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B : cleverly and effectively crafted, though Veronesi ultimately over-extends himself
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The complete review's Review:
'Hummingbird' is the nickname of Marco Carrera, the central figure in this novel. He was diminutive-sized as a child, but then, with the help of a hormone-treatment, grew up to be of average height (actually: "just about half an inch above the national average"). After decades of knowing him, the love of his life, Luisa Lattes, realizes it's an entirely fitting nickname, and not just because he was once so small:
You are a hummingbird because all your energy is spent keeping still. Seventy wing beats per second only to remain where you are. And you are truly formidable at this. You can keep still as time flows around you, you can stop it flowing, sometimes you can turn back time, even -- just like a hummingbird, you can fly backwards and retrieve lost time.In fact, this also describes the narrative, as The Hummingbird does not simply unfold chronologically. Veronesi switches back and forth in time, from Marco's early days as 'A happy child (1960-1970)' to the penultimate chapter, set in 2030. There is a basic forward motion to the life-story that unfolds here, but the individual pieces are presented out of strict order, jumping back and forwards, often decades at a time; occasionally, the narrator will also mention bits of what is still to come -- episodes that only then later fully unfold. As disorienting as this may sound, Veronesi does in fact keep tight control over his material and there is a surprisingly firm structure to it all: this is not a random assemblage of fragments of a life but rather a carefully constructed portrait (with a bit of a tease here and there, about what is to come).
The novel begins dramatically enough, in 1999, with forty-year-old Marco being approached by Daniele Carradori, his wife's therapist. Carradori is so concerned about some of what he's heard from Marco's wife, Marina, that he's willing to breach doctor-patient confidentiality, coming to Marco because he believes Marco may be in grave danger. First, however, he has some questions for Marco, to determine whether Marina's claims are true: "if this story about Luisa Lattes is only a fantasy of hers, that changes everything, and it's your wife who is in danger".
The story about Luisa Lattes is, as Marco finally owns up, true -- but it's not the straightforward story it might seem: he has continued a relationship with this woman, but, as Veronesi eventually describes it: "Marco and Luisa's impossible love story culminated in the ultimate act of masochism: a vow of chastity", which they strictly kept to. The novel includes many communications between them, letters and e-mails, but their relationship is only part of a larger mosaic of relationships -- mostly familial ones.
There are also numerous e-mails from Marco to his estranged brother Giacomo concerning the disposition of their parent's estate -- "You keep ignoring me and I keep writing", he begins one of them. The detailed inventories he sends his brother shed some light on their past -- not least, through their father's near-complete collection of science fiction novels in the Urania-series, from volume 1 to 899, with only six issues missing. Flashbacks also describe parts of their childhood and youth, and other significant times and episodes from Marco's life, often with commentary or reflection by the omniscient narrator.
An odd lacuna is anything about Marco becoming an ophthalmologist: there's essentially nothing about his studies or his practicing his profession until very late in the novel -- as if to make completely clear that work is something that is incidental in life, and plays a far less important role than the people one is involved with and the passions one has. Marco is, at times in his life, an enthusiastic gambler, and there's quite a bit about that; his daughter, Adele, is a thrill-seeker of sorts, enjoying sometimes risky outdoor physical activity, but work is relegated to a relatively minor role -- even as Marco's mismatched parents are also significantly defined by theirs: "She was an architect, all abstract thought and revolutionary ideas; he was an engineer, all calculations and practicality" (Distant brother Giacomo, living in the United States and working as a teacher of "rational mechanics" arguably is also defined by his job, but he's barely seen in the novel, so it is hard to judge. (Elena Pala's translation is, on the whole, solid, but she missed the mark here: 'meccanica razionale' (as it was presumably in the original Italian is still the commonly-used term in Italy, but it's very unlikely anyone would call it "rational mechanics" in the US.))
If Marco had a happy enough childhood, there were clearly great tensions in the house. Mother and father stayed together, but were not a happy couple. Older sister Irene was always troubled and restless. And Giacomo's early break with the family was an almost complete one.
A fateful evening when Marco went out on his first date with Luisa marked the family, ending in a tragedy which the narrator had already made sure the reader saw coming. The fact that Marco was already twenty-two and Luisa just fifteen when they first go out is rather disturbing (and in no way lessened by the fact that he'd actually held off, falling in love with her (as a twenty-year-old ...) when she was just thirteen), but then again this turns into a long-lasting relationship that is then entirely chaste (which, however convincingly Veronesi paints it, still seems rather peculiar).
Marco wound up marrying Marina, a Slovenian stewardess he got to know because of yet another dramatic and traumatic episode, believing that they shared aspects of the experience -- though in fact they didn't really. Marina struggles with a lot of issues, nicely summed up by Veronesi when he describes her: "Simply insert a 'not' before anything she'd said about herself, and that'll do".
