‘None is the Number’: Antonio Monda’s spiritual noir
In the game of roulette, numbers are everything. This game of chance finds its clear and distinct resolution when the wheel slows its spinning and stops. That is when the suspense melts away and the result comes in. The croupier’s focus is all on the resting point of the the ball. It is that suspense that makes you hold your breath. The number which comes up is everything. The number changes destinies.
But possibly not. Quoting a line from Bob Dylan, Antonio Monda takes “None is the Number” as the title for his latest novel.1 In one scene, in fact, the croupier stops the ball before it comes to rest. No matter what number comes up, the winner is Ben Siegel, aka “Bugsy,” who collects all the winnings without anyone intervening. Fear reigns. Bugsy is a real-life character, a well-known American mobster named Benjamin Siegel, born Benjamin Hymen Siegelbaum. He is the boss. He goes on to collect the winnings and then returns them along with his $5,000 to the croupier, saying out loud but nonchalantly: “For you and everyone who works in this joint” (p. 201). Because the number is nothing; it is of no significance. Wins are not entrusted to chance. You don’t win because the ball lands in a particular slot. And there is no number that can change things, including the laws of life, especially for those with power.
Monda’s wide-ranging novel arcs, knots and unravels on this point. It asks the question: is it possible to change? Is it possible for something to happen that changes destinies and alters the course of lives by changing its laws? And, ultimately, is a form of grace possible? To know Monda’s answer, it is necessary to read through to the last page.
Horror and grace
The novel is a story of the Mafia and those they have murdered. He writes of streams of blood, brains exploding, and faces reduced to mush, showing a taste for pulp and splatter. But ultimately, that is not what matters, because what drives the tale is always an unreachable force located elsewhere, with grace possible even if it lives “in the devil’s territory.” The reader will ultimately find out how. But it is the hero himself who, at one point, recalls some words of his father that echo Bernanos: “Everything is grace, even what seems to us most unjust, horrible, and monstrous” (p. 112). The novel thrives on this tension between grace and horror.
For the central character there is one sacred moment in a person’s life: death. “Each time I would immortalize his last gaze, never killing from behind, death is the only sacred moment in life, and it must be faced looking into its eyes” (p. 95), Monda writes. The novel does not spare us these final glances: “Ryan Flahertie knew perfectly well I was going to kill him,” so the novel begins, “and he was trying to hold on to something impossible, solidarity perhaps, since we were in the same business.” In another case the victim “waited for the gunshot, looking me in the eye; pride was stronger than fear” (p. 8). In those looks is the truth of a life that comes almost posthumously as a kind of Spoon River fixing the meaning of a life in an epithet on a tombstone.
None is the Number is “the story of a soul,” if we are allowed to use this expression. A soul which is as sensitive as a seismograph, recording the dynamics of evil, but always observing them with an oblique gaze, looking for something to give weight, value, order. So it escapes the evil it records. As soon as the reader is horrified, he or she immediately feels pity, almost complicity. Judgment escapes, dissolves. Therein lies the strength of this novel.
The killer does not really know what his victims did to deserve death. Or perhaps knows something in general, often sensing the unfairness, but knowing that any questioning is futile. Still, gray and anonymous fate does not win; there is always something that escapes, that does not add up, in this novel.
A murderer? An incompetent one ? A monk?
The killer is an executioner who is also a victim, and he has to deal with a legal and political system that is no less corrupt than the criminal one. In the end, he lives inside a well-defined bubble of evil surrounded by laws, without it polluting his conscience, which remains lucid to the point of him offering a mercilessly honest picture of himself: he feels he is a fraud, “because I don’t believe in anything I do, least of all myself” (p. 25). He feels his life is an act, indeed a joke. He believes in everything he does while doing it, but then forgets it, under the illusion that “oblivion will erase everything.” “If it were not tragic it would be very funny,” he says to himself (p.26).
It is from this realization that the killer reflects on life as a “futile challenge,” that shrewdness is worth more than strength. He believes that the only moments when he can escape emptiness are those when he experiences “the intoxication of dominating and possessing” (p. 38), but he knows that this is an illusion. A tragic sense of life is expressed in liturgical Latin with the reference to the Lenten ashes: Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris – “Remember you are dust, and unto dust you will return.” The killer recalls these words taught to him by his father. But we also find biblical allusions from Qoheleth with a Leopardian flavor about the “futility of everything” (p. 39).
An incompetent person, then? A person who cannot choose and lets life choose for him? Yes, but that is not the whole truth. His is more the reflection of a monk than that of a murderer. Or is the author not telling us, perhaps, that his criminal mentality is a paradox? Crime might then just be the grotesque figure of a religious condition. The clue lies in the appeal to the sacred at the crime scene, where God and death are nonetheless pointers to ultimate reality as Bergman expressed it in his “Seventh Seal.” Another clue: his nickname is “the Bishop.” His father wanted him to be one, because bishops “are called excellency” and “it is important to have the respect of the people” (p. 16). Hence the first thing he killed was his father’s dream. He will end up killing a priest and a nun: it is the task of “the bishop.” But Monda’s lens also focuses on him “praying” that one of his victims, one of his friends, at least does not recognize him.
Bugsy acts according to the law of natural selection. He is a killer operating on the level of sin and grace of violence and pietas. He kills one of his friends in the gang and does so at point-blank range, but the gentleness with which the murderer’s eyes look at the happy gestures of the man who was preparing a meal is noteworthy: “That was the moment when I shot him from behind; I didn’t want to see his eyes” (p. 206). And so he makes an exception to his usual practice. Bugsy is one-dimensional, in love with himself and his ambitions, and therefore boring. He goes through highs and lows, and drags the reader along with him.
