Emmaus by Alessandro Baricco (translated into English by Ann Goldstein and published by McSweeney’s Books) is a short novel set in post-war Italy about four boys coming to terms with adulthood. Far from following the well-worn path of the coming-of-age story, however, the novel adopts a strange dream-like quality that might remind the reader of a fable – and indeed its title comes from the Biblical story when a post-crucifix Jesus is met but not recognised. This tale is referred to in the narrative but it is difficult to pin down its exact association to the four boys. Certainly religion and faith are important to all of them, particularly to the one who is nicknamed the Saint, but it seems likely that the unknowing is also key as this is a novel where characters remain opaque, both to the reader and each other.

Though the novel is presented as memoir (“The boy was me. It was many years ago.”) there is little sense of an older narrator looking back. This preserves the boys’ narrow understanding of life; the rich in particular are distant and unknowable:

“The result is lives that we do not understand – writings to which the key is lost.”

Andre is from that world, a girl whom all the boys become obsessed with (or at least the narrator does as the narrative keeps returning to her). Even her name is unusual:

“…in our families it’s a boys’ name, but not in hers, which even when it comes to names demonstrates an instinctive inclination to privilege.”

Though she is beautiful, she has no boyfriend; instead she simply makes herself available to the boys around her:

“She waits in the bathroom at the movie theatre, leaning against a wall, and they go in one after the other to take her: she doesn’t even turn around.”

Her attitude contrasts with that of the boys who regard sex as a sin and whose physical relationship with their girlfriends consists of touching each other under a blanket. Slowly Andre’s past is revealed: her sister’s death, her attempted suicide. Almost always this is done distantly through a story or comment that the boys have heard. They observe Andre from afar, only occasionally coming close to her.

Andre is also instrumental in the friends becoming more distant with each other. The first sign of this is probably when three of them go to Andre’s house to talk with her mother and discover the other’s bass guitar there (they also play in a band together). It becomes increasingly clear that the boys do not know each other as well as they think. When the Saint’s mother asks the other boys about him, the narrator senses her unknowing:

“She must have wondered if they (parents) were all blind in the face of our mystery.”

However, it later transpires that perhaps the other boys did not know the Saint as well as they thought: far from becoming a priest, he ends up in prison.

Perhaps the most tragic misunderstanding relates to Luca’s father. Luca tells the other boys his father often goes out onto the balcony at meal times and thinks about throwing himself off. When the narrator has the chance to ask him about this he reveals the true reason:

“It’s just that it relaxes me to look at things from above.”

The unknowing penetrates the narrative itself where youthfulness is revealed with little sense of irony and our awareness that the boys change is difficult to map. This can make the novel frustrating (and its conclusion is no more revealing) but it is also what makes it interesting.

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3 Responses to “Emmaus”

  1. winstonsdad Says:

    I ve silk by him on my tbr ,this one sounds rather good as well ,all the best stu

  2. Mr Gwyn | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] adapted for film (featuring, among others, Keira Knightly and Alfred Molina). His previous novel, Emmaus, translated, as here, by Anne Goldstein, was published only in the US by McSweeney’s, a fate that […]

  3. The Young Bride | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] its protagonists in An Iliad to the Victorian setting of Lands of Glass, but other novels such as Emmaus and Mr Gwyn, have a more contemporary setting. They also vary widely in length: Silk and Without […]

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