by Adele A Wilby
The Italian author Sandro Veronesi’s latest novel, his ninth, The Hummingbird, is a clever book that offers the reader both literary pleasure and serious thought. The novel is essentially a family saga, and like all family histories and stories it has a complexity of interpersonal relationships and human emotions all woven into the story. It sounds so typical of life and the reader might begin to think that the novel is a family saga that could be tedious, but that is far from the truth. Veronesi has skilfully used structure to fracture any complacency or perception of the characters and the story, and his novel is a superb piece of skilled writing with unexpected twists and turns.
From the outset, the reader gets a real sense that this is a very modern novel. Veronesi introduces his characters in such a way that the reader is not bogged down in trying to fathom who is who as the story unfolds. The time frame spans the decades from the 1960s and projects into the 2030s. But it is Veronesi’s use of different documents: telephone calls, emails, social media, epigrams, poetry, and other language devices to dip in and out of time that all work together to create a constant unfolding of freshness: just as the story hints at the mundane, Veronesi intervenes and changes direction and takes the reader on a surprising path.
In this ‘tale of many’ the central character around which all these emotions and experience revolve is Marco Carrera, an ophthalmologist. He is married to Marina, an unfaithful wife with mental health issues. He too is an unfaithful husband with Luisa, the two caught up in ‘an impossible love story’ and delude themselves of their faithfulness to their partners by taking a ‘vow of chastity’. Marco falls out with his brother Giacomo. The reasons for the estrangement we learn later in the novel, when it is all too late. Marco’s older sister Irene is of a different calibre; a sensitive young woman she brings grief to the family. And of course, a family saga would not be complete without the parents in an incompatible marriage.
There is a network of friends also. Duccio Chilleri is one such character with the unfortunate title, ‘The Omen’ who pops up throughout the story for the bad luck he brings to anybody around him, except of course to Marco. The two go on gambling jaunts together, and we learn further on that Duccio has turned his reputation as a ‘jinx’ to a profit earning profession, hired to disrupt a winner’s streak of luck at the gambling table, a creative twist in the story that the reader would not have expected.
None of the characters is unlikeable and each of the characters has their own impact on Marco’s life, developing one of the main themes in the book, change, and this is where the title of the book, ‘the hummingbird’ comes into play.
Initially it is Marco’s mother who coins the nickname, ‘hummingbird’ as an endearing reference to her son’s ‘diminutive size…blessed with the same beauty and agility: physical agility…a supposed mental agility’. Marco’s small size for his age is the result of an imbalance in a growth hormone and how to handle this issue reveals the first cracks in the marriage between Marco’s parents. But as the novel progresses, with treatment Marco not only outgrows the nickname in terms of his age size, but it becomes questionable just how far the nickname is an appropriate assessment of Marco’s character. A hummingbird, as we know, is renowned for the energy is expends on hovering, and is the only bird that can fly backwards also. And it is this remarkable ability of the hummingbird to fly in different directions and to remain ‘still’ that Veronesi employs in the rendering of the character of Marco. Ultimately it ends with Luisa referring to him as a hummingbird, ‘because’, she says, ‘all your energy is spent keeping still. Seventy wing beats per second only to remain where you are… You can keep still as time flows around you, you can stop flowing, sometimes turn back time, even -just like a hummingbird, you can fly backwards and retrieve lost time’.
Veronesi never really sets out what the narrator means by being ‘still’. Does he refer to Marco’s lack of ambition? Does it refer to mental harmony? Does it refer to remaining calm during periods of crisis, of not being affected by the myriad events and emotional experiences that challenge our ability to sustain difficulties, or does it refer to a refusal or reluctance to accept or want change in life? All these issues can be discerned in Marco’s character to different degrees; however, it is the latter question that becomes one of the central themes in the novel. Marco responds with a vigorous defence of being ‘still’ and not inviting or wanting change, and that marks a turn in the novel to greater reflection about change and the future also.
In what can be seen as an issue that informs lifestyles and a nod to contemporary political debates, Veronesi explores the difference between those who see change as acts of bravery, and those who stay ‘still’ as cowards, and ‘those who change are enlightened and those who don’t are ignorant’. The irony is, for Marco, the more life circumstances compel him to change, the tighter he clings on to remaining ‘still’, which, he says, ‘takes a lot of effort and courage’. However, Marco’s response to various situations leaves the reader questioning whether in fact he really is as reluctant to change as the reader is led to believe at certain moments throughout the novel. Veronesi has framed the novel to provide surprise responses by Marco to various situations that dislodge any certainty about his character. Thus, Veronesi’s novel does what the hummingbird does: moves sideways, forwards and back in time when it comes to understanding Marco’s character.
But just when the reader is beginning to think that perhaps Marco is fundamentally conservative and warrants his nickname ‘the hummingbird’, the reader is challenged to rethink that understanding, especially in his relationship to his daughter Adele, and his granddaughter Miraijin, the characters in the story who have the greatest impact on his life. His relationship with his young daughter is complicated, represented through her fantasy that she has grown a thread and is attached to the wall, only to learn that she is in greater need of her father’s company than he realised. Likewise, in her adult life his decision to join her in a birth bath for the delivery of his grandchild is a surprise decision by Marco that calls into question a more conservative understanding of his character. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that the birth of his granddaughter interrupts his life and shifts the focus of the novel to the future, and the role of his grandchild in that future.
Veronesi’s choice of a Japanese name MIraijin for Marco’s grandchild is important to the future that he anticipates in the novel. Here we see Veronesi skilfully employ an epigram to name his grandchild in one of the many literary devices in the book, and to develop his ideas about change and the future. The child will be ‘The New Man of the Future’. Ironically the ‘Man of the Future’ turned out to be a girl, and the title itself highlights to the reader that Veronesi is heading off into a new direction, perhaps challenging gender identities. His granddaughter though, the ‘New Man’ is everything, both physically and intellectually. Thankfully however, this image of his grandchild is what it is, an ideal, and Veronesi brings her back to reality and projects her more as a radical child rather than an unrealistic ideal. It is at these more philosophical aspects in the novel where we see Veronesi shift from using the third person narrator to the second person ‘you’. In the context of the issues Veronesi addresses, the reader feels that his use of the second person is intentional rather than that of an unreliable narrator, as he explores the debate between truth and freedom. The second person ‘you’ gives force to the argument, all of which has resonance in contemporary political debates. It is, in essence, a call to arms to defend critical thinking, and his granddaughter is to take up that battle.
The novel ends on a modern yet controversial note; the final surprise in the character of Marco. This surprise however is entirely consistent with the freshness and modernity of the novel and the many tales within it. The reader will be compelled to reflect on just how far Luisa is correct in her assessment of Marco as ‘the hummingbird’. The best way to find the answer to that question is to read this clever and original novel and decide for oneself: the reader will most certainly not be disappointed and will enjoy a modern literary delight.