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 must love things that were done just so, that he must love any form of order.
The boy, Mattia, who has been hospitalized for an eating disorder, is reading a book called Supercars, in which Viberti finds a picture of an old Aston Martin and remarks that it was driven by James Bond. After a brief chat about Agent 007 and the villains he outsmarted, Viberti asks the red-haired boy about his dinosaurs and the sulky boy about the music he has downloaded onto his iPod. Viberti avoids looking directly at Cecilia’s son, but he notices that Mattia, whose reflection he glimpses in an IV bag suspended between the beds, has begun to eat.
Cecilia is also a doctor, an emergency room physician who will turn out to be the love of Viberti’s life. Three Light-Years tracks their long, intense, and tormented affair, a romance blighted by the lovers’ crippling reserve and their painful personal histories, by the competing claims (children, parents) on their affections, by their inability to decide what they want or to act on their desires, and ultimately by bad timing and bad luck.
The mother of two children, Cecilia is separated from her husband when Viberti meets her and is subsequently divorced; the break-up of her marriage, and the crisis that precipitated it, have done considerable psychic damage. And Viberti (“the shy internist,” Cecilia calls him) has reached what appears to be a terminal impasse; a creature of habit and routine, he is stuck living in the same apartment building as his ex-wife, her new family, and his elderly mother.
Viberti and Cecilia continue meeting for lunch even after Mattia is released from the hospital. They talk mostly about work, and Viberti is
amazed by the accuracy of her diagnoses, and by how sound and sensible her treatments were. He thought that sooner or later, at least once in a lifetime, a doctor like him (diligent, caring, mediocre) was bound to meet a true natural talent. There was no envy, it was pure admiration…. The only resource he could claim, experience, could be measured by age; it was less mysterious than talent, but more bitter, because to a great extent you earned it by making mistakes.
Early on, Viberti realizes that he is in love with Cecilia:
He would have liked to see a face like that every morning when he opened his eyes (my father thought for the first time). No, that wasn’t right. Not a face like that—that face. Sudden, overwhelming desire: he wanted to leap down from the windowsill—swoop down like an angel in an ex-voto—and wheel around her, glide down to grasp her and snatch her away, save her from impending danger…. Of all the faces in his life, why that one?
But almost a year goes by before he can bring himself to make an ardent declaration of love, a confession so awkward that it rapidly devolves into a consideration of the fine points of language:
“I know you don’t feel the same attraction, I would have noticed, but in the last few months you’ve become a kind of torture, so I thought that if I told you maybe I’d be able to stand it, I don’t know, maybe it’s a stupid idea, I’d like to get over it.” He immediately regrets using the word “torture,” but he didn’t prepare the little speech he’s giving now. “Well, torture is an exaggeration, sorry, I meant fixation, obsession, in a positive sense….” He’s complicating his life, making things worse. He takes a sip of water.
Such passages make one acutely aware of the challenges that Appel must have faced—and finessed—in rendering Canobbio’s Italian into English.
Cecilia pretends not to have suspected the depth of the shy internist’s feelings. (In truth she’d estimated that there was an “eighty percent chance” that he was in love with her.) And she tells him that she doesn’t think of him that way. What follows is perhaps one of the most extended, beautiful, and excruciating descriptions in literature of how a woman can be deeply in love with a man—and not know it. When Cecilia is apart from Viberti, she constantly imagines talking to him, sleeping with him, watching television with her head on his shoulder; her fantasies about him are alternately sisterly and sexual. She tells him, “When I have to think about something wonderful and good I think of you, at night I think of you and calm down and fall asleep.” To which Viberti replies, “Well, better me than a benzodiazepine.”
The couple attempt to make love in Viberti’s car—with comic and embarrassing results. They see each other; their affair grows more passionate and intimate. They decide to stop seeing each other, then have “relapses.” Unsurprisingly, they employ the vocabulary of medicine and disease in talking about their affair:
He’d started calling them relapses to make her smile, so they could laugh about it together, because their relationship was a recurring illness, because they were doctors unable to cure it, but now it was no longer funny.
Throughout the novel, Cecilia and Viberti keep important secrets from one another, but Canobbio’s readers know what they are concealing, because the point of view shifts from character to character, revealing every facet of the lovers’ deepest emotions—and everything they hope to keep hidden. The narrative frequently circles back to an event about which we’ve already read in order to show us the incident from a new vantage. These refractory, changing perspectives function like a series of dramatic plot turns and reverses, drawing us through a book in which not all that much happens, or, to be more accurate, much of what happens occurs within (and only in) the characters’ minds.
A critical scene in which Viberti accidentally meets Cecilia while she is having lunch with her sister Silvia is replayed three times and becomes, in effect, three different stories, with contrasting preludes, beginnings, and endings, all depending on whose experience of this chance encounter is being reported. Almost a hundred pages after Viberti announces his love, Cecilia contemplates (and partly explains) her response:
When the day of his declaration came, Cecilia thought about how blind she’d been, how strongly she wanted everything to remain as it was, for nothing more to happen in her life, for each day to be like every other day,…for the children to always be children…. Without doing anything to discourage him, she had soaked up that silent worship, had fed on his ever- deepening love. So when he seemed to have exhausted his speech (if it had been prepared, it was badly prepared and even more poorly delivered) Cecilia thought: What have I done?
