Bernardo Zannoni’s My Stupid Intentions is a brash and brilliant picaresque fable

A few pages into Bernardo Zannoni’s brash, brilliant novel My Stupid Intentions, our narrator Archy and his eldest brother Leroy have the following conversation about their youngest brother Otis:

“Are you cold?” he said.

“I’m hungry.”

“Me too. We could eat Otis. He’s small, and weak.”

Otis is small and weak, but his brothers ultimately elect to remain hungry and not consume him. A few pages later, Archy falls from a tree, leaving one leg permanently lame. He then engages in sexual intercourse with his sister Louise. And poor Otis? “I’m going to die because I’m not growing,” he declares at the family dinner. This prediction quickly proves true. Archy is then sold into the service of a writer named Solomon for the low price of one and a half chickens.

Perhaps, having put forth details in lieu of a bigger picture, I should backtrack:

My Stupid Intentions (I miei stupidi intenti) is Bernardo Zannoni’s first published novel. It won the 2022 Campiello Prize, and is now available in English thanks to translator Alex Andriesse and publisher NYRB. I enjoyed all 211 pages of it.

Archy, the narrator of My Stupid Intentions is a beech marten, a kind of mustelid similar to a weasel or ferret. My Stupid Intentions is Archy’s life story—and it is crammed with life, with nerve, joy, terror, anger, and discovery.

I mentioned some names above, mostly of Archy’s family members, but we can dispense with them now. The most important character in Archy’s life is Solomon, an old fox who has learned to read and write. Solomon’s ability to cipher makes him a market nexus for the animals of the forest, who come to him to trade in goods like chickens, eggs, and vegetables. A fiercely loyal dog named Joel protects Solomon and their enterprise (Joel claims that Solomon rescued him from a wasp’s nest when he was an infant). Crippled Archy soon finds his place in Solomon and Joel’s routine, even venturing out with Joel to collect delinquent accounts.

In time, Solomon teaches Archy to read and write. They begin with the business, keeping track of customers’ debts, but soon advance to the bible. Here, Archy learns about God and comes to despise him: “Why had he inflicted this pain upon me? Why wasn’t I a man? Hadn’t I sought him, hadn’t I been on his side?”

In knowing God, Zannoni seems to suggest, Archy and Solomon become imbued with a consciousness otherwise unavailable to animals. The curse of this consciousness is the revelation of mortality. While other animals comprehend that death exists, they do not, at least from Archy’s perspective, fully understand what death entails. Understanding his own mortality is Archy’s curse, and his agon with God weaves through the novel’s bright and dark adventures. In one of the novel’s most poignant moments, Archy, unable to provide succor to his friend Joel, offers him an illusion, a proper telos for his dog’s soul:

He went off searching for a place that didn’t exist, beyond the wrong mountains, where no three rivers parted ways. He would wander all his life, clinging to a spurious hope, the only thing that made him keep going, like a phantom. I am terrified to think he may still be out there, searching. I am terrified to think he may have realized he has been damned to a pointless existence, a life of grasping at smoke. I am terrified to think I have been crueler than God.

My Stupid Intentions is full of cruelties and heroics. There are bandits and thieves and duels. There is a strange underground club for maimed and toothless animals to huddle together. (“Even in their loneliness, their exhaustion, their absence of appetite, they did not think they were going to die, and absurdly I envied them.”) There are doctors and apprentices and violent brigands—again, Zannoni’s novel bristles with life, teems with a propulsive energy.

This energy pulses at both the sentence and paragraph level in Andriesse’s nimble translation. The book’s jacket summary describes My Stupid Intentions as a “picaresque fable,” and it indeed rockets along with picaresque energy, its sharp turns often made even sharper by an ironic quip from Archy.

As for the “fable” bit…well, any story with anthropomorphic animals might be called a “fable,” especially if there is a moral dimension highlighted. Archy’s complaint against God is direct yet ultimately ambiguous. I didn’t catch a didactic whiff from Zannoni. My Stupid Intentions is more complex than Aesop’s fables; it has more in common with the visceral reality of Richard Adam’s novel Watership Down or the zany violence of Roald Dahl’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox (especially in Anderson’s film adaptation). My Stupid Intentions also reminded me strongly of Neko Case’s nature songs, some of the essays in Joy Williams’ collection Ill Nature, Disney’s loose, picaresque 1970’s take on the legend of Robin Hood, Russell Hoban’s inimitable novel Riddley Walker, Brian Jacques’ Redwall books, and Italo Calvino’s novel The Baron in the Trees.

My Stupid Intentions is also a book about writing, a kind of self-creating document, Archy’s autobiography in action, a sort of funny animal Künstlerroman. If there were any urges on Zannoni’s part to give into postmodern cleverness here, to play with the metatextual nature of his tale, not a trace of such frippery is evident. The novel is, for all its twisting and turning and snapping, wonderfully and refreshingly straightforward. There is nothing stupid about this book. I loved it. Highly recommended.