In Sandro Veronesi’s second Strega Prize-winning work of fiction, we follow the protagonist, Dr Marco Carrera, a Florentine ophthalmologist, as he stumbles through a life strewn with miscommunications, misjudgements, and misfortunes. The Hummingbird (Il colibrì, 2020), published in Elena Pala’s English translation by Weidenfeld and Nicholson in 2021, is a novel about time. More precisely, it is a novel about what it is to live an earthly life, where that means to be bound by the cruelty of circumstance, to be in time.
In some senses, Marco’s is an ordinary life: he grows up, pursues a career with modest success, falls in love, is disappointed in that love, marries, divorces, raises a child and a grandchild, accompanies his parents on their journey out of this world, recognises and confronts his vices, and eventually, tired and physically diminished, reaches the end of his own journey.
In another sense, Marco’s seventy years are a litany of the losses and liabilities of a man living on borrowed time. As a young man, he narrowly escapes death in a fatal plane crash. From this point, he is beset by tragedy: the suicide of his sister, Irene, shattering his already fragile family unit; an unviable but irresistible on-off affair with the love of his life, Luisa Lattes; his hasty and unhappy marriage to Marina, a pathological liar; the unhealed wound of the non-relationship with his brother Giacomo; the slow and undignified surrender of his parents, Probo and Letizia Carrera, to their respective cancers. Finally and most brutally comes the death of his daughter, Adele, at twenty-two, leaving behind a child, Miraijin (meaning “Man of the Future” in Japanese), whose care becomes Marco’s sole consolation.
Marco’s relationship to his unjustly generous portion of suffering is encapsulated by the hummingbird, the novel’s titular image. As a child, he is diagnosed with a developmental disorder which leaves him physically underdeveloped with respect to his peers. By virtue of his diminutive stature and delicacy, he is known as “the hummingbird.” Though growth hormones bring him into line with his contemporaries, Marco remains a hummingbird in another sense, expending all his energy in hovering, staying still while the world around him shifts. To negative change, Marco thus reacts in an unusual way: “he simply stood still in the middle of the desolation that surrounded him and inhabited that desolation” (250). He is unmoveable, even whilst battered, as Shakespeare’s Hamlet is, by “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” an intertextual reference invoked by Veronesi in the closing chapters (251).
Like Hamlet, Marco lives in a world where “the time is out of joint,” afraid that if it is up to him “to set it right” (Act I, scene V, 187-9) then he will not be fit to do so. Preoccupation with time informs the novel’s structure, which alternates between letters exchanged, telephone conversations, and a more traditional third-person perspective on the vicissitudes of Marco’s life. Each chapter takes place in a different year, sometime between the 1970s and the 2030s. Most significantly, they are not organised chronologically, but flit back and forth between disconnected or tangentially connected moments or seasons of life, snapshots of action or emotion which establish the temporality of the text as thoroughly out of joint.
One of the novel’s successes is the manner in which this structural disjointedness echoes the content. Physiologically, Marco spends his childhood and adolescence playing catch-up. Relationally, he cannot recall a time when his parents were happy and his brother loved him, and has to confront the confusion which arises when a child dies before a parent. Romantically, Luisa is the right woman, but in fifty years of longing it is never the right time. Marina, on the other hand, is entirely the wrong woman at the right time, arriving on the scene in the moment of Marco’s supreme impressionability, when his desperation for happiness is most acute.
Marco’s most urgent desire, that which renders him unmistakably human, is this desire for happiness, which is to say his desire for things to be well with him. Desire is necessarily future-oriented, directed towards that which is not-yet-possessed. In this case, however, Veronesi makes clear to us in his use of prolepsis and analepsis as narrative tools that some things are already out of reach before they even begin, meaning that “the future Marco thought he was building was simply not there” (100). Throughout the novel, Veronesi wields time as a narrative weapon, warning us not to get too invested in certain possibilities. In Marco and Marina’s case, the march of time means that “at some point this will stop being a love story” (97). For Marco and Luisa, the same is true: “How do you begin telling the story of a great love,” Veronesi appeals to his reader, “when you know it ended in disaster?” (97).
The desire to press on to a time when happiness will be an actuality rather than merely a potentiality or a thing remembered is one which the fictional creation Marco Carrera shares not only with many of us, but with those whose path he crosses during his lifetime. Most of the characters are miserable; many have been in therapy long-term; few find resolution for their inner distress. In that happiness evades people in the novel with ever-increasing degrees of severity, they, too, are already out of joint, spending their lives in search of lost time or wondering about the seeming arbitrariness of time. Most emblematic of this is the story, which haunts Probo Carrera, of his old friend Aldino, deceased in a tragic road accident because he happened to be in precisely the wrong place at precisely the right time. Indeed, “three hundredths of a second” (159) sooner or later would have made the crucial difference.
