Sandro Veronesi’s Hummingbird – bitter relationships

Sandro Veronesi is today one of Italy’s most famous novelists, but as a young student in Florence in the early 1980s, he trained as an architect. A flair for elaborate design always guides his hand. In terms of architecture, his latest book, The Hummingbird, is a masterpiece of articulation.

Part fractured family saga, part unconventional romance, he arrives praised by Roddy Doyle, Richard Ford and Jhumpa Lahiri. And he won the Premio Strega, Italy’s most prestigious literary award. What could have been madness is a towering achievement.

The novel opens in Rome in 1999 when Marco Carrera, a mild-mannered 40-year-old ophthalmologist, receives a warning that his wife has discovered his strange love pact with his childhood girlfriend, Luisa. The origins of this bizarre arrangement – no sex, just lingering stares and long letters – can be found in an incident while vacationing on the Tuscan coast some two decades earlier. Marco’s wife, however, has a lot of secrets.

Marco is the titular “hummingbird,” a nickname he received as a child when a hormonal imbalance temporarily stunted his growth. But the nickname also alludes to his life-long poise, his ability to soar while others change around him. “It takes a lot of effort and courage to stand still,” he wrote to Luisa. A non-binding affair suits him perfectly.

Romantic eccentricity is just one part of a tangled tale. Gambling, rock climbing, a plane crash, and a teenage activist all play a part.

In a chronologically oriented exercise in bravado, which demands special attention from the reader, short chapters come and go, from the 1970s to the near future, stopping at key moments in Marco’s life. These chapters take the form of postcards, love letters, emails and phone conversations, plus dreamlike passages from an omniscient author’s voice, all elegantly brought together in Elena’s skillful translation. Pala.

Marco remains a figure of seductive calm, whether it is about parenthood, illness or bereavement, he remains philosophical. In his youth, this often highlights the chaos exhibited by others, especially his suicidal sister, Irene, and best friend Duccio (known as “The Omen” due to his frequent proximity to accidents) . And then there’s his estranged brother and their warring and woefully incompatible parents.

Beauty “was the brooch that held her parents together,” admits Marco. And growing up surrounded by mid-century armchairs, Olivetti typewriters, and modular shelving gives him “a sense of arrogant superiority typical of middle-class Italian families of the sixties and seventies.” Veronesi is as sharp as a grappa glass on the Italian obsession with appearance.

Marco and Luisa’s impossible love – exacerbated by distance, undiluted by daily routine – is recounted through his many inactions, while the objects provide a narrative scaffolding, emphasizing episodes in the story of the Carrera family. In clever sequence, Marco finds hidden meaning in the shortcomings of his father’s otherwise comprehensive collection of sci-fi novels.

Veronesi recounts Marco’s journey from childhood to parenthood and beyond with a light comic twist, a game that focuses on its protagonist’s love for the quiet life: “Marco has always felt justified in believing that psychotherapy was like smoking: it wasn’t enough to not do it yourself, you also had to stay away from those who did.

At the heart of this novel is the understanding that all relationships, from sibling bonds to long-term friendships, develop their own framework of traditions, tricks, repetitions, and tolerances. This invites intriguing questions, especially whether something that hasn’t been said amounts to a lie. It’s a testament to Veronesi’s skill that he can bring pleasure to such disturbing themes.

Not since William Boyd All human heart has a novel captured the feast and famine nature of a simple life with such invention and tenderness. Veronesi explores, with great humor, how the passage of time widens and erases the impact of events. And, he suggests, after the pounding of years, it is only an individual’s character that determines whether the edifice will hold up or not.

The Hummingbird by Sandro Veronesi, translated by Elena Pala, Weidenfeld & Nicolson € 14.99, 304 pages

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