Performance and Interpretation 2

Almansi calls the novella of Cepparello (the very first of the Decameron), the billet doux of the whole work, a subtle pointer at the outset of the text. He considers Cepparello's false confession an analogue to the performance of storytelling. Almansi notes that through Cepparello Boccaccio lets readers know that his whole book must be read as "a magnificent edifice of interlocking falsehoods." The storyteller thus becomes a master counterfeiter. The story itself is under the sign of paradox. In the words of Panfilo (who, according to some interpreters, symbolizes Reason), Cepparello, the ultimate sinner, the master of counterfeit, becomes the signifier which, alluring and challenging the reader, simultaneously denounces and exalts fiction as falsehood.

As a character, or a signifier for the author's strategy, Cepparello has an essentially performative double role . Firstly, even with Cepparello as intermediary, the faithful in the story are able to find salvation. This could be a reference to Boccaccio's words in the epilogue which underline the reader's ultimate responsibility in interpreting the ironies of the text. The worst man who ever lived, Cepparello, can become the witness to God's infinite benevolence. The subversive satire of religion and the clergy is thus at least partially neutralized by the undisputed praise of God and religious faith. Secondly, Cepparello's last performance (as a master counterfeiter) has the power of erasing (if not redeeming), in the realm of fiction, a lifetime of evil deeds. This might be even read as the (rather subversive) suggestion of the ultimate redeeming power of art, superior even to morality (not only can a good performance succeed because it is amoral, but also because therein lies a superior morality of performance).

Almansi notes that Cepparello uses words as "diabolical instruments of falsehood" which "overturn reality by offering us a picture in which everything is false." More importantly, however, with Cepparello the readers are able to clearly see the contradictory effects of a "good" performance, like every fiction, a most astute, subtle and premeditated manipulation of communication. Almansi writes: "the success, the literary inventiveness of Cepparello's confession, is not merely a product of liveliness and spirit of dialogue: it is derived from the sheer force of its style and manipulation of syntactic devices..." In other words, it is the way in which Cepparello makes his delivery which ultimately wins the complete and unquestioning belief and trust of the holy friar. We the readers are in a much more advantageous position: like the two brothers who eavesdrop behind the door, we can enjoy the blasphemous virtuosity of Cepparello's performance; and we can even appreciate Boccaccio's, the author's, own virtuosity and strategy. At the very beginning of the Decameron we are thus challenged to play the game of the author who, introducing as his intermediary the storyteller as the ultimate sinner and counterfeiter, warns us of both the performative (subversive) power and the interpretive ambiguity of (good) storytelling.

(MR) Adapted from: Almansi, Guido. The writer as liar. Narrative technique in the Decameron. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975.

Other Pages in Literature: Narratology and Structural Exegesis