The Hummingbird by Sandro Veronesi review – a masterpiece of love and grief

Everything that makes the novel worthwhile and engaging is here: warmth, wit, intelligence, love, death, high seriousness, low comedy, philosophy, subtle personal relationships and the complex interior life of human beings.

For those of you unacquainted with the name, Sandro Veronesi is a senior Italian writer who – uniquely – has twice won the Premio Strega. This is his ninth novel. He writes across many disciplines and is much celebrated in Italy, where The Hummingbird was voted best book of the year by the Corriere della Sera, as well as being championed around the world. All of which is to say: the wonderful (and relieved) feeling I had while reading this novel was that I was in the hands of a seasoned practitioner writing at that peak moment in a career where insight and experience in the form meet insight and experience in life.

The Hummingbird tells the story of Marco Carrera, an ophthalmologist. He marries the wrong-but-right-but-wrong woman – Marina, who is unfaithful. He loves the right-but-wrong-but-right woman – Luisa, and she is unavailable. He is his sister’s sentinel; but she kills herself. He falls out with his brother and is sadly estranged. His parents are emotionally disfigured by their own trials and yet he must deal with their problems (vindictive rages, emotional blocks, late-marital misery) and then bear witness to them enduring brutal forms of cancer. He betrays his best friend, the man who saved his life. He develops a gambling addiction. His daughter, whom he loves dearly, suffers an inexplicable accident. He is left with his miracle granddaughter, Miraijin, whom he must raise. He never discovers who her father is or why she has been given a Japanese name – meaning “man of the future” – but it is she who gives him reason to go on living.

Veronesi delivers Carrera’s story by moving backwards and forwards in time: the chapter titles tell us we’re in the 1970s, or in 2018, or 1988-1999 or, at the end, in 2030. Meanwhile, the form itself changes – sometimes we’re reading narrative, sometimes pure dialogue, sometimes letters, poetry, emails, inventories, postcards. The effect is to keep everything fresh and engaging. You remain alert. You sift. You piece the life together like a mosaic. Sure, there may be one or two tiles that you don’t love (a couple of chapters felt levered in, to me – as though Veronesi was trying to find a home for something he had written elsewhere), but these prove to be the exceptions and the overall effect is magnificent – moving, replete, beautiful.

There is plenty for the plot junkie – Carrera is pummelled by events – but what makes the book special is that The Hummingbird is such an intelligent meditation on life, family, the human heart and the “dictatorship of pain” that comes with grief. I was reminded of how very much I used to enjoy the kinds of writers who have you underlining passages or making notes in the margin – not just about the book itself, but about your own thoughts on, say, friendship, or lust, or loss. I’m thinking of my early adventures as a reader with Milan Kundera or Umberto Eco, though Veronesi has a very different atmosphere: more tender, more emotionally exasperated, less sure and continually at home to Rudyard Kipling’s “six honest serving men … What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.”

There’s much sophistication in the comedy and the darkness, too. On his marriage to Marina, Carrera muses: “But they weren’t made for each other. No one is made for anyone else, in all fairness, and people like Marina Molitor weren’t even made for themselves.” Indeed, intelligence is everywhere – in the balance of blame and guilt for the characters, in their psychological narrative and counter narrative, in the novel’s philosophical moments.

I want to mention two last things. First, the translator, Elena Pala, who seems to me to have done an astonishing job; the language reads so brightly and distinctively, and yet not so as to interrupt the flow or make it self-conscious. And second, to commend and celebrate The Hummingbird’s last scene, in which Veronesi achieves something transcendent; no plot spoilers, but it’s well worth the read on its own. If you’re in need of modern, intelligent European fiction – and who isn’t? – then this is the precise prescription.

  • The Hummingbird by Sandro Veronesi, translated by Elena Pala, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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