Marco's relationship with Luisa does lead to a divorce, but his and Marina's daughter Adele comes to live with Marco. The child had a notable idiosyncrasy: she long imagined she had a thread attached to her back -- though the closer connection her father establishes with her help let it fade away. The symbolism here is a bit heavy-handed -- as are the storylines surrounding one childhood friend of Marco's, Duccio, know as 'The Omen' because of his ability to divine what will happen, something that has a profound effect on Marco's life on at least two occasions. Yet Veronesi's slippery style keeps even these things from seeming too outlandish; the foreshadowing -- hinting at some of what is to come -- as well as the shifting back and forth across events, so that it's not all sprung on the reader at once, is very effective, making most of The Hummingbird very compelling reading; it's easy to get carried away by it.
Somewhat odd, too, is the attitude towards professional psychological help -- which many of the characters fall back on (with Marina eventually being institutionalized, no less). Already early on we learn about Marco:
All the women in his life, in fact, starting from his mother and his siter Irene, and then on to friends, girlfriends, colleagues, wives, daughters (in short all of them bar none) would invariably end up in the grip of various psychotherapists.. This only confirmed -- as a son, brother, friend, boyfriend, colleague, husband and father -- what he'd grasped from the off: that exposure to "passive psychotherapy," as he called it, is seriously harmful.Yet Dr. Carradori continues to be an important figure in his life -- and a man Marco himself turns to when facing particularly difficult situations, right down to the very end. Carradori also turns out to be an almost too good to be true fixer -- but narratively, again, this mostly works for the novel: readers aren't bothered with the nitty-gritty, but rather able to move on the next stage and page.
Adele has a child when she is still fairly young. She never reveals who the father is -- convenient for the story, because Marco comes to fill that father-role (and does so very well). Adele knows what she will name the child long before it is born: Miraijin -- the Japanese 未来人, meaning: 'Man of the Future' --, regardless of whether its a boy or girl. Miraijin is then a girl -- and a remarkable one, from the beginning, including her physical appearance, as it's as if: "all the world's races somehow came together in her".
One of the longer chapters, late in the book, describes Miraijin's maturation, covering the years 2016 to 2029, with Veronesi stuffing a lot in there; The Hummingbird goes a bit off the rails here. Unlike the rest of the novel, which in its back and forth allows the pieces of Marco's life to slowly be filled in, this is -- even as its meant to be and presented practically as soaring -- a rather flat information-dump that feels almost stuck on, a less-than-successful near final turn to Marco's story; it doesn't really work very well with the rest of the novel -- especially since, with having her lead the way into the future, Veronesi invests so much in Miraijin without providing a sufficient foundation for it all.
The final turn then, in 2030, is also a bit of an odd one. Certainly, Marco here is truly left in control of his fate, but it also feels like way too neat and contrived a closure.
Veronesi does manage to construct an interesting protagonist here. Despite Marco's aversion to psychotherapists -- whereby he emphasizes: "It's psychotherapists I've got a problem with, not psychiatrists" -- and despite his obliviousness to much that is going on around him -- it is his sister Irene who listens in on their parents' arguments, for example, while he remains blissfully unaware of these --, there is quite a bit of self-analysis here, helped on also by the repeated recourse to the wisdom of Dr. Carradori. Marco comes to terms with his life, even if it is a long way in coming, and it's an interesting journey for the reader, too.
Marco is an unusual man, to the extent we get to know him (and, again, it is problematic that, for example, we practically never really see him in his professional capacity). Even in the most extreme situations -- and he faces several of these --:
He reacted to change like he'd always done in the past: he simply stood still in the middle of the desolation that surrounded him and inhabited that desolation.Veronesi captures that sense of hovering, hummingbird-like, -- both in Marco and in the narrative in general -- well, and it's part of the appeal of the novel; he really does that well. For all the drama in the novel, it's a surprisingly mellow novel, too -- reflecting also Marco's personality: even at its most active -- and he is, at times adventurous --, there's a passivity to it all as well. The odd relationship he maintains with the love of his life is, surprisingly, entirely fitting.
It does all make for a somewhat odd novel -- one that really doesn't sustain much scrutiny. But it's not really for scrutinizing, and just as a simple read it's fully, even remarkably engaging (at least until the last bits, which go a bit astray). And there are a lot of nice notes to the novel all along the way -- not least Luisa admitting that: "I've just realized I'll never escape Giorgio Manganelli" (and that her fixation on the Centuria-author apparently isn't helping her career at the Sorbonne) .....
- M.A.Orthofer, 1 April 2022
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Italian author Sandro Veronesi was born in 1959.
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