A McSweeney’s Books Preview of Alessandro Baricco’s Emmaus.
The secular and the pious. The rich and the poor. Those with “a capacity for destiny” and those who “cannot afford it.” Alessandro Baricco’s new novel, Emmaus, is a world of stark contrasts, one in which four young men—all from proud, struggling families, and all lusting after Andre, a hyper- sexual woman—are goaded from adolescence to manhood in a torrent of exploits and crises, sexual awakenings and morbid depressions, naivety and fatalism.
A brilliant portrait of the perils and uncertainties of youth and faith, Emmaus is a remarkable novel from one of the very best writers in Europe.
Today, we offer an excerpt from the book. To purchase a copy, please visit our store.
The red sports car made a U-turn and pulled over in front of the boy. The man in the driver’s seat maneuvered calmly; he seemed to be in no hurry, to have no thoughts. He wore a stylish cap, the car’s top was down. He stopped, and with a graceful smile said to the boy, Have you seen Andre?
Andre was a girl.
The boy misunderstood, he thought the man wanted to know if he had seen her in general, in life—if he had seen how marvelous she was. Have you seen Andre? Like a thing between men.
So the boy said yes.
Where? the man asked.
Given that the man continued to smile, in a way, the boy continued to misunderstand the questions. So he answered, Everywhere. Then it occurred to him to be more precise, and he added, From a distance.
The man then nodded, as if to say that he agreed, and that he had understood. He was still smiling. You’re a smart kid, he said. And he pulled away, but without revving the engine—as if he had never had to rev up the engine in his life.
Four intersections farther on, where a signal flashed uselessly in the sun, the red sports car was hit by an out-of-control van.
It should be said that the man was Andre’s father.
The boy was me.
It was many years ago.
We’re all sixteen or seventeen years old, but we aren’t really aware of it: it’s the only age we can imagine; we scarcely know the past. We’re very normal, there is no plan for us except to be normal, it’s something we’ve inherited in our blood. For generations, our families have worked to hone life to the point where every bit of evidence is removed—any rough spot that could get the attention of a distant eye. They ended up, in time, with a certain expertise in the field, masters of invisibility: the sure hand, the knowing eye—artisans. It’s a world where you turn off the lights when you leave a room; the living room chairs are covered with plastic. Some elevators have a mechanism whereby if you insert a coin you gain the privilege of assisted ascent. Going down they are free, though in general considered unnecessary. Egg whites are saved in a glass in the refrigerator; we seldom go to restaurants, and then only on Sunday. On the balconies, tough, silent plants promising nothing are protected by green awnings from the dust of the streets. Light is often considered a disturbance. Grateful to the fog, absurd as it may seem, we live, if that is living.
Yet we are happy, or at least we think we are.
The apparatus of standard normality includes, incontrovertibly, the fact that we are Catholics—believers and Catholics. In reality it’s the anomaly, the madness that overturns the theory of our simplicity, but to us it all seems very ordinary, regular. We believe, and there doesn’t seem to be any other possibility. Yet we believe fiercely, hungrily; our faith is not tranquil but an uncontrolled passion, like a physical need, an urgency. It’s the seed of some insanity—the obvious gathering of a storm on the horizon. But our fathers and mothers don’t read the arriving tempest, seeing instead only a meek acquiescence in the family’s course: and they let us put out to sea. Boys who spend their free time changing the sheets of sick people abandoned in their own shit: this is not taken by anyone for what it is—a form of madness. Or the taste for poverty, the pride in cast-off clothes. The prayers, the praying. The sense of guilt, always. We are misfits, but no one realizes it. We believe in the God of the Gospels.
So for us the world has physical confines that are very immediate, and mental confines as fixed as a liturgy. And that is our infinite.
In the distance, beyond the habitual, in a hyperspace we know almost nothing about, there are others, figures on the horizon. What’s immediately noticeable is that they do not believe—apparently, they do not believe in anything—but also evident is a familiarity with money, and the sparkling reflections of their objects and their actions: the light. Probably they’re just rich, and our gaze is the upward gaze of every bourgeoisie engaged in the effort of ascent—a gaze from the shadows. I don’t know. But it’s clear to us that in them, fathers and sons, the chemistry of life produces not precise formulas but, as if forgetful of its regulatory function, spectacular arabesques—drunken science. The result is lives that we don’t understand—writings to which the key is lost. They are not moral, they are not prudent, they have no shame, and they’ve been that way for a very long time. Evidently they can count on improbably full granaries, because they squander the harvest of the seasons, whether it is money or even just knowledge, experience. They reap good and evil indifferently. They burn memory, and in the ashes read their future.
They’re grand, and they go unpunished.
