September 30, 2013 by markstani
Emmaus, Alessandro Baricco’s short, intense tale of an obsession shared and nurtured by four Catholic schoolboys, is a book which brooks inevitable comparison with Jeffrey Eugenides’ ‘The Virgin Suicides’.
Equally inevitably, perhaps, it comes off worst. While Eugenides’ extraordinary work provided a rich, warm, tragic peaen to adolescence and its countless torments, ‘Emmaus’ is deeply philosophical, acutely religious and a more difficult work to love.
The object of the boys’ obsession is a local girl called Andre, who has tried to kill herself and is reknowned for going with local men. Unlike the six tragic figures in Eugenides’ epic, Andre is far from off limits, at least in a physical sense.
The boys, led by The Saint, who intends one day to be a priest, have rendered themselves outcasts by the strength of their faith: they play in a church band and volunteer in the urology ward of a local hospital where they change the catheter bags of dying old men. Yet this is a faith which Andre’s very availability forces them to question.
As you would expect from one of Italy’s top novelists, Emmaus (pub. McSweeney’s; trans. Ann Goldstein) is a fine, sharply written story, scattered with moments of devastating simplicity. But it lays on the religious quandary a little too thick, saddling these boys with an often barely believable burden. Where Eugenides let emotions do the talking, Baricco wades deep into issues of faith and dogma which in my view somehow misses the point, bleeding it of the youthfulness which made ‘The Virgin Suicides’ so great.
It’s a shame, because the book’s prologue promises something all together more alluring:
The red sports car made a U-turn and pulled over in front of the boy. The man in the driver’s seat maneuvered calmly; he seemed to be in no hurry, to have no thoughts. He wore a stylish cap, the car’s top was down. He stopped, and with a graceful smile said to the boy, Have you seen Andre?
Andre was a girl.
The boy misunderstood, he thought the man wanted to know if he had seen her in general, in life – if he had seen how marvelous she was. Have you seen Andre? Like a thing between men.
So the boy said yes.
Where? the man asked.
Given that the man continued to smile, in a way, the boy continued to misunderstand the questions. So he answered, Everywhere. Then it occurred to him to be more precise, and he added, From a distance.
Frankly, if ‘The Virgin Suicides’ didn’t exist, I think I would have admired this book a lot more. It’s readable, thought-provoking and relatively satisfying. But I would still have finished with the nagging feeling that ‘Emmaus’ had not made the most of its opportunity. In Andre, Baricco has created a fantastic character who deserved a much greater chance to shine.