Demolishing the Tyranny of Chronology: On Sandro Veronesi’s “The Hummingbird”

March 4, 2022   •   By Cory Oldweiler

The Hummingbird

Sandro Veronesi

SPOILER ALERT. That two-word warning — in a review, on social media, even uttered in casual conversation — can cause cautious consumers to avert their eyes or cover their ears lest some insensitive monster ruin their upcoming fun. A seemingly smaller group of consumers is less concerned with remaining untainted by foresight, holding that — quelle horreur! — spoilers don’t really matter. Instead of fretting about what is going to happen, these fans are more eager to see how it will happen. In other words, the execution is what matters.

Italian author Sandro Veronesi found himself in the latter camp while writing Il colibrì (2019), which won him a second Premio Strega, his country’s most prestigious literary prize. The Hummingbird, as the novel is titled in Elena Pala’s uneven English translation, is an intricately executed work, told via letters, emails, text chains, transcribed conversations, and traditional narrative, all of which are jumbled up and presented out of chronological order, particularly in the first half of the book. Chapter titles include parenthetical years, but diligent readers may still find themselves cross-referencing the table of contents to establish the exact sequence of events. In a 2019 interview with the Italian literary outlet Mangialibri, Veronesi said that he had very specific reasons for deciding not to tell the story directly — to demolish the tyranny of chronology (“ma di scardinare la tirannide della cronologia”). As he explained:

There are points in the story, in fact, where a lot of pain is concentrated, and in a linear narrative, those points could have been, for me as the writer as well as for readers, almost unbearable. Whereas if you go forward, then turn back […] the reader is warned: they know what will happen. They are already prepared mentally. [translation mine]


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The Hummingbird tells the life story of Marco Carrera, from his childhood in the 1960s through his death in 2030. His parents, siblings, wife, lover, daughter, and granddaughter all play significant roles, as do an adolescent friend and a psychiatrist, but their parts are generally presented in relation to Marco or from his perspective.

Marco sees himself as, above all, a survivor, someone who has faced those points “where a lot of pain is concentrated” and overcome them. While his marriage to and divorce from Marina are fundamental — and unquestionably cause him (and her) pain — it is his relationships with his sister Irene, his lover Luisa, and his daughter Adele that truly catalyze Marco’s development, and thus propel Veronesi’s narrative. Marco blames his suffering on the fact that “all the women in his life […] end up in the grip of various psychotherapists,” which he takes pains to differentiate from psychiatrists, but neither are Marco’s true problem, as Marina’s therapist, Daniele Carradori, tells him at one point: “You don’t have a problem with psychotherapists either, believe me.” Marco’s problem is that, in seeing himself as a survivor, he feels he must continue to protect himself at all costs; as Luisa points out in a 2018 letter: “No one can persevere as strenuously as you do, and no one can elude change quite like you do […] you hold steady and push on to the bitter end while also (fatally) refusing to submit to other people’s rules or decisions.” She compares him to a hummingbird, writing that Marco spends his energy “keeping still.”

His mother first dubbed him with the titular nickname due to his slow physical development growing up in Florence, Italy. Despite his small size, Marco’s was a happy childhood, but only because he was “completely oblivious to everything,” especially his parents’ unhappiness. Probo and Letizia were mismatched in nearly every way: he an analytic engineer from the north, she an abstract architect from the south; he was true to his name, which means “honest,” while she betrayed hers, which means “joy.” Giacomo shared his older brother’s obliviousness, but Irene, four years older than Marco and his idol from a young age, saw everything, heard everything, and kept tabs on the entire family.

Marco’s lack of awareness contributes — in his mind, if not in fact — to one of his (and the novel’s) greatest moments of pain: Irene’s suicide on August 23, 1981, on the beach at Bolgheri, where the Carreras have a second home. While “Gloomy Sunday (1981),” the chapter recounting that day, doesn’t appear until halfway through the book, the tragedy is mentioned early and often, starting in the third chapter, which consists of a letter Marco writes to Luisa less than three weeks after Irene’s death. He is wracked with guilt because when it happened, the then-22-year-old Marco and the then-15-year-old Luisa were kissing, something they had both fantasized about for years, their “only real wish finally coming true.” The love affair, while never consummated, will last his entire life, though not without interruptions.

The fallout from that night destroys his relationship with his brother, however, since Marco partly blames him for Irene’s death. Giacomo moves to the United States, and for the remainder of their lives, the brothers are estranged, only seeing each other on two occasions — when their mother dies and when Marco is about to die. Marco does send Giacomo emails, which go unanswered, while settling their parents’ estate, including one in 2009 that immediately precedes “Gloomy Sunday (1981).” It concludes with a lachrymose line about Irene: “We knew nothing about her, Giacomo. She knew everything about all of us, but we knew nothing about her.”

Despite readers being prepared for Irene’s death, Veronesi’s execution of the scene is shattering. The chapter title refers to a so-called “Hungarian suicide song” from the 1930s that has been covered many times, most famously by Billie Holiday in 1941, but Irene favored a punk version by Lydia Lunch, which she had recorded “on a deadly loop on both sides of the only tape that, for days, had been playing in her red Walkman (a Christmas present from her brothers).” The chapter follows all five members of the Carrera family that day, but while Irene “shuffles around the house like a ghost,” the rest are concerned only with themselves: “[N]o one is thinking about Irene, and little by little the house empties.”

