Pietro is our protagonist who has recently taken a job as the concierge in a condominium in Milan, late in life. Although defining his character as merely a ‘concierge’ perhaps simplifies his role. He eagerly integrates into the occupants’ colourful lives in the flat: Poppi, (an aptly plosive) teasing and rambunctious lawyer; Paola and her autistic 20-something year old son Fernando. And, of particular interest, the Martini family: Luca, a doctor, his wife Viola and their small child Sara. In his capacity as concierge he has free reign to roam the corridors… and cross thresholds.
Pietro goes beyond the realms of the prying voyeur: while the Martini family are out, he regularly goes into their flat and ‘caresses’ photographs, tries on Dr Martini’s slippers and reads his diary. His fervent interest in the family is not without motive and the story revels in unearthing the complex connection between Pietro and the Martinis.
We are privy to another narrative, presented in a series of flashbacks, of a young woman confessing and confiding her deeply sorrowful woes to a priest. Indeed, tender moments of sadness and emotion pervade the body of the book: touching stories of loss and grief affects everyone and each character deals with their own emotional intensity respectively, providing psychological verisimilitude to the novel.
The meaning of the ‘Sense of an Elephant’ is directly named: ‘[Elephants] take care of the herd without regard to kinship’, which serves as a striking juxtaposition against the principal recurring theme in the novel – the relationship between parents and their children: ‘That was the sense of the elephant and of all fathers, their devotion to all sons.’ Pietro places himself at the helm of the block of flats and so assumes the role of the elephant according to Missiroli’s definition. The adage ‘An elephant never forgets’ is evoked through the way characters deal with memories: unlike an elephant, however, Pietro relies on ‘The notebook where he set down things not to forget’, while busybody Poppi insists that: ‘Forgetfulness is what separates me from the gossips.’
It’s a beautiful story and sensitively translated (The Sense of an Elephant was originally written in Italian and won the 2012 Campiello Prize) – I didn’t feel like I was missing out on the lexicon of the original. Although if I were to find a blemish in the text, I thought that the references to modern life (mobile phones etc.) seemed slightly at odds with the otherwise timeless setting Missiroli constructs. The architectonic structure of the narrative is interesting. It feels like there’s a bit of an imbalance. We negotiate the book in the same way Pietro wanders throughout the flats and the streets of Milan, and then there’s a driving force, a propulsive action in the late-middle (much like the point at which we join Pietro’s life in the book)… and then the book ends, leaving us needing an elephant of our own to guide us and keep us company.
‘The Sense of an Elephant’ by Marco Missiroli was released on 10th September 2015, published by Picador, £8.99.
My copy of ‘The Sense of an Elephant’ was kindly sent (on my request) to me to review.