The Italian writer Bernardo Zannoni claims his debut novel, My Stupid Intentions (2023, New York Review of Books), was written to stave off boredom. Prior to its release, the twenty-eight-year-old writer—who scraped through high school and decided against further education—worked off jobs as a porter, waiter, and tour guide until the book’s 2021 publication; his book went on to win Italy’s prestigious Campiello literary prize the following year. A sturdy English translation by Alex Andriesse was quickly acquired and recently brought out by New York Review Books and shows just why a novelist bucking the typical background of an advanced education has caught international attention.
My Stupid Intentions tells the story of Archy, a pauperized beech marten. The novel opens with a blunt sentiment from Archy regarding his father, his opening words stony: “My father died because he was a thief.” Nor does Archy’s mother have sympathy for her late husband, who recriminates him for leaving her with the burden of raising six kits in the depths of a harsh winter. The family’s conditions are so dismal that Archy considers eating one of his weaker siblings just to stay alive.
This is the first indication that My Stupid Intentions stands apart from any common fairy tale; while there is a fantastical bent to Zannoni’s anthropomorphic narrative, little room will be made to accommodate playfulness or moral lessons. Following an injury, Archy is thrown out by his mother and into the subjugating hands of Solomon, a pawnbroking fox. Archy’s newfound life of servitude is initially miserable, though he finds a silver lining in the task of feeding Solomon’s hens. He names a favorite of the bunch Sara and lets her eat from his paw, a sign that Archy leans more towards compassion than cruelty. But Solomon is the opposite: noticing the bond developing between Archy and Sara, Solomon demands that he snap her neck so that she can be traded the next day.
The other major crux of this novel is the education of Archy. Despite his erratic nature, Solomon warms to Archy on account of him having “eyes that understood” and teaches him to read to impart the word of God. As Archy becomes acquainted with language and logic, a duality emerges, complicating Archy’s character as his animal nature abuts his human capacity for emotional and mental sophistication. When Archy is tasked with killing Sara, the reader expects him to crumble; the hen has become one of the few remnants of tenderness in his life, and by this point in the novel, Archy’s sensibilities are clear. While he is initially choking back the tears, Archy’s remorse vanishes into ferociousness: “I was acting on an indomitable desire, urged on by the blood. I ripped Sara’s head clean off. . . . Having killed one chicken, I could have killed them all.”
Zannoni uses Archy’s conflicted nature to explore a host of philosophically rich themes, such as free will, the nature of God, and death. In one of Solomon’s early lessons, he pushes Archy toward thoughts of his own mortality for the first time before offering religion as a solution to existential dread. The fear of death, as a very real and very abstract concept, provokes Archy into the phenomenological experience of confronting it for the first time:
“I cast back over my life . . . how many times it had crossed my mind that I might die. Not once. Death had always touched those around me, never me; in my existence I ruled it out in advance, forgotten behind the progression of the days, which I believed would continue on forever without end.”
Solomon’s tutelage—who himself became literate after a domesticated dog helped him to read the Bible—might seem selfless, though it soon becomes apparent that this is no mere act of kindness. Aware that his days are coming to a close, Solomon tasks Archy with transcribing his life story. More specifically, with redrafting it: while Solomon—“one of the shrewdest bandits ever seen”—has already chronicled his previous days, he can only look back upon them with disgust. He asks Archy to “rewrite [his] life, to bring it closer to God.” Thus, where once Solomon would kill for the joy of it, in this revised account he was simply making sacrifices for the Lord; “Each murder, theft and misdeed became an episode in his search for the light.” At his final hour, Solomon’s desperate effort to make himself worthy of heaven falters, and he faces death as an unbelieving coward. Archy is struck by how pathetic the old fox’s passing had been. Now an adult himself and feeling his age, he cannot shake “the certainty that [his] last moments would be the same as [Solomon’s],” growing weaker and older, closer to the unavoidable wailing, just like a dying animal.
As one of the novel’s main empathic levers, Archy’s newfound consciousness allows him insight into his fundamental animalness, though oddly he seems less aware of how strongly those instincts pull at him, even as they become increasingly bestial. In describing a play-fight between Archy and his sister Louise, for example, Archy describes himself “slipping inside of her.” This incestuous moment might seem provocative, but Archy does not abide by human taboos nor does he dwell on his actions: his dalliance with his sister is over as soon as it becomes clear that “the very powerful bond between [them] was that moment of pleasure experienced, and beyond that there was nothing.”
In the end, it seems, that his urges win over his education. While Archy’s enlightment deepens him, he gives in to his instincts, which kick back in all too quickly and without much challenge.
As it stands, Archy’s knowledge acquisition can feel reductive, even useless. Still, while the intelligence of the other characters—with their rapid comings and goings and unpredictable actions—might be said to reflect the ephemerality and brutishness of the animal kingdom, they don’t make for strong individual personalities. With Archy and Solomon at least, there is some invigorating exchange, and when death does come for Archy as it did for Solomon, Zannoni’s makes the event feel like “a piece of the world,” has passed along with them, snuffing out a lot more than a couple of animals and their stupid intentions.
Of course, humans are also tugged between enlightenment and stupidity. I nearly left my copy of My Stupid Intentions at an airport bar, remembering just before boarding to return for it, and the barman, after shooting me a blank expression, suddenly remembered the book. His eyes lit up, and he began to smile: “Yes! I remember, with the . . . the . . . paw!” He laid the book out on the bar and took a few guesses at the animal on the front cover; Kiki Smith’s engraving looks down on a mammalian hind-leg, seemingly submissive to the presence of the onlooker. “I don’t read,” he told me, “but this I like.”
He seemed surprised when I told him that a beech marten named Archy was the protagonist. He read out a line from the blurb—“caught between his natural urges and acquired knowledge”—and told me he hoped everything would work out well for Archy, as if the story’s events weren’t set in stone, as if we were speaking about someone with a problem anyone could have.