At a distance, they pass before our eyes, and sometimes through our thoughts. It can also happen that life, with its fluid daily adjustments, leads us to touch them, by chance, suspending for a brief moment the natural differences. Usually it’s the parents who mingle—occasionally one of us, a passing friendship, a girl. So we can see them close up. When we return to the ranks—not expelled, really, but, rather, relieved of a burden—a few open pages, written in their language, linger in memory. The full, round sound that their fathers’ racquet strings make when they hit the tennis ball. The houses, especially the ones at the sea or in the mountains, which they often seem to forget about: unhesitatingly they give the keys to their children; on the tables are dusty whiskey glasses, and in the corners antique sculptures, as in a museum, but patent-leather shoes stick out of the closets. The sheets: black. In the photographs: suntanned. When we study with them—at their houses—the telephone rings constantly and we see the mothers, who are often apologizing, but always with a laugh, and in a tone of voice that we don’t recognize. Then they come over and run a hand through our hair, saying something girlish and pressing their breast against our arm. There are servants, too, and careless, seemingly improvised schedules—they don’t seem to believe in the redeeming power of habit. They don’t seem to believe in anything.
It’s a world, and Andre comes from it. Remote, she appears from time to time, always in matters that have nothing to do with us. Although she’s our age, she mostly hangs around with older people, and this makes her even more alien. We see her—it’s hard to say if she ever sees us. Probably she doesn’t even know our names. Hers is Andrea: in our families it’s a boys’ name, but not in hers, which even when it comes to names demonstrates an instinctive inclination to privilege. Nor did the family stop there, because they call her Andre, with the accent on the A; it’s a name that exists only for her. So she has always been, for everyone, Andre. She is, of course, very pretty, most of them are, over there, but it should be said that she is pretty in a particular way, unintentional. There’s something masculine about her. A hardness. This makes things easier for us. We are Catholics: beauty is a moral virtue, and the body has nothing to do with it, so the curve of a behind means nothing, the perfect turn of a slender ankle means nothing: the female body is the object of a systematic deferment. In short, all we know of our inevitable heterosexuality we’ve learned from the dark eyes of a best friend or the lips of a companion we were jealous of. The skin, every so often, with faint movements that we don’t understand, under the soccer shirts. So it goes without saying that slightly masculine girls are more attractive to us. In this, Andre is perfect. She wears her hair long, but with the frenzy of an American Indian—you never see her fix or brush it, it’s just there. All her wonder is in her face—the color of her eyes, the angle of her cheekbones, her mouth. It seems unnecessary to look elsewhere: her body is just a way of standing, resting her weight, walking away—it’s a consequence. None of us ever wondered what she’s like under the sweater, it’s not urgent for us to know, and we’re grateful. Her way of moving, at every instant, is enough—an inherited elegance of gestures and low voices, an extension of her beauty. At our age none of us really control our body, we walk with the hesitation of a colt, we have voices not our own: but she appears old, knowing the nuances of every state of being, by instinct. It’s clear that the other girls try the same moves and intonations, but they seldom succeed, because what in her is a gift—grace—in them is a construct. In dressing as in being—at every instant.
So, from a distance, we are enchanted, as, it must be said, are others, everyone. The older boys know her beauty, and even older men, of forty. Her friends know it, and all the mothers—hers, too, like a wound in her side. They all know that that’s how it is, and that nothing can be done about it.
As far as we understand, there’s no one who can say he’s been Andre’s boyfriend. We’ve never seen her holding hands. Or a kiss—not even just a light touch on a boy’s skin. It isn’t her style. She doesn’t care about being liked by someone—she seems involved in something else, more complicated. There are boys who should attract her, very different from us, obviously, like her brother’s friends, who dress well, and speak with a strange accent, as if it were important to move their lips as little as possible. There might also be adult males around who to us seem revolting. Men with cars. And in fact it happens that you see Andre go off with them—in their revolting cars or on motorcycles. Especially at night—as if the darkness carried her into a cone of shadow that we don’t want to understand. But all this has nothing to do with the natural flow of things—of boys and girls together. It’s like a sequence from which certain passages have been removed. It doesn’t result in what we call love.
So Andre belongs to no one—but we know that she also belongs to everyone. It could be part of the legend, certainly, but the stories are rich in details, as if someone had seen, and knows. And we recognize her, in those stories—it’s difficult for us to visualize the rest, but she, there in the midst, really is herself. Her way of doing things. She waits in the bathroom at the movie theater, leaning against a wall, and they go in one after the other to take her: she doesn’t even turn around. Then she leaves, without going back to the theater to get her coat. They go whoring with her, and she laughs a lot, standing in a corner, watching—if they are transvestites, she looks at them and touches them. She never drinks, she doesn’t smoke, she fucks lucidly, knowing what she’s doing, and, it’s said, always in silence. There are some Polaroids around, which we’ve never seen, where she is the only woman. She doesn’t care about being photographed, doesn’t care that sometimes it’s the fathers, after the sons; she doesn’t seem to care about anything. Every morning, again, she belongs to no one.
