A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…Ferrovie del Messico, a novel of almost a thousand pages with a bare and mysterious cover, threatened the order and security of Italian publishing.
At the Turin International Book Fair 2023, the Italian historian and writer Alessandro Barbero participated in a panel session with Gian Marco Griffi, author of a new novel, a surprise hit called Ferrovie del Messico, a contender for the prestigious Italian literary prize Premio Strega.
“It’s very different from the bulk of Italian novelists we normally read,” Barbero said. “In literature, the spirit of the time – or fashion, to tell the truth – matters a lot. As a juror of the Strega Prize, I receive the box of twelve novels nominated every year: they range from beautiful to less beautiful. There are books about which you say “Of course they published it” and those about which you would ask “But why?”. Yet, they all resemble each other because they all tell real stories that the author lived or of which he/she is the protagonist”.
If literature is under the control of reality, the writer Gian Marco Griffi is a rebel in the name of imagination.
The Way of Fiction
In the Star Wars universe, hero Luke Skywalker lives on Tatooine, works as a farmer, and is suddenly called to save the galaxy.
In some ways, Gian Marco Griffi‘s story resembles Skywalker’s. He was born in Alessandria in 1976 and now lives in Asti – two towns in the Piemontese countryside famous for their cold weather and good wine. And for a living, he runs a golf club from Tuesdays to Sundays. His friends call him “the Monday writer” because Gian Marco writes novels on his only day off, and he pitches them to small independent publishing houses.
The latest one is Ferrovie del Messico (The Railways of Mexico). A year or two ago made its way to the offices of Laurana Editore, landing on the desk of the editor Giulio Mozzi.
Griffi’s novel had something special about it, and Mozzi passed a copy to a variety of editorial colleagues for their opinion. They gave it the thumbs-up, and the editor immediately got in touch with the author.
Resisting to reality
The writer and the publisher started to work together: in May 2022, Ferrovie del Messico officially appeared in shops. A hundred copies were the first number available: although the story was beautiful, it is a challenging book. Griffi’s language is complex, the novel is just shy of 1,000 pages, and the market wants other kinds of books too.
Griffi’s book is an exercise in telling a chapter of the Second World War involving fictional magical realist flights of fantasy.
However, the book managed to catch the attention of an Italian literary critic, Filippo La Porta, who, as a juror, awarded him the Mastercard Prize. Shortly after, the writer and critic Loredana Lipperini (host of the renowned cultural radio program Fahrenheit) decreed Ferrovie del Messico the best book of the year.
Finally, Alessandro Barbero proposed it to the jury of the Premio Strega: and if even one of the most famous Italian historians praises a project that deliberately betrays the sources, it means something is happening.
A year after its publication, the book ended up on the twelve-strong shortlist of the Strega Prize, while an endless line of readers camp at the Turin International Book Fair to meet the author.
Do. Or do not. There is no trying. The way of fiction is hard work for both the writer and the publisher.
Not the typical historical novel
The plot of the book is based upon one of those absurd, almost picaresque, and magical realist moments that occur so often in wartime. The protagonist is a young soldier called Francesco ‘Cesco’ Magetti, a trooper in the army of Mussolini’s Social Republic of Italy in 1944. His superior officer gives him a strange and inexplicably complex task – drawing a map of the Mexican railway system. Little does he know that this order comes directly from the German military high command in northern Italy, part of an obtuse and mysterious plan. From there, the plot and plan of the novel spread outwards in a magical web of imagined characters.
Alessandro Barbero explains the magic behind the fiction of the Railways. A magic that breaks down all constraints, including historical ones: Griffi studies the sources and does not return a copy of reality but a new world, similar to that of the past yet wholly original.
“Griffi describes an imaginary scenery. It is pure imagination,” he says. “There is a double level: on the one hand the illusion of being in reality and knowing how to orient ourselves. On the other the beauty of invention. There are computers and tech buildings, the Nazis talking about dress codes, and Hitler betting on his mustache. Of course, there is respect for history, yet the richness of literature lives on inventions. Even the simplest is fascinating, with a Borgesian charm…”
The defense of the weakest
The Railways of Mexico is first of all a great story in which you laugh and cry, and in both cases, you are happy to do so.
“Today’s theme is that of the defense of the weakest. Recounting abuses, what the authority does or fails to do towards the weakest, towards the last – Griffi explains – Cesco Magelli is an underdog, forgotten by the world and abandoned to its course. He was on the wrong side of history, a Republican by inertia, but he was not a devil, a villain.”
The novel is orchestrated in a layered structure, of which Griffi is firmly in control, with the sarcasm and skill of those who know how to put themselves within their own story while taking it elsewhere. “I got lost, yet it was a pleasant lost,” comments a reader from the audience in Turin. The others nod, knowing what she is talking about.
Breaking the autofiction dominance
“Those who read can live infinite lives. They were already there when Cain killed Abel, when Renzo married Lucia, and Leopardi admired the Infinite,” as Umberto Eco, one of the most famous Italian writers of all time, proudly claimed. For the writer and reader, a single life is not enough. The mind is armed, and limits are broken down, and when reality succumbs to fantasy, new worlds are born.
The rebellion of the Ferrovie del Messico is a defense of the minority: of those who still try to pursue an original, imaginary, and dreamy story in a world crushed by an army of clones and slaves of reality.
In the galaxy far, far away, we now see the light of Gian Marco Griffi, who speeds towards his golf club aboard his starship, keeper of the secret that can save intriguing stories.
At the Turin International Book Fair 2023, meanwhile, Barbero asks if the author can tell something about himself at least in the interview. “If I did autofiction – Griffi answers – I would still write with imagination because my life is far from a novel. It has nothing interesting.”
But Barbero has a reassuring answer: “As a juror, I read years ago a book whose most exciting detail was about moving home. Trust me, other writers’ stories are not so attractive either.”