Horcynus Orca

“It’s the only European answer to Moby-Dick: D’Arrigo is Melville’s equal.”1

(George Steiner)

After I closed the last page of Stefano D’Arrigo’s Horcynus Orca I could not help but think about David Foster Wallace’s E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction2. What would have Wallace thought of D’Arrigo’s prose? Would Horcynus Orca complicate his reaction to postmodernism? Here I am assuming that the American writer did not have a chance to pick up D’Arrigo’s masterpiece when he was alive. I am also fairly confident in my assumption because a) it takes a profound knowledge of Italian language and culture to get through Horcynus Orca and Wallace was not known to be an expert in this regard and b) there is only a German translation available but it was published years after his death. Still, does his reasoning about postmodernism apply to Stefano D’Arrigo?

In a sense, it certainly does. Horcynus Orca was published in 1975 but D’Arrigo had been working on it since 1950, thus the writing process started and culminated right within an age dense with postmodern fiction. John Barth, Kurt Vonnegut, Julio Cortázar, Italo Calvino, Thomas Pynchon, Ursula Le Guin, J.G. Ballard, are only few of the several authors whose literary efforts were distinctly geared towards what was supposed to happen after the modernism of early twentieth century. Stefano D’Arrigo could be added to this list as well, as he was clearly influenced by writers such as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and T.S. Eliot, but I like to think that he understood how truly modern Herman Melville had been and even venture to say that before David Foster Wallace embarked in his post-postmodern mission, D’Arrigo had already moved in the same direction.

For the thirty-one year old Wallace behind E Unibus Pluram, literature needed to progress beyond postmodernism by forgetting about its penchant for self-awareness. He sensed the powerful influence of media on fiction, and he brilliantly acknowledged the cynicism that rapidly followed the irony television so insisted upon. His ideal book was a combination of the style of postmodern masters with the themes of modern literary geniuses. When I think of this, I like to imagine Thomas Mann or Marcel Proust writing about today’s society after some years in the company of Cortázar and Pynchon.

In this regard, Horcynus Orca resembles Wallace’s magnum opus, Infinite Jest. Thematically, both works are focused on individual persons and their struggles with a world always out of reach. D’Arrigo’s main character, ‘Ndrja Cambrìa, can hardly cope with the leftovers of World War II in Southern Italy, while the Incandenza family, Don Gately, and Joelle van Dyne in Infinite Jest have to endlessly deal with addiction and media-driven entertainment. In both books, the father figure is of utmost importance. It’s the key to Wallace’s mystery but it’s also what anchors ‘Ndrja Cambrìa to a past he cannot escape. At the same time, the two writers share stylistic choices to a certain degree. Beside streams of long sentences, just as Wallace crafts new vocabulary and makes extensive use of slang, D’Arrigo mixes regional dialect with invented jargon. Furthermore, whereas the American writer breaks the narrative structure with a plethora of end notes, the Sicilian author disrupts it with the language itself, forcing the reader to make sense of neologisms at any time.

There is one more similarity which I find particularly fascinating. Horcynus Orca and Infinite Jest avoid unambiguous resolutions. While this can be somehow implied in the title of Wallace’s work, the irony of it bouncing back to the reader after the last page, what does the same reader come out with at the end of Horcynus Orca? The closing hendecasyllable points to an infinity reminiscent of Wallace’s one, but this is pure speculation. The intentionally misspelled title, with that “H” and that “y” left there without any explanation, does not help either. On the contrary, I think it may just be D’Arrigo telling us that questions will arise before the very first page. This openness from both books demands multiple readings, closer inspection, and thoughtful attention, which is nothing less than what the world we live in constantly requires from us. It’s an invitation to care, and the complexity of these pages makes explicit how hard learning to care actually is.

What sets Stefano D’Arrigo’s Horcynus Orca apart from its contemporaries is precisely what David Foster Wallace was aiming for. Had they had the opportunity to meet, one can only wonder what the two might have talked about. Would they have agreed on their views on postmodernism? I like to think they would.


  1. See: George Steiner - Un umanista assediato dalla scienza (My translation). 

  2. The essay can be found in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again