The dream of everyone in Moldova is to leave Larga and to go to Italy. This is partially because of Serafim Botezatu. Serafim has always been fascinated with Italy. He had managed to borrow a book from the library - far more difficult than it would seem - which, though without a cover, he was assured was an Italian language primer, and had painstakingly learned the language. He had managed to also learn a bit about Italy - something that was not really approved of during the Soviet area. But, though one or two people seemed to have escaped Larga to go to Italy, most had not. So when representatives of a tourist agency appeared in Largo and, at a town meeting, asked how many people would like to go to Italy, 1045 hands went up in the air. As the population was 523 (one man had lost an arm), it was fairly unanimous, though when they were told it would cost 4000 euros, several fainted. However, a few managed to get the 4000 euros together and off they set. They travelled by night and hid (and slept) by day, though, even then, they had to produce more money to bribe the Slovakian police. The novel starts with their arrival in Rome. The driver wants to charge them 10 euros each to take them right into Rome. They decline and decide to walk. When they see an Italian walk by, Serafim accosts him in his best, pompous Italian. It is clear that the man does not understand a word. Is Serafim's accent bad? Is the language he has learned not Italian? No, sadly, the answer is more prosaic. They are not in Rome but in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova. They have been cheated.
The rest of the novel pushes the black humour even further. One woman decides to hang herself because of their failure. Her husband does not mind as long as she does not uses the walnut tree, as it would be damaged. When she does hang herself, he leaves her body swaying, as it is useful for drying garlic. Meanwhile, there are other plans to escape. Vasily Lungu is the technical expert of the village and he manages to cannibalise a tractor to build first a plane and then a submarine to escape. Father Paisii, the local priest - he is the priest of two competing religions - organises two separate crusades, which will take his followers - they quickly number many thousands - to Italy, via Romania. The Romanians, as good EU members, cannot allow this. One group realises that organising a genuine and successful sports team may well be a way to get visas and they take up curling and become very good at it. Even the president of the country wants out - he will better be off doing a menial job in Italy than being president of Moldova - and he plans to fake a plane crash to get away. But while this is going on, Lorchenkov is piling on the black humour, with nasty deaths, treated jovially, spectacular failures in all of these plans and a vicious mocking of all strata of people in the country - politicians and peasants and priests. Corruption and incompetence are widespread but so are misery and unhappiness. One man is adamant that Italy does not exist. It is a bit like religion - an opiate for the people. (Italy is neither heaven nor hell for the local peasants. It’s simply a fairytale land, where little honey islets dot the rivers, floating on waves of milk, and Swiss cheese cliffs hang over everything. It’s really cool.) All are grist for Lorchenkov's humour mill. Some Moldovans do seem to get away (According to information from the Italy-Moldova Institute for Cooperation and Growth, the number of Moldovan citizens working illegally in Italy could reach two hundred thousand.) Indeed, one woman from the village does manage to get a job but, to her parents' horror, she works as a prostitute.
While the focus is on the attempt to get to Italy, Lorchenkov does not hold back his scathing attacks on the rest of Moldova, from the immigration officer running a private prison to the man who tries to do his own kidney transplant (having sold his own), using a pig's kidney. He even has a go at the Italian consular staff. It is wickedly funny, if you don't mind laughing at the sufferings of a people who clearly who do not have happy lot. It is clear that Lorchenkov has accepted that the only way to deal with his own country is to laugh at all of its foibles and all of its people and he may, indeed, have a point as Moldova is clearly not the only country where the situation is grim, the politicians corrupt and escape to another country seems the only worthwhile way out.