Genova: city as mirror


May 2013

...I want to be part of this world. When I woke up, I heard how the city started to pulverize the day between her centuries-old rotten teeth.  At several places in the neighborhood, holes were being drilled. Neighbors screamed at each other through the open windows. In the writings on the wall of the Palazzo across my bedroom I read that no smile can be deciphered. ... I want to be part of this world. I want to live in this labyrinth as a happy monster, together with the thousands of other happy monsters. I want to inhabit the intestents of this city.  I want to understand the groaning of her buildings. (1)

In La Superba, the Italian city Genova is described from the perspective of protagonist Leonardo, who, just like the author Ilja Leonard Pfeiffer, recently moved to Genova from the Netherlands. At first sight, the text does not seem to do much more than drifting about from one bar to the other. According to Leonardo, life in Genova is about the repetitive consumption of alcoholic drinks at the terraces in the urban labyrinth, alternated with sexual adventures - but along the way, Pfeiffer takes the reader deep into the maze of small alleys filled to burst with stories, that evoke the inscrutability of “la Superba.”

Genova is like a mirror, a city with two faces, like one of the invisible cities of Calvino, that renders two totally different images (2). Seen from Northern Europe, Genova seems a pleasant place to relax, but seen from the south, the city is the hardly reachable gateway to the promised land Europe. The first image, seen through the eyes of Leonardo, is mirrored in that of the North-African refugee, as expressed in the character Djiby. Through Djiby, Pfeiffer tells the story of hardship and indignity that the fugitives experience on their way to Europe: the place where work and welfare seems abundant. Of course, on arrival in Genova, this turns out to be an illusion. The many Africans who arrived here live in piteous circumstances and are often forced to live from prostitution or criminality.

More mirrors complete the character of Pfeiffer’s Genova, such as the “Bar of Mirrors” , frequented by Leonardo, where “the most beautiful girl of Genova” serves, the girl that opens and closes the novel. Also the protagonists are mirrors: the transvestites and the women from Genova hold a mirror up to Leonardo’s face: eventually, the borders between feminine and masculine become blurred, when Leonardo sees himself as a girl in the mirror, when the female leg he fantasized about belonged to a man, when he descends into the labyrinth, the fringe of the city where men offer themselves as women in the dark alleys.

In this book, Genova is a city at first inviting and impressive, the beginning of a new world, a new life, but gradually, the city strangles her inhabitants and visitors, capturing them in her summer heat: ...the heat was merciless. The sun stood like a trembling copper gong above the city, her sound still resonating in the alleys. The sweat dripped from the grey wall. The pavement sighed under every rare footstep, ready to burst.  (3).  Entangled in the labyrinth and paralyzed by the heat, the lost tourists, the fugitives or the Dutch poet who came to find a relaxing life, they are captured by La Superba, unable to escape from her inscrutable networks, her web of dark alleyways. Indeed, when at the end of the book Leonardo meets once again the girl from the Bar of Mirrors, he has become part of this world, he has become one of its monsters, devoured by the labyrinth. (4)

Ilja Leonard Pfeiffer, La Superba, De Arbeiderspers, Utrecht/Amsterdam/Antwerpen 2013

  1. La Superba, p. 16-17, (translation Dutch-English kh)
  2. Italo Calvino, The Invisible Cities,University of Michigan Presss 1974 (Le Città Invisibili, Italy 1972) 
  3. La Superba, p. 201-202 (translation Dutch-English kh)
  4. see Dutch version of this review on:


Klaske Havik