Monda endows the action with the passion of the boxing ring. The description of the fight between Tony Canzoneri and Kid Chocolate is memorable, as is the one between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling. The boxers look into each other’s eyes as the killer and his victims do. In those looks are “the emotions that define every person: pride, fear, the will to dominate and humiliate” (p. 46). But even in the boxing match, the number is nothing. Money and power will prevail over the supposed nobility of the rules of the ring.
A space of purity
The search for a pure, utopian space is strong. It opens up in memories of the past, of his parents, of Sicily, of his father Alfonso, who died unaware of his son’s criminal life. His mother, on the other hand, was aware, and died of a broken heart. He lives on emotions. They bind him to his dog Teddy, and to Eimear, who works as an usher in a cinema. She will be the one to disarm the killer’s soul, and it is with her that for the first time he feels the “weight” of the gun in his pocket. The daughter of a sick woman who has been abandoned by her husband, Eimear is a person of “quiet and peaceful” strength (p. 75). The killer confesses to himself the feeling that she “might represent something totally different from everything I had experienced up to that time” (p. 117).
She is Beatrice, a presence of paradise in the midst of hellish boils, a sign of the grace that traverses the whirlpool for love: “I did not imagine that one could love and feel at the same time horror, fear, dismay and then love again” (p. 188), she will write to him. Eimear’s long, tapering fingers gripped the hands with which the killer had strangled, stabbed, tortured and shot. It will be Eimar who will accompany him toward an unexpected and final moment of revelation.
Eimear works in a movie theater, the place where fictional images are projected. And it is a cinema that is always empty: “I love the empty matinee theaters, with the huge screen projecting a story that no one sees. It is a creation that acquires the force of life itself, perhaps even the substance, and goes on and on uselessly in those deserted theaters” (p. 108). There the truth of the killer’s life is staged.
But in reality it is Tara, Eimear’s mother, who, from her wheelchair, with her kindness, upsets the killer and disarms him to the point of self-realization: “I was unprepared for such a situation; it is much easier to kill than be kind. And I was completely unprepared for that vision, it had something impassive and unfamiliar, or maybe not: I had known it as a child, when my father used to tell me about the invincible strength of the meek” (p. 89).
The killer struggles with life and himself, but he only finds himself when his guard is down, when he is unprepared. He is unprepared for love, for kindness, and even for the unspoken rebuke of the woman who immediately understands the trade of the man her daughter has brought into her home. And perhaps that is the secret: never feel ready, remain expectant, do not close the door. In the background is a third mother figure, the one in the novel’s dedication, “To my mother, who scolded me and then prayed with me for the last time.”
We have not yet talked about the real figure of the entire saga, the city of New York, which shines, enchants and triumphs, which bestows dreams and illusions, is welcoming and impregnable, where everything is grand and spectacular: “New York can surprise you even with sweetness, while it gives you that energy that doesn’t make you fall into the trap of thinking too much. And it pushes you forward, ever forward, until all worry turns to oblivion” (p. 168).
New York greets “with a shimmering sun,” defying all pain and banishing all thought. “April’s clear sunshine makes it invulnerable, serene and triumphant, frenetic and brash. Its skyline and sidewalks are both protagonist and setting. Its skyscrapers of concrete and steel are not just a challenge, but a response to the emptiness” (p. 116) that everyone feels. It is on its sidewalks that crimes are committed and irrepressible moods and sudden revelations are projected.
A ‘spiritual noir’
We could call Monda’s work an example of “spiritual noir,” a crime novel that has as its principal character an executioner. It does not focus on the investigation, and therefore “justice,” but on the perpetrator, who is also a center of a system of evil. While the genre of the “spiritual detective story” is better known, this novel makes us realize that it is also possible to speak of a “spiritual noir” without falling into contradiction. One can, in fact, investigate human consciousness from the point of view of those who commit evil.
Just as in Edward Hopper’s dark paintings it is possible to see the different shades of black on a canvas that is only seemingly uniform, so in a noir novel it is possible to understand how a killer’s consciousness can be complex and how the stimulus of an ever lurking grace acts on it.
The narrative investigation thus has as its object the soul with its secrets and mysterious anxieties, the conflict between good and evil. The narrative thrives on a tension directed at exposing torments, moral issues, and distressing emotions. There is thus an appeal to the religious dimension of human existence, made up of inner journeys, escape forward and upward, doubts, remorse, desire for salvation, as well as angelic presence.
. Cf. A. Monda, Il numero è nulla, Milan, Mondadori, 2023. An English translation may be forthcoming, https://www.mondadori.it/libri/il-numero-e-nulla-antonio-monda/
. “Where black is the color, where none is the number”, from A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.
. Cf. F. O’Connor, Nel territorio del diavolo. Sul mistero di scrivere, Rome, minimum fax, 2010.
. Antonio Monda chose as his cover a splendid Hopper painting, Cinema in New York, which shifts the perspective from the stage to a blue mask at the end of the show, which would be doomed to anonymity and oblivion if it were not revealed. Eimear is that mask.
. Cf. F. Panzeri – R. Righetto (eds), Salvacion. Gialli religiosi, Milan, Piemme, 1996. The immediate points of reference are the contemporaries: Giovanni Testori, Piero Meldini, Salvatore Mannuzzu, but from them we can certainly go back to Georges Bernanos, François Mauriac, Gilbert Keith Chesterton and Julien Green, to the biblical tale of Cain and Abel.