By Lisa St. Aubin de Teran

Ecco. 263 pp. $23.95

Reviewed by Robert Girardi

In exile on the windswept island of Caprara during the cold winter of 1872, the great Italian patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi at last found time to amend the memoirs of youth with the sad reflections of age. His life had been almost unimaginably tumultuous. He had fought a hundred battles for the cause of Italian unification; he had survived shrapnel, torture, shipwreck, the soap business, starvation, neglect, fame, three difficult marriages and even a stint at novel writing -- but in retrospect his most vivid memories were of younger days.

Thirty years before, in flight from a death sentence in his native Nice, he had made his way to South America and there found himself face to face with the vast, undulating, unpeopled expanse of the Argentine pampas. "I myself am old and worn now," he wrote. "But where are those splendid horses? Where are the bulls, the antelopes and the ostriches which made those lovely hills so beautiful and so much alive?"

Men of Garibaldi's time and place, the dramatic -- indeed operatic -- age of Italy's Risorgiomento (c. 1848-60), often echoed the great liberator-hero's poetic sense of the real. At first glance, the history of those years seems perfect fodder for the novelist. But it was an era in which actual events overwhelmed the creative imagination; thus, successful works of fiction dealing with Italian unification are disappointingly few -- Lampedusa's The Leopard, of course, and perhaps certain volumes of Jean Giono. No doubt there is room on this small shelf for one or two more volumes before the vaults of the 19th century are closed forever. Sadly, Lisa St. Aubin de Teran's new novel, The Palace, which takes place in Umbria and Venice in the years 1860-64, is not one of them.

The Palace is the first-person narrative of an anonymous peasant stone carver who has joined Garibaldi's red-shirted army of liberation only to be captured by papal troops. As the novel opens, he has taken the name of a dead officer, Gabriele del Campo, and is imprisoned in a damp and appropriately malodorous prison cell awaiting execution. This dramatic beginning soon squanders its promise as del Campo's overheated and rambling monologue unfolds through a series of increasingly unbelievable scenes. In a page ripped from the life of Dostoyevsky, del Campo's execution is not an execution at all but merely an exercise in mental torture. Unloaded muskets are fired, and del Campo is returned shaken but alive to the cell in which he is chained 19 links away from a jaded aristocratic officer named Imolo Vitelli.

Though a prisoner, Vitelli has somehow managed to retain scientific instruments and a large library of reference works that he keeps on the granite slab where he sleeps. It is under Vitelli's tutelage that del Campo undergoes a spiritual rebirth; in a turn of events that too closely recalls the education of Edmund Dantes in Dumas's Count of Monte Cristo, the bored aristocrat decides to educate the peasant stone carver and turn him into a gentleman.

During the course of an astonishingly well-rounded curriculum -- which somewhat resembles the Great Books program at St. John's College in Annapolis -- del Campo reveals to Vitelli his most cherished dream: He is determined to build a fantastic palace as a shrine to the love of his life, the aristocratic Donna Donatella, a pale beauty with whom he fell in love at first sight some years before while working in her father's garden.

Released from prison along with Vitelli, del Campo makes a fortune as a gambler. But still, he is not a happy man. He remains hopelessly in love with the alliterative Donna Donatella. Driven on by this unrequited passion, he leaves Venice for Umbria and there uses his ill-gotten wealth to build the massive palace of his dreams. Several long chapters are devoted to imperfectly imagined details of 19th-century construction techniques; then Vitelli arrives unannounced to reveal an improbable coincidence that too neatly knots together the various loose strands of the narrative.

These are but the bare bones of plot. But The Palace is above all a novel that rises and falls on voice and voice alone. Unfortunately, in de Teran's hands, Gabriele del Campo is a vague and unbelievable narrator who suffers not only from inconsistencies of tone but from various anachronisms of diction; it is doubtful, for example, that an 1860s Italian peasant would refer to "clogged arteries" caused by over-rich foods, or lament a lack of "protein" in his diet. Despite a marked talent for the surreal image -- the masked, animalistic gamblers at a Venetian gambling club, the dead horse with dead rider attached like an appendage found floating in the lagoon -- de Teran never allows the natural color of the age she is attempting to portray to rise above her protagonist's pseudo-poetic and improbable monologue. Dramatic scenes are not lived, they are described; the reader is at all times kept at a safe distance from the action, languishing on the other side of a loosely constructed palace wall of words.

"The history of events is ephemeral and for the scholar," wrote the historian G.M. Trevelyan in his monumental three-volume history of the Risorgiomento. "The poetry of events is eternal and for the multitude." Sadly, neither history nor poetry is present in this disappointing novel.

Robert Girardi's most recent work of fiction is a book of novellas, "A Vaudeville of Devils -- Seven Moral Tales."