Caputo, Giuseppe. “An Orphan World”, translated by Sophie Hughes and Juana Adcock, Charco Press, 2019.
Confronting Poverty and Homosexuality
A father and son live in a run-down neighborhood, in an unnamed seaside city without amenities and struggle to keep their heads above water. They are challenged to come up with increasingly outlandish plans for their survival rather than be discouraged by hardship and problems. . Even when a terrible, macabre event rocks the neighborhood’s bar district and the locals flee, they decide to stay because staying together is what matters. matters is staying together. “An Orphan World” interplays a very tender father-son relationship while exposing homosexuality and homophobia with brutal honesty. With delicate lyricism and imagery. Giuseppe balances violence, discrimination, love, sex and defiance.
The novel is about poverty, and the resourceful ways in which people manage to deal with it. It also looks at the body as a space of pleasure and violence. This novel is an honest love letter between a father and son.
Bound on either side by the sea and the lights of wealthier neighborhoods, father and son trawl the beaches near empty home, looking for anything to add to their unsteady income. They are always together and always optimistic. They find beauty and wonder in the grind of everyday life.
They do, however, clash over the father’s increasingly naive schemes for instant cash. The son immerses himself in the city, exploring his sexuality in seemingly non-ending encounters with the bodies of other men and he becomes both object and subject of male desire. When homophobic violence shakes the neighborhood, father and son join a group “of lovable reprobates – a motley collection of barflies and addicts.”
The facade of naivete hides a multi-layered plot that challenges the reader to question everything and blurs the line between observer and observed, human, animal and inanimate object. Past and present come together when author Caputo juxtaposes the tender devotion of family against violence and against a jubilant carnival of music, sex and light. What he says to us is that we are all the same.
Each chapter tells of two different moments in the life of the narrator (this alternates between each story). Caputo also uses contrast in his character’s close relationship with his father and the often distant sexual exchanges which take place in his life as gay man. Light and darkness are in constant play throughout the plot. The novel begins as a tale of poverty and that continues throughout.
The father thinks up numerous schemes to make money. It is their lack of money which forces them to move to the section of town which is without any lights at night. Later, when their electricity is cut off because they cannot afford to pay the bill and they illegally reconnect it themselves, they are unable to put any lights on in the front of the house in case they are seen from the street. We see their poverty as a journey into increasing darkness even though light is not presented as the benevolent opposite.
The novel’s central event, overshadows everything— the mass murder of homosexuals, presumably on one night. We are made fully aware of the horror in its aftermath. The narrator’s sex life is revealed in an uncompromising manner. There are no ‘relationships’ but simply a series of sexual encounters. Some of these take place in a sex club he visits, others online. By Caputo placing this alongside the narrator’s loving relationship with his father shows us that he is not emotionally empty. The narrator’s connection to his father is evident from the beginning. There is a beauty in their relationship that survives the ugliness which surrounds them.
The father / son relationship is one of love and companionship rather than tension and resentment; the narrator’s homosexuality is central to his story without overwhelming the narrative; and the ugliness of its poverty and violence is never quite wins in the face of its human virtues.