Novella Review (Italian SF in translation): “Cancerqueen” (1950), Tommaso Landolfi

DkVqsjsUwAEDHqm[1].jpg(Colin Hay’s cover for the 1984 Italian edition of Cancerqueen (1950), Tommaso Landolfi)

4.75/5 (Near Masterpiece)

The fiction of Tommaso Landolfi—an Italian author, translator, and critic—dabbled at speculative edges. Those far more knowledgeable about Italian SF consider Landolfi’s novella “Cancerqueen” (1950), translated in 1971 by Raymond Rosenthal, an important work in the history of Italian SF as it resonated with later “New Wave sensibilities” and “went against the realist grain of Italian high culture” (Salvatore Proietti, “The Field of Italian Science Fiction,” Science Fiction Studies, July 2015).

Redolent with gothic overtones, “Cancerqueen” tells the transfixing tale of a possibly insane narrator (N) relating his voyage into space, and into the womb of a manipulative spaceship. Writing as an act of self-delusion—“perhaps I should pretend I have a reader, I shall be less alone, and that is enough” (50)—N relates how, in a disconsolate state of mind, he agreed to an outrageous proposition put forth by Filano, an escapee from a nearby asylum.  The proposition: Deep in the mountains Filano has a spaceship named Cancerqueen and he wants to take N to the moon! For N, “she was my liberator, whose wings (wholly metaphorical) would transport me (not metaphorically) beyond my  disagreeable, unrewarding world” (69). Cancerqueen seems far from a passive piece of technology for while Filano preps her for departure N ascertains she “was a machine of bizarre moods” (69).

Soon Filano, perhaps at the instigation of the spacecraft, descends into insanity (“reach[ing] paroxysm-like or serious pathological forms” 76). N kills Filano and pushes him out into space but is unable to control Cancerqueen‘s movements. Filano’s body, floating wildly in the air pocket around the ship, takes on the hyper-emphasized grotesque movements of Italian merry-go-rounds populated by fairy-tale figures—“Gianduia, the Soldier, the Lovely Damsel and the Drunkard, bereft of limbs and their bodies” (82). Cancerqueen, post-Filano’s death, “tortures” N (or N enters a similar state of insanity to Filano’s) with an affliction of a possibly imaginary infestation—“they have come out of my mouth, nose, ears, belly-button and anus” and taste “of ants, iron and the female breast” (98). N even converses with the shapeless infesting objects… and soon they too are passed from the body of Cancerqueen into the air pocket around the ship, ebbing around the body of Filano.

N remains alone within the womb of Cancerqueen.

What makes the novella so appealing?

Landolfi crafts spectacular images. A pattern emerges—scenes that should be wonderous are suddenly the material of nightmare. When N first encounters Cancerqueen in a cavern he observes: “I had immediately seen and now contemplated with more horror than amazement a large object of bizarre form that emitted a different quality of light” (66). The novel starts in this vein: N describes how he, from his geosynchronous orbit “trapped” above Europe, views all that is wonderous as an instrument of his both his physical imprisonment and paranoia.

The underlying tones in “Cancerqueen” swings between melodramatic self-loathing to gothic nighttime dread (the voyage across the mountains to Cancerqueen‘s hiding location) and body horror (the death of Filano). The later scene hammers home the intensity of the reading experience.

I did not expect to adore this Italian 50s novella…. I am now addicted to Tommaso Landolfi and plan on reading his non-SF stories as well.

Find a copy!

(Jacqueline Schuman’s cover for the 1971 English edition of Cancerqueen and Other Stories (1971), Tommaso Landolfi)

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5 thoughts on “Novella Review (Italian SF in translation): “Cancerqueen” (1950), Tommaso Landolfi”

  1. Haven’t even read the post yet but gotta say how much I like Colin Hay’s cover illustration of Cancerqueen. Keith

      1. I like Schuman’s cover. It’s the sort of cover I’d like to see return, or just be a part of, Western mainstream fiction covers. It basically tells the reader nothing, but if it’s good enough, it can catch a reader’s attention.

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