That’s amore for Italian teen – or is it? Frank Bruni sul New York Times (12/03)

new york times logoEdit the story just a bit, and it becomes a heartwarming tale of early ambition and unpredictable success.

A teenage girl from a nowhere town pours her heart into prose. A risk-taking publisher turns that prose into a book. It outsells almost everything else in Italy, making its author famous.

That is an accurate enough account of what has happened to Melissa Panarello, but not a full one. It omits a few crucial details, starting with her subject matter: the erotic adventures of a sexually ravenous girl who caroms between younger and older men, homosexuality and sadomasochism.

It also fails to note that Miss Panarello and her publisher are marketing her book as thinly veiled autobiography. She claims that everything in it mirrors her experiences as a 15- and 16-year-old in a suburb of the small Sicilian city of Catania.

”It’s a very realistic picture”, said Miss Panarello, who turned 18 earlier this month, in an interview here on Saturday.

She conceded one significant alteration, beyond the protection of her sexual partners’ identities.

”The experiences in reality happened in less than a year, even though the book talks of them happening in two years”, she said with a seemingly studied matter-of-factness that left no room for embarrassment or boastfulness.

That chilly bluntness matches the tone of One Hundred Strokes of the Hairbrush Before Going to Sleep”, a 143-page wisp of a book that has had a wallop of an impact.

Since its publication in July, it has sold about 500,000 copies in Italy — an astonishing figure in a country with about 57 million people — and remains near or at the top of the nation’s best-seller lists.

It has also generated extensive discussion and a bevy of questions.

Do teenagers really have such experiences? Did Miss Panarello? Is the book a soul-scraping confession, written solely by her, or a savvy publicity stunt, initiated and abetted by others?

Miss Panarello and Simone Caltabellota, her editor at Fazi Editore, which published the book, said they never anticipated her success or did anything special to engineer it, even if the rollout of the book came to seem like an act of marketing genius.

When it was first published, under the name ”Melissa P.”, Miss Panarello would not pose for photographs that showed her face and would not allow her last name to be mentioned, citing the fact that she was not yet 18.

One of the first Italian publications to interview her had to do so by e-mail.

But in September, she began making carefully chosen television appearances. By the time of her 18th birthday, she had already jettisoned just about every last bit of reserve, and is now close to ubiquitous.

She said in the interview that she had not wanted to step out so soon but felt forced to do so by commentary that questioned whether there was a real person behind the book.

”There was a pride of authorship”, she said as she reclined on a worn leather sofa in the apartment of the book’s publicist. There was a spent cigarette in the ashtray in front of her, but she said it was not hers.

”I only smoke cigars”, she said.

The title of the book refers to a kind of purging ritual that the book’s narrator, also named Melissa, performs after she is prodded by one of her sexual partners into having sex with him and four other men at the same time. That happens on her 16th birthday.

It follows and precedes many other sexual encounters, sometimes arranged on the Internet and often recounted in near clinical detail.

Miss Panarello is from Acicastello, just outside Catania. She said that her father and mother sold clothes and shoes, and that she had a younger sister.

She said that while she had never been much of a student, she has long been a fan of erotic literature and sent some of her earlier writing to erotic Internet sites.

She said she spent a lot of time online, which meant she had to sit in the family’s garage, where the only computer was.

”My mother did not want it in the house”, Miss Panarello said, still strangely deadpan. ”She believed that it was an instrument of the devil”.

Her parents had no idea what she was doing or writing, she said, until her mother read a computer printout of the first draft of the book and promptly threw it in the trash.

Miss Panarello said she had to threaten to go to a lawyer before her parents agreed to let the book be published. She needed their permission because of her age.

Mr. Caltabellota said Fazi, a small, independent house, was one of the few publishers — among dozens to which she sent her draft — that saw merit in it.

”I felt something”, Mr. Caltabellota said of his reaction upon reading it.

At that point, he said, only bits of the narrative were written as a diary, and he asked Miss Panarello to put all of the narrative in that form.

But, he added, ”She wrote every word, every comma”.

Several Italian journalists have expressed skepticism about that. Literary critics have alternately expressed admiration for, and revulsion at, the end result.

Readers have simply devoured it.

”The public loves these kinds of things”, said Luciano Pellicani, an Italian sociologist, adding that beyond the subject matter and seemingly cunning introduction of the book, there was no special, Italy-specific explanation for its success.

In fact, publishing rights for it have been purchased in about a dozen countries, including the United States, where an English translation is scheduled for release next fall by Grove/Atlantic.

Grove was also the American publisher of ”The Sexual Life of Catherine M.”, a best-selling memoir to which Miss Panarello’s book clearly owes a debt.

One Hundred Strokes has obviously changed her life. She said she was planning to move away from Sicily, which bores her, and had already stopped going to her high school there.

”The obligations of the book do not leave me much time”, she said, adding that she also had problems with her teachers after the book’s release.

”It wasn’t only because they thought the book was scandalous”, she said. ”It was also the envy. You know, those teachers are the most frustrated people in the world”.

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