The novel also implies that some timing can never right itself: for Probo and his wife Letizia, stagnating in an unfulfilling marriage, sooner or later would have made no difference at all. Their misery precedes and pervades them: “They had always been miserable – even before they’d met – sadness was like a substance they’d produced autonomously, like human bodies produce cholesterol” (117). In their tendency towards futility, the imagined lives lived out on the pages of The Hummingbird appear to dispute the ordering assertion that “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). Here it is never the right time, and the seasons of life bleed helplessly into one another.
In the face of this, are readers of this novel afforded opportunity for hope? I think the author intends that they should be. In Marco’s world, death is not made good by resurrection; endings, which are often distressing and premature, are final. Nevertheless, though time, here synonymous with the transience of the human, is not made good in fulfilment, Veronesi believes that its sting can be removed, and it falls to Marco to remove it: “Things can come to an end and change in many different ways, and his task was to shepherd people and things towards a dignified ending, towards the right kind of change” (124).
Marco’s stillness – the quality which makes him the eponymous hummingbird – protects him, not from slings and arrows themselves, but from being felled by them. It also enables him “to set it right” in a limited and thoroughly human capacity. At the same time as being just too late for happiness, plagued by personal tragedy, Marco is precisely where he needs to be in those moments which bookend a life lived in time. He walks behind Probo and Letizia on their Via Crucis, accompanying them each step on their “Way of Sorrows” (178), and he is in the birthing pool with his daughter Adele when baby Miraijin, the Man of the Future, is born.
In a letter to his lover Luisa from 2012, conveying the news of Adele’s death, Marco laments the absence of a time machine to turn back the clock (162). The desire for a time machine is futile, however, because Marco himself is the time machine: it is he who stays behind when everyone else leaves, and to him falls the task of raising the Man of the Future. At the end, there are only Marco and the Miraijin, the novel’s Messiah: a child who defies time and is time’s saviour. It is she who says “Grandpa, I’m here and you must go on” to the “wretched, godforsaken” man whose own child has been taken from him (169; 168).
In Miraijin, Marco’s granddaughter, who is a prodigy and whose desire as she grows is directed towards the possibility of a better world, is revealed the truth that time had been in joint all along – all things, from the very beginning, pointed to the Man of the Future, the redeemer who “had always been the New Man, since before she was born” (249-50). And so, with time turned on its head, neither Marco’s tribulations nor those of anyone else have been pointless. All can be well because “All the pain he’d suffered was the very foundation of the world to come, his memories were his destiny, his past was his future” (250-1).
Although Marco may seem to us a passive individual, a hummingbird suspended in motion, he is not. He is an ophthalmologist, after all. Throughout the narrative, his eyes keep the score, and Veronesi, who decides in which direction those eyes are looking, reminds us that “the act of looking is anything but passive” (223). Marco is no Cassandra – he cannot see what lies before him, and so is always caught off-guard, in a state of reception, suspended in an eternal present where he is responding to a world which is changing around him. This is not a cowardly refusal to “be in time,” I think Veronesi suggests, but rather a fullness of being in time, because “it takes a lot of effort and courage to keep still too” (245).
It is fitting that The Hummingbird should be presented in Elena Pala’s moving and precise translation (her first book-length project) to a global audience, because it is exactly that thing which the novel as genre is predicated upon: a narrative of human being and doing; an account of the individual and his world; a confirmation that for readers of literature, too, “to look is to touch from a distance” (220). In short, it is a story with a beating heart, or perhaps, in this case, wings. “Seventy wing beats per second,” to be precise (233).
It is this unembellished humanity of the novel’s cast of lonely and dissatisfied characters which means that their weakness and vacillation is never enough to make us disdain them. If narrative time is out of joint, so are all those people that have their being in time who populate this novel. At the last, then, The Hummingbird leaves us with a deeper question than the one which hangs over Marco Carrera’s individual suffering and that of those around him. That deeper question addresses our shared humanity: aren’t we all the wrong people, and isn’t it always the wrong time?
Veronesi, Sandro. The Hummingbird. Translated by Elena Pala. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2021.
Rebecca Walker holds a PhD in Italian Studies from the University of St Andrews and is associate lecturer in Italian at St Andrews. Her research is focused on twentieth and twenty-first century women’s writing across languages, where she has worked on Elena Ferrante, Jhumpa Lahiri, Elsa Morante, and Goliarda Sapienza.