This tale of passion doomed forever by self-consciousness, confusion, and cowardice may remind us of nineteenth-century Russian fiction: of the mushroom-picking scene in Anna Karenina, in which two would-be lovers fail to overcome their reserve; of Chekhov’s stories (“On Love”) and of his plays, among them Uncle Vanya, its characters forever stalled between timidity and yearning.
In fact Chekhov is mentioned several times in Three Light-Years. Viberti’s mother Marta retells a “scandalous” story that, her son believes, is either by Chekhov, Maupaussant, or Tarchetti:
The name of the protagonist (who may have been Russian, French, or Italian) was Cecilia, and the chance appearance of that name on his mother’s lips seriously upset Viberti, though the story left him somewhat indifferent (some kind of incest)—especially since his mother’s narration was even less consistent than usual.
Later in the book, the real Cecilia refers to this incident, which Viberti has mentioned; she is curious about Marta’s story. Though we have assumed that Viberti only dimly heard his mother, we now learn that he’d been listening quite closely indeed. He tells Cecilia a preposterous tale about a dying man who asks his daughter (Cecilia) to have his watch repaired by a particular watchmaker, a request that will result in her marrying a man who, unbeknownst to her, is her brother. This time it’s Viberti’s lover who is distracted; in the middle of the story about the incestuous brother and sister, Cecilia makes a resolution about how to deal with her own son and daughter, whose relationship puzzles and disturbs her: from time to time, she decides, she’ll keep the siblings apart.
Later still, Viberti asks his mother if she feels that she hasn’t really lived, and by way of reply, she recalls a performance of The Cherry Orchard that she and Viberti attended when he was in high school. She mentions a character in the play, a sad man who sounds (to the reader) rather like Viberti. Does Viberti recognize the resemblance? Does it irritate him? Does Viberti really not remember the play, though Marta is the one who is supposed to be losing her memory? And does anyone but the author and the reader understand that the irritation Viberti feels at his mother is partly because the mention of a cherry orchard reminds him of “cherries,…sakura,…Japanese cuisine”—and of a Japanese dinner he recently ate with Silvia, and about which he feels vaguely guilty?
He doesn’t remember, he doesn’t care. He stands up and says, “Mama, are we sure you have a memory problem? It seems to me you remember everything clearly.”
Marta reaches out her arm, as if to introduce herself, extends her open hand. Viberti shakes it. He will continue shaking hands with her as long as she lives, she clinging to him, and he clinging to her, in her few remaining years, until the day comes when, seeing a close-up of the Pope on television, she’ll ask softly: “Why is he looking at me?” until the day she scratches out people’s eyes in the old family photos, until she becomes convinced that her caregivers want to kill her, until she hurls insults at him, calling him a “little toad” because she doesn’t want him to give her an injection, until she no longer gets out of bed and she widens her blue eyes without speaking, and stares into his.
Even if Chekhov’s name weren’t invoked, we might think of him when we read Canobbio. Among the qualities they share is a gift for finding the perfect illuminating or clarifying detail; it’s what Nabokov calls “the magic of the trifles [Chekhov] collects.” In Canobbio these apparent trifles are often employed to explain or emphasize some aspect of a character’s personality. And like Chekhov, Canobbio often uses humorous details to lighten a passage that might otherwise seem ponderous. Consider, for example, the snack that concludes the following paragraph:
She awoke in the night seized by the darkest anxiety; she wasn’t in love with the shy internist, she didn’t want to begin a relationship, being with him that afternoon, kissing him, letting herself be undressed in the car like a teenager had been a mistake, a terribly selfish outburst…. She got up an hour before the alarm went off, paced back in forth in the kitchen so as not to wake the children. She ate two packets of mascarpone spread on rice cakes.
Both Chekhov and Canobbio are fascinated by (and endlessly sympathetic to) the tortuous and often maddening convolutions of an unhappy love affair; both appear to believe that, as Chekhov wrote, “the center of gravity should reside in two people: he and she.” And both dangle before the reader the slim, unlikely chance that the lovers’ story will have a happy ending.
Both writers excel at what fiction accomplishes better than any other form of art, which is to anatomize human consciousness, to show us how the world looks through the eyes of a particular human being, to record each minute shift in awareness and understanding, the revisions and corrections of what that person feels and thinks in response to the information that is, every moment, being received from the world.
This sort of fiction has consciousness as its subject, and Canobbio’s ability to engage us in the consciousness of his characters is what keeps us enthralled by the advances and reverses of Viberti and Cecilia’s neurotic love affair. We inhabit the novel’s characters, we hear their opinions about marriage, medicine, family life, and the films of Almodóvar; we temporarily inherit their worries, their uncertainties, their nostalgias. