This is one of Daphne du Maurier’s lesser-known works and, I would venture, one of her hardest to classify. The novel’s Italian setting and the gothic, somewhat supernatural air might remind readers of her famous short story, “Don’t Look Now,” but the plot and characters couldn’t be more different. There are extended flashbacks throughout the book and a very strong parallel between a city’s Renaissance past and its mid-1960s present. I’ve read most of du Maurier’s work and I really can’t find an appropriate comparison between FALCON (published in 1965) and anything else she wrote.
The story concerns two brothers, Fabbio, the narrator, and his older brother, Aldo. (There is a mild twist involving Aldo fairly early in the book, which I won’t spoil for those of you who haven’t read it. However, it is telegraphed rather clumsily, so few will be surprised when it occurs.) Fabbio is employed as a guide for a company that provides package tours (which were just becoming popular at the time the book was written). Although he performs his job with professional competence, Fabbio is a rather muted young man, lacking the passion and gusto for living often associated with the cliché of Italian manhood. When he is not working, Fabbio spends much of his time remembering his childhood during World War II in the town of Ruffano where his beautiful mother safeguarded her family by having affairs with first a German and later an American officer. For many years, Fabbio has stayed away from Ruffano and its memories, but the murder of a former family servant in Rome leads him reluctantly back to his birthplace.
The town of Ruffano (which is entirely the product of du Maurier’s imagination, although it could be based on a number of cities in the alpine areas of Italy) possesses a mountainous geography and Renaissance architecture that make it both hauntingly beautiful and darkly ominous. Some of the books best passages are du Maurier’s descriptions of the area’s buildings and terrain. A palace built high in the mountains dominates the town; its highest point is a small balconied room (perhaps at one time a private chapel) which contains a 15th century painting of Christ being tempted by Satan to leap from the balcony and fly over the city. At one point in Ruffano’s history, a mad Duke, known as the “Falcon,” actually jumped from the tower in an attempt to prove his divine nature. This rather heavy foreshadowing, coupled with the title of the book, will leave few readers guessing what the climax of the story will involve!
Fabbio’s brother, Aldo, a pilot during the war and a much more powerful and vibrant presence than his younger sibling, has established himself as a leader of the university students in Ruffano, gathering around him young people who he leads in a sort of cult of personality. Aldo’s brand of leadership is looked upon with concern by the town’s authorities who have sharp memories of what happened to Italy during the war under the leadership of another charismatic personality. With the passion (and, some would say, the heedless self-righteousness) of the young, those under Aldo’s direction have formed a secret society that has been known to attack town leaders and people who have opposed their way of seeing things, although nothing can be tied directly back to Aldo. There is concern about an upcoming city-wide celebration and what the secret group might be planning to disrupt the proceedings. This forthcoming event looms large over the rest of the story.
Once back in Ruffano, Fabbio (or “Beo”—“blessed”—as his childhood nickname would have it) is reunited with his brother. Although he is supposed to be investigating the murder of the family servant, Fabbio is persuaded to quit his job as a tour guide and work in the university’s library helping to catalogue some very old books. (For long stretches of the book, the murder that brought Fabbio back to Ruffano seems utterly forgotten.) The library books, and the centuries-old documents found hidden within their pages, will play a role in the story as the past of the mad “Falcon” and the future of Ruffano (with Aldo as leader?) intertwine. Aldo’s ease in manipulating his younger brother and Fabbio’s apparent passivity in the face of that manipulation will play out over the course of the novel especially in regards to two female characters: Signora Butali, a married woman who Fabbio reverently regards as being Madonna-like, but who the reader infers is having an affair with Aldo, and Carla Raspa, a university teacher who is interested in Fabbio, who, in turn, is repulsed by Carla’s more aggressive personality and sexual experience.
The book has an odd subtext: Both homoerotic and homophobic at the same time. There’s an obvious dominance-submission dynamic between Aldo and Fabbio, starting in their youth; several flashback passages describe the rather strange games the brothers played together—nothing of an actual sexual nature, but with a distinct erotic element. Fabbio’s excessively uncritical admiration for and obsession with his older brother make it impossible for him to develop a mature relationship with a woman. And yet, a minor gay character receives short shrift from Fabbio, who expresses disgust at the man’s orientation and lifestyle. A most peculiar dichotomy—and perhaps indicative of du Maurier’s (and the era’s) own ambivalence toward the subject. It does, however, date the book badly and make it much more of a “time capsule” than many of her other books.
Eventually, the day of the celebration arrives. Various strands of the plot come together and the climax, hinted at throughout the book, takes place. In some respects, the forces of order and civility triumph, but we’re not sure how Fabbio will eventually come to terms with what has happened. THE FLIGHT OF THE FALCON is not one of du Maurier’s more successful novels: The foreshadowing is heavy-handed and, despite some beautifully-descriptive passages of the Italian landscape and architecture, I would certainly not recommend it to someone unfamiliar with her work. However, for someone who has read a number of her better-known works (such as REBECCA, MY COUSIN RACHEL, and THE BIRDS) and wants to read something completely different from the same author, THE FLIGHT OF THE FALCON would not be a bad choice, if only to show that even the most talented writer won’t hit one out of the park every time they’re up to bat.
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B.V. Lawson, TROUBLEMAKER, Joseph Hansen
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