Cocaine: The Most Literary Book About Drugs

Most readers consider the literary gods of “drug books” to be Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson. In truth, Italian author Pitigrilli dances circles around all of them in the 1921 novel Cocaine. Born to a Catholic mother and Jewish father in Turin, Italy as Dino Segre, the author culled most of the inspiration for the material in Cocaine from his time spent in Paris after attending college at the University of Turin.

It was there that the birth of the character Tito Arnaudi began, a journalist (as was Pitigrilli) who makes up most of his stories to sell to newspapers for money he needs to support the cocaine habit he’s developed. But before the cocaine come the airs and the stubbornness, as described at the beginning of the book when Tito is about to take a pathology exam while, at that time, studying to be a medical student. When the proctor says, “We can’t allow you to take it wearing a monocle. Either you don’t wear the monocle or you take the exam,” Tito responds flatly, “Well, I shan’t take the exam.” His commitment to style over substance is indicative of the behavior that reigned supreme in the 1920s. It is perhaps the fact that it is set during this time period that makes it so much more “elegant” than other “drug books.”

What also makes Cocaine a more engaging read about the world of illicit addiction is Tito’s many love interests, particularly Maddalena, the girl who lives next door to him when he’s still a youth in his early twenties. She later transcends into a prostitute and changes her name to Maud. After Maddalena comes home late one too many nights after spending time with Tito, her parents send her to reformatory school. Crushed by losing the true love of his life (though he’s easily consoled by other women), he decides to leave for Paris without any real plan. As Tito notes, “Everyone who is destined to be a success in life leaves home without any letters of introduction.” And so he does, soon talking his way into a job as journalist, where he eventually covers a story filled with misinformation after being unable to attend a hanging and deciding, instead, to make up all the details–only to find that the man to be hanged was pardoned. And yet, everyone loves the story so much that they assume it is all the other papers who have falsely reported the event.

In the meantime, there are, of course, women. Pitigrilli, a renowned aphorist, writes as Tito, “Woman is a prism through which things have to be looked at if they are to seem beautiful.” And look Tito does. Often. Yet, the flip side to the former sentiment is “Women are like posters. One is stuck on top of another and covers it completely. Perhaps just for a moment, when the paste is still soft and the paper still wet and slightly transparent, you may still catch a vague impression of the splashes of color of the first, but soon there’s no more trace of it. Then, when the second one is removed, both come away together leaving your memory and your heart blank as a wall.”

The use of cocaine also helps to add to the blankness of Tito’s mind and heart, as he becomes increasingly fixated on the many benefits of the drug. Further, he distinguishes the differences between your garden variety alcoholic and your more grandiose coke addict, asserting, “The alcoholic retains the ability to condemn his addiction and advise those not subject to it to avoid succumbing to the liquid poison. But the cocaine addict likes proselytizing; thus, instead of constituting a tangible warning, every victim of the drug acts as a source of infection.”

Tito surrenders himself fully to the drug, just as he does to Maud, the two becoming commingled side effects of one large poison. Although he first gives in to the charms of a wealthy woman who likes to fuck men in a coffin in her bedroom (one of the many distinctly Italian-specific traits of Pitigrilli’s novel, in spite of Paris as the setting), Maud was always the one he yearned for. In the end, he doesn’t quite possess either. But at least his brand of suffering comes across as more sophisticated and worthwhile than the aforementioned literary drug titans.

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