Not engaging enough to make for a good mystery, not funny enough to make for a good comedy and not philosophical enough to make up for either.
Lake Maggiore is a glacially-formed body of water stretching for 40 miles and crossing the border between Italy and Switzerland. Never more than a few miles wide at any given point, it surrounded by the Alps and dotted with islands. In winter, the lake keeps the surrounding region warm and in summer it has the opposite effect. It is, in other words, an idyll. It is also the setting of Piero Chiara’s The Bishop’s Bedroom, published originally in 1976, but only now translated into English by Jill Foulston.
The novel is set in 1946 and told in the first person by an unnamed narrator. Having spent the last few years of the war imprisoned in Switzerland (there is some ambiguity as to whether he was actually a soldier or a draft-dodger), he has come with some money and a small sailing boat, the Tinca, to waste away the summer on Lake Maggiore. In the town of Oggebbio, he meets Temistocle Mario Orimbelli, who invites the narrator to his mansion, Villa Cleofe. In the mansion, the narrator meets Orimbelli’s wife, Cleofe Berlusconi and her war widow sister-in-law Matilde. The narrator is quickly set up in the titular bedroom.
It is clear that Orimbelli and his wife barely tolerate one another. Orimbelli keeps his past ambiguous. Having only just “returned from the war” after an absence of ten years, there are rumors that he spent the last few years in Naples and has a second family there. This is what he tells the narrator his wife believes. Orimbelli says it isn’t true. And so he begins to draw the narrator into the web of his life and lies. They begin boating together. And they pick up women, spending luxurious days meandering back and forth across the lake. Orimbelli turns out to be quite a Lothario despite the narrator’s description of him as being 40, but looking 50 “with an egg-shaped body and short arms and legs.”
Orimbelli makes a habit of sleeping with women that are “meant” for his friend, the narrator, and then apologizing and winning his friend back to him. The narrator, in fact, comes off at first as a bit of a dullard. Just as empty as Orimbelli, but lacking the verve of that character. After a time, he becomes conscious of the way Orimbelli lies to get what he wants, but allows him to do it all the same. This culminates in the narrator’s growing attraction to Matilde, the sister-in-law of Orimbelli’s wife whose husband has been missing for ten years and will soon be declared legally dead. As he begins to maneuver to make himself close to her, Orimbelli intervenes, confessing an ongoing affair between himself and Matilde and an intention to leave Villa Cleofe together for good.
It is around this point (about two-thirds of the way through the book) that the plot of the novel morphs into that of a mystery. What transpires feels both inevitable and contrived. A character is found dead. The ambiguity of the maybe-murder is never really meant to be believed. Another character – only spoken about before – shows up to disclose new information. The details of how the crime was carried out are not very interesting once revealed. What conflict might have come between the characters is resolved by another death and the lingering internal turmoil of the narrator is resolved in anti-climax.
Chiara’s prose throughout is attentive to climate of the lake and the ambiguous relations of the characters. If not particularly astounding, it does occasionally find moments of incisive observation and even poetics. The constant leering of the male characters at their potential female conquests is tiresome, however, and reveals nothing about anyone that we don’t already know. The women are hot and bored, the men are horny and insane. It is an Italian novel, after all.
But in the end, The Bishop’s Bedroom is not engaging enough to make for a good mystery, not funny enough to make for a good comedy and not philosophical enough to make up for either. At only 150 pages or so, its story and characters are stretched thin. Still, there are worse novels to sit and pass the afternoon with, and the alluring atmosphere Chiara builds up around Lake Maggiore makes for an escapism of a kind that might cover a multitude of sins for some readers.