Marco goes off to meet Luisa. Giacomo tries to do the same but realizes she is with his brother and so returns late to collapse “on the sofa knocked out by a powerful combination of rum and Nutella.” Probo and Letizia go to a celebratory dinner, after which, their love briefly rekindled, they “stagger in a drunken embrace — looking for the darkest spot” on the beach. The chapter is a truly brilliant piece of narrative and a high point of Pala’s translation, hitting countless emotional beats and conveying the deliberate pacing of Veronesi’s original.

The attack on the tyranny of chronology continues with a jump to November 24, 2012, and an email — subject line “Help” — from Marco to Luisa, sent in the wee hours. It too concerns a death, but one not as clearly foreshadowed as Irene’s, and so out of respect for readers who do care about spoilers, I will preserve the suspense. Suffice to say that the brief message is raw in its vulnerability, its almost ashamed yet desperate plea for salvation, and its ultimate capitulation to despair in “la bruma dell’oblio,” the mist of oblivion.

And there is no letting up. The next chapter, “Shakul & Co. (2012),” recounts the death that precipitated the prior email, the loss that Marco has again suffered and must survive. In the Italian, it begins with a simple sentence — “E infine venne” (“And finally it came”) — then continues for nearly 2,000 words without a period, without a rest. It is a breathless lamentation, the kind of panicked rush of thought and expression that never stops, that simply cannot stop, for fear of a total collapse into sorrow or madness. The effect is devastating.

Preserving this presentation in English would be difficult, and Pala does not, adding more than 20 periods and three paragraph breaks. Given the heartbreaking subject matter, the chapter cannot help but remain powerful, yet its overall effect is diluted, and it can be argued that such a bravura stylistic feat deserved to be retained. Veronesi does something similar in the final paragraph of the chapter “The New Man (2016–2029),” which runs to some 2,500 words with just 14 periods and a handful of other terminal punctuation; Pala adds more than 40 periods in her version.

Pala draws inadvertent attention to these passages in her brief translator’s note, where she singles out, from the chapter “Planes (2000),” a “phenomenal page-long digression spanning millennia of history from ancient Rome to the present day.” The “absence of periods in the original Italian,” she writes, “leaves no time for us to catch our breath.” Yet that passage is barely 200 words. Pala continues: “But alas, after much agonizing over how many periods I could get away with introducing — five, it turns out — I resigned myself to ‘betraying’ the original text. Caging it. Squeezing it into a dress two sizes too small.”

The remainder of the novel proceeds roughly chronologically toward the powerful moment of Marco’s death, with exceptions for a chapter on the deaths of his parents in 2009 and a concluding letter to Luisa from 1997. But unfortunately, the US edition starts to suffer from an accumulation of nuisances that will be apparent even to readers who have never cracked Il colibrì, nuisances resulting from questionable translation or editing decisions. For instance, Sudoku is awkwardly described as a “new mathematical puzzle” rather than a logic puzzle, which is how Veronesi characterizes it in Italian: “un nuovo gioco di logica.” We are treated to Marco emailing Giacomo about how he “managed to rehome Dad’s model railways” (as if the trains had temporarily been held at an animal shelter). More egregiously, the straightforward “Che Irene non si suicidia” (“that Irene does not kill herself”) — is rendered as the grammatically ghastly “I wish that Irene does not suicide herself.”

Another potential hurdle for American readers is the unmistakably British, and sometimes Irish, texture of Pala’s prose, which her editors seem not to have adjusted at all for the US publication. The extraneous insertion of “to top myself” to the Italian “sarei andato dritto filato ai Mulinelli come Irene, giuro” (“I would have gone straight to Mulinelli to top myself, just like Irene, I swear”), which would be fine in a Nick Hornby novel, may be distracting or even entirely opaque for the stateside audience. At one point, Probo responds to Irene by saying, “good on you,” a decidedly Irish spin on “brava,” as the encouragement appears in the Italian. Later on, “brava” is rendered as “good girl,” which is a legitimate interpretation but comes off as infantilizing when Marco is rhapsodizing about how Miraijin will change the world, or just plain comical when he says, “[G]ood girl — you’re the Man of the Future.”

And near the end, we find one of the most puzzling decisions. In the Italian version, Marco quotes the Florentine military leader Francesco Ferrucci saying, “vile, tu uccidi un uomo morto” (“coward, you kill a dead man”). Its meaning, which is eminently clear in context, adds local flavor. Pala’s version cuts Ferrucci and replaces his pun with “You too, Brutus?” While swapping the quote for something more familiar to English speakers may be justifiable, if coddling, the decision to translate Shakespeare’s Latin is just ridiculous, especially when a few pages later the Latin phrase “Ubi nihil vales, ibi nihil velis” appears in both versions.

None of these peccadillos constitutes a fatal flaw, of course, and yet their accretion, coupled with the strength of Veronesi’s original, convinces me that readers deserved a bit more attention from both the translator and her editors. Consider this criticism simply a bit of a spoiler — which I guess makes me, in many eyes, an insensitive monster trying to ruin your fun. I won’t succeed. Veronesi’s execution is too strong.

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Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer and editor.