Friday, May 25, 2018

Italy: The Sense of an Elephant, by Marco Missiroli

I borrowed this book from the library because I found the title (and the blurb on the back) intriguing. I wondered where it was going at first. After all, all the secrets seemed to be revealed in the first few chapters, so it wasn't a mystery. It centres round an ex-priest, Pietro, who has taken a job as concierge in an apartment block in Milan. We soon learn that Lica, the father of one of the families in the building, is his son. So I wondered how the tension would sustain itself as there didn't seem to be much to reveal. It turns out, this is not quite the "feel good" story that it seems to be at first. There are surprises to come, not least at the end, and moral dilemmas that left me with plenty to think about.

I wondered about the translation - do Italians refer to a "concierge" or do they have their own word for it? We don't seem to have an English equivalent, but to refer to Pietro as a concierge seems to lend rather a French flavour. Then, the building is frequently referred to as a "condominium" which sounds very American to me, and modern, though in other ways I pictured the building as much older. (The blurb on the back refers to it as a "palazzo" - much more Italian sounding).

I enjoyed the book, and found the characterization complex and interesting. Pietro has two old friends in Milan, the gay lawyer Poppi who found him the job, and his tarot-reading friend Anita. There are also flashbacks to his past life in Rimini, and his relationship with Celeste. And then there are other inhabitants of the apartment building including Paola and her adult son Fernando, who has the mind of a child.

The Sense of an Elephant was translated from Italian by Stephen Twilley and published by Picador in 2015. It was originally published in Italy ,where it won the Campiello Prize, in 2012.

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