The Shy Clumsy Lover

Three Light-Years

by Andrea Canobbio, translated from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 356 pp., $26.00
Jerry Bauer/Agence Opale
Andrea Canobbio, 2005

Andrea Canobbio’s remarkable novel Three Light-Years begins with the sort of metaphor, the kind of sweeping statement that, in the work of a less gifted writer, might warn readers to brace themselves for the onslaught of something sententious and bogus. But the paragraph that follows is so artful and intriguing that it dispels whatever unease its opening sentence might have inspired:

Memory is an empty room. Gone are the bookshelves littered with journals, gone are the chairs and table, the paintings, the calendar, and the computer screen filled with words. My father is gone, too, effaced by thousands of identical moments, deleted by the same repetitive gestures day after day, as he sat there tapping the keys.

Even as we are parsing this passage and already admiring the deftness (how apt that word: “deleted”) of Anne Milano Appel’s exemplary translation, the novel has rushed past us. The narrator’s father, a repressed, middle-aged Italian doctor named Claudio Viberti, is working at the computer in the pediatricians’ lounge of an urban hospital when, entirely by chance, the beautiful Cecilia—a stranger in a white lab coat—bursts into the room. “Her eight-year-old son had been admitted to the ward a few days earlier and she was looking for a doctor, or at least someone dressed as a doctor, who could persuade him to eat.”

Given this opening, a lesser talent might fashion a novel resembling a script for a TV medical drama. But Canobbio, whose previous novel to have appeared in English is The Natural Disorder of Things (2004), avoids the obvious pitfalls, largely as a result of his acuity and inventiveness, the specificity and density of his detail, the elegance of his style, and the depth of his psychological insight. These virtues are apparent early on, in this account of what Viberti observes and intuits after he agrees to help Cecilia and drifts through the children’s ward, pretending to take an interest in the young patients’ charts:

A sullen-looking little boy occupied the bed near the door, and a child with a mop of red hair had the one next to the window. A woman, presumably a mother, was sitting in the far corner, knitting. There were still women who knitted, then; you saw them in waiting rooms, in the wards, mysterious and comforting like childhood scars you rediscover on your skin from time to time.

Cecilia’s son was watching the red-haired boy maneuver two dinosaurs on the bed in a noisy, never-ending battle. He looked a lot like his mother; his face was hardly sunken, he didn’t seem emaciated. On the bedside table, next to a bottle of mineral water and a glass, four toy cars rested on a sheet of graph paper on which the diagram of an angled parking lot had been drawn with great precision. My father thought the child…

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