It’s hard for us to understand. In the afternoon we go to the hospital, the one for poor people. Men’s ward, urology. Under the covers the sick men don’t wear pajama bottoms but have a rubber tube inserted in their urethra. That tube is connected to another, slightly bigger tube, which empties into a transparent plastic bag, attached to the side of the bed. That’s how the sick men pee; they’re not even aware of it, and they don’t have to get up. Everything ends up in the transparent bag; the urine is watery, or dark, as red as blood. What we do is empty those damn bags. You have to disconnect the two tubes, detach the bag, go to the bathroom carrying that full bladder, and empty it into the toilet. Then we return to the ward and put everything back in place. The hard part is the business of disconnecting—with your fingers you squeeze the tube that’s inserted in the urethra, and then you have to give it a tug, otherwise it doesn’t slip out of the other tube, the one for the bag, but you try to do it gently. We talk while we’re doing it—we say something to the sick people, something cheerful, as we bend over them, trying not to hurt them. They could care less at that moment about our questions, because all they’re thinking about is that gunshot in their dick, but they answer, between their teeth, because they know that we’re doing it for them, the talking. You empty the bag by pulling out a red plug in the lower corner. Often there are urinary sands on the bottom, like the dregs in a bottle. So you have to wash it thoroughly. We do this because we believe in the God of the Gospels.
As for Andre, it should be said that one time we saw her with our own eyes, in a bar—at a certain time of night, leather sofas and low lights, with a lot of those other people. We were there by mistake, because we wanted a sandwich at that time of night. Andre was sitting with others, with those people. She got up and went outside, passing close by us—she leaned against the hood of a sports car, double-parked, with its hazards on. One of those people arrived and opened the car doors, and they both got in. We were eating our sandwiches, standing up. They didn’t move from there—it must not have mattered much that cars passed by, and even a few people on foot. She leaned over, putting her head between the wheel and the boy’s chest: he was laughing, meanwhile, and looking straight ahead. The door concealed everything, obviously, but every so often you could see her head through the window: she raised it and glanced outside, according to a rhythm of her own. One of those times he put his hand on her head to push it down again, but Andre shoved the hand away with an angry gesture—and yelled something. We went on eating our sandwiches, as if spellbound. They remained in that ridiculous position for a while, without talking—Andre seemed like a turtle with its head sticking out. But then she lowered her head again, down, behind the door. The boy leaned back. We finished our sandwiches, and finally the boy got out of the car, laughed, and adjusted his jacket so that it hung straight. They went back into the bar. Andre passed by and looked at one of us as if she were trying to remember something. Then she went in and sat down again on the leather sofa.
That was a real blow job, said Bobby, who knew what it was—the only one of us who knew, exactly, what a blow job was. He had had a girlfriend who did it. So he confirmed that it was a blow job, no doubt about it. We continued to walk in silence, and it was clear that each of us was trying to put things together, to imagine in detail what had happened behind the car door. We were making a mental image, focusing on the foreground. We worked with the little we had: I had saved up merely a glimpse of my girlfriend with the tip of my dick in her mouth, but just barely—she held it there, not moving, her eyes strangely wide, a little too wide. From there to imagining Andre—it wasn’t so simple, of course. But it must have been easier for Bobby, certainly, and maybe even for Luca, who is reserved about such things but must have seen and done more than I have. As for the Saint, he is different. I don’t want to talk about him—not now. And anyway he is someone who, in thinking about what to do when he grows up, does not exclude the priesthood. He doesn’t say it, but you understand. He’s the one who found the work at the hospital—it’s one of the things we do in our free time. Before, we used to go and visit old people in their tiny houses—they were poor, forgotten old people and we brought them food. Then the Saint discovered that business of the poor people’s hospital, and he said that it would be great. In fact, we like going out into the air afterward, with the odor of pee still in our nostrils; we walk with pride. Under the covers, the penises of the sick old men are tired, and the hair around them is all white, white like their heads. They’re very poor, and don’t have relatives to bring them a newspaper; their mouths are putrid; they complain in a nauseating way. There’s a lot of disgust to overcome, because of the filth, the smells, and the details of the job; yet we are able to do it, and in exchange we get something we wouldn’t know how to explain—a kind of certainty, the rocklike substance of a certainty. So we go out into the darkness more solid, and apparently more true. It’s the same darkness that every evening swallows up Andre and her lost adventures, in those other latitudes of life: arctic, extreme. Odd though it may seem, there is a single darkness, for all.
To buy Emmaus, visit our store.
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