A Riveting Read: Emmaus by Alessandro Baricco

Erin Berman

Emmaus CoverMcSweeney’s Books brings bestselling Italian-author Alessandro Baricco’s 2009 novel, Emmaus, to English-speaking readers. The book, which follows four teenage male friends in an Italian city, is the fifth of his eight novels to be published in English. Although the story is narrated in the present, the unnamed, teenage narrator speaks with a mature voice that is clearly beyond his years. He often speaks for his group of three friends collectively, offering insight into their respective lives and homes. The boys come from traditional Catholic families, and live conventional lives playing in a band and volunteering at a retirement home. “Naturally we go to school every day. But that’s a story of embarrassing humiliation and useless aggravation. It has nothing to do with what we would define life,” the narrator claims. “And yet we are happy, or at least we think we are.”

Yet with the introduction of Andre, a captivating bourgeois girl, the group's happy lives are shattered. Andre, who has tried to kill herself and is sexually deviant, is the antithesis of the values the boys have grown up with. She embodies everything that the families of the boys try to hide from them: promiscuity, drugs, recklessness, and a disregard for living. Andre makes the boys self-conscious of their pious, middle-class lives. Both individually and as a group, the boys are obsessed with their interactions with Andre. They follow her down a path of wild actions that destroys their friendship and alters their lives forever. While the boys partake in some wild escapades, the plot is relatively minimal. Instead, the narrative is driven by philosophical abstractions and religious musings. The novel, while it is certainly a coming-of-age story, is also about the impossibility of a religious structure to address the struggles of the psyche. The boys realize that there are certain things in life they just don’t understand. This resonates with them both physically (through the lure of sex and drugs) and psychologically, as the boys grapple with the uncertainty of love and depression. The grandeur of the musings moves beyond death, love, and heartbreak to address a humanitarian plight of existence.

The end of the novel returns to that initial assertion of “happiness” and what the boys would define as “life.” At this point, however, the narrator perhaps understands that happiness and life are impossible concepts to define. In a final scene with his friend, the narrator is told, “There wasn’t before Andre, because we were always like that. Therefore no nostalgia is due us, nor do we have available a way to go back…nothing happened. Nothing ever happened.” This notion asks the reader to pause and think about the shaping of one’s identity. Each of the boys has a different self-construct, yet all revolve around homes, friends, and values. They are defined by their faith: they must be faithful to their religion, to their friends, to their celibacy, to their families and homes. If anything, this book is about questioning faith, though Baricco does not try to discern between good and evil. Instead, the resounding note at the end of the novel suggests that life is far more immaterial and impermanent than we realize. And that the great awakenings in life are not always about finding out what went wrong, but may arise by calming the part within us that demands things must always work out right. Emmaus is a short and intense book that raises more questions than it attempts to answer. Its brevity means that not a word is wasted, though it will certainly leave you wanting more.


Emmaus
Alessandro Baricco
McSweeney's Books, 2013
ISBN 978-1938073151

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