The 14th and last literary destination of my summer reading challenge, Around Europe in 14 Books, is Italy. This choice is appropriate as it coincides with the start of my sophomore year in university, during which I will start my specialisation in Italian.
Actually, the whole idea of this virtual travel plan stemmed from an Italian book I read around April, on which I had to write a paper for my university assessment. It was La valle delle donne lupo (The valley of the wolf-women) by Laura Pariani. I wished to review it for the blog but unfortunately there is no English translation available (nor of any other Pariani books, though there are some in Spanish, French and German).
Since I’m only selecting books translated into English, I had to pick another one. The choice fell on Marco Missiroli’s The Sense of an Elephant, which translation was published just last year. I chose to read the English translation because I wanted to judge the translation quality as well.
Read the previous posts:
Around Europe in 14 Books – #14: Italy
The Sense of an Elephant by Marco Missiroli
Original name: Il senso dell’elefante (Italian)
Author: Marco Missiroli
Translator: Stephen Twilley
Genre: literary fiction
Location: Milan and Rimini, Italy
My rating: 4/4.5 out of 5 stars
Pietro arrives in Milan with a battered suitcase full of memories and his beloved old bicycle. Late in his life, he has accepted a new job as concierge in a small palazzo where, as he soon discovers, many of its inhabitants are lost and eccentric souls.
As Pietro comes to look out for them all, in small and tender ways, it becomes clear that none fascinates him more than the Martini family. Soon he is letting himself into their apartment when everyone else is out. He has a good reason to want to know their secrets. But will he ever tell his own?
The story spans across two regions in Northern Italy and over a number of decades in the life of the protagonist. Pietro is an ex-priest who has left the seaside city of Rimini to take up the job as a concierge in a Milan condominium. He’s a taciturn and unassuming man who goes beyond his job, taking heed of each tenant’s needs. These tenants include the lawyer Poppi, who’s the condominium’s administrator and the one who employed Pietro, and Paola, a widow who lives with her eccentric son Fernando.
The other tenants are the Martini family: Luca, a doctor, his wife Viola, and their little daughter Sara. It’s evident from the start that Pietro has a particular interest in this family. When everyone goes out, he uses the spare key to go inside the Martini’s apartment and observe the details of their daily life. Poppi often notices him on the landing but it seems like he has an inkling of why Pietro is often around the Martini’s place.
This present-time narration is interlaced with the narration of Pietro’s backstory. When he was still a young priest, a chance encounter with Celeste, known as “the witch”, upsets his life. The reader can sense, as both storylines progress, that there is a connection between Celeste and Pietro’s move to the Milanese condominium.
Secrets form an important part of the story. Pietro has a secret, Viola has a secret, and Luca has a secret as well. Thankfully, it’s not that kind of story where the secrets are revealed right at the end. I say thankfully because it’s not that difficult to understand what Pietro’s and Viola’s secrets are. The narrative is not built on uncovering the secrets, focusing instead on how the characters deal with keeping secrets or how they live blindly, unaware of others’ secrets.
The titular metaphor of the elephant is briefly mentioned and explained when Pietro meets Lorenzo, a terminally-ill boy under Doctor Luca Martini’s care. When he discovers that little Lorenzo is fascinated by elephants, Pietro gives him an elephant plush toy.
He placed it beside him. ‘It’s here,’ he said, and made it so that one foot touched the child, because that was the sense of the elephant and of all fathers, their devotion to all sons.
It’s not an ostensible metaphor but the plush toy keeps resurfacing as a reminder. Like the elephant, Pietro is ruled by a sense of fatherhood that goes beyond blood ties. In a way, he’s doing what he was supposed to do as a priest – taking care of his community – but now he’s not expected to do it in the name of God. Other characters such as Luca and Poppi also take care of others who are unrelated to them and together, the inhabitants of the condominium form a family. This family picture is epitomised by the short road trip to Rimini that Luca and Pietro take along with Poppi, Paola, Fernando and little Sara.
The novel deals with other important and difficult themes that have to do with life and death. For instance, there is the question of God and fate against man-made destiny. God is often discussed in an ironic manner during the conversations between Pietro and the “fork-tongued”, self-mocking Poppi, which make up some of my favourite parts of the book. There are also the subjects of euthanasia and of memory, both of living and dead people.
In the beginning, the narrative is a bit slow and for some readers, it may seem confusing until they get used to it. Conversations between characters are rather short and to the point; on the other hand, there are lengthy descriptions of rooms and places. For me, this was difficult to deal with as it slows down the reading pace and I often tended to skip lines (and I have to add that the translation seemed weak to me). However, these descriptions have a purpose in such a narrative as they are details that describe daily life. The details of the tenants’ apartments are particularly interesting because they reflect each individual’s life and personality. And in the end, these are details that can be found inside any person’s home and life, thus making these particulars universal.
This kind of narration also seemed cinematographic to me; in fact, I’m surprised that the Italians haven’t made a film adaptation of this book yet. This effect is more evident in the focus on location details as well as in the final chapter with its dramatic change of point of views.
The book description on Amazon says that The Sense of an Elephant is a good choice for readers who loved The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery and I agree. Both stories are about persons of a certain age who work as a concierge and whose relationships with tenants of different generations form the essence of the novels. I also can’t help but compare it to A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman in which another middle-aged man forms meaningful relationships with his neighbours and takes care of them in his own way. However, Missiroli’s novel feels somewhat darker, heavier. Like the other two novels, the ending is sad but I found this one to be even more depressing. Yet, it is also a suitable ending because the entire book is bleak, as bleak as the city of Milan or the foggy Rimini.
I can say that I liked The Sense of an Elephant, partly because it reminded me of Barbery’s and Backman’s novels, which are favourites of mine. It is only the weak translation and the detailed descriptions that made me lower the rating. It gave me food for thought, while the quiet personality of Pietro and his relationships with the other diverse characters are something to cherish amid the gloominess that reigns throughout the novel. I’d suggest it to readers who love to read about the nuances of human relationships; just beware of the unsettling ending!