had yet to learn that progress did not automatically vanquish evil:
That period was, in short, a dangerous limbo in which the old social protections had been dismantled and swept away, the age-old precautions now considered so much garbage, and the culture of self-defense had not yet become widespread.
Twenty years earlier, the young men of the CR/M would never have dreamed they could invite a couple of young women out without first being put through a meticulous family screening process. Twenty years later many doubts would have stood in the way of the fatal outing, and the technological means necessary to report the dangerous sideshow would have been available. The rape and murder could certainly still have transpired, of course, but not with the same modality. I therefore have the sensation that I’m telling an age-old story that happens over and over again, but which that one particular time happened the only way it could, the way that the times dictated it had to.
Though firmly rooted in the Italy of the 1970s, the lessons of The Catholic School still resonate with much of 21st-century society. It isn’t an entirely progressive book, with the pejoratives against gay and trans people, but it is a book that is unafraid to exhaustively dissect the ills of unchecked masculinity and to examine the role of faith, in a deity or in the state, when it comes to a person’s choices for good or evil. It does go back to being more of a novel towards the end, when it becomes clear what all the asides and the digressions were hiding, what Edo was trying to avoid thinking about, with an affecting closing that rewards the reader who’s stuck it out that long.