Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Donato Carrisi: The Lost Girls of Rome

The following is adapted from Donato Carrisi's Author note in The Lost Girls of Rome. It describes a surreal experience that inspired him to write the book. The Lost Girls of Rome (translated by Howard Curtis) releases today. Reprinted with permission of Mulholland Books / Little, Brown and Company. Copyright © 2013 by Donato Carrisi. 

Donato Carrisi studied law and criminology before he began working as a writer for television. The Whisperer, Carrisi's first novel, won five international literary prizes, has been sold in nearly twenty countries, and has been translated into languages as varied as French, Danish, Hebrew and Vietnamese. Carrisi lives in Rome.


My new novel The Lost Girls of Rome has its origin in two unforgettable encounters. The first of these was with an unusual priest, and took place in Rome late one afternoon in May.

Father Jonathan had arranged to meet me in the Piazza delle Cinque Lune at dusk. Obviously, he was the one who fixed the time and place, and when I asked him to be a bit more specific about ‘dusk’, he calmly replied, ‘Before sunset.’ Not knowing how to respond, I decided to arrive well in advance.

He was already there.

Over the following two hours, Father Jonathan told me about the Paenitentiaria, the archive of sins and the role of the penitenzieri. As he spoke, it struck me as incredible that nobody had ever told this story before. Our walk through the back streets of Rome led us eventually to San Luigi dei Francesi, and to Caravaggio’s Martyrdom of St Matthew, which is the first stage in the training of these priest-profilers.

In many cases, the priests collaborate with the police. In Italy, since 1999, there has been an anti-sect squad in which they work with the police to gain a better understanding of so-called Satanic crimes. Not because they are trying to reveal the existence of the devil, but because of the demonic significance that some criminals, especially murderers, attribute to their acts. Explaining this significance requires them to clarify the criminals’ motives and to prepare a profile that may help the investigating team.

In the two months following our first meeting, Father Jonathan taught me many things about his unusual ministry and introduced me to a number of magical places in Rome, some of which took my breath away, and which are described in the novel. His range of knowledge was extensive, not only in the field of crime, but also in art, architecture, history, even the origin of phosphorescent paint.

As for questions of faith and religion, he good-naturedly tolerated my hesitations and dealt openly with my criticisms. At the end of it all, I realised that I had unwittingly been on a spiritual journey that helped me gain a better idea of the story I wanted to tell.

In modern society, spirituality is often seen as a bit of a joke, considered as something fed to the ignorant masses, or that has given rise to all kinds of ‘new age’ practices. Individuals have lost the elementary distinction between good and evil. The result has been to hand God over to the fundamentalists and extremists on the one hand, or the humorists on the other (because fanatical atheists are not so different from religious fanatics).

All this has produced an inability to look inside ourselves, beyond the categories of ethics and morality – not to mention the totally arbitrary category of the ‘politically correct’ – to find the essential dichotomy that allows us to judge human actions. Good and evil, yin and yang.

One day, Jonathan told me that I was ready to tell my story, he hoped I would ‘always be in the light’, and then said goodbye, promising that we would meet again. That was the last I saw of him. I have looked for him in vain, and I hope that this novel will lead to us meeting again soon. Even though part of me suspects that will not happen, because everything we had to say to each other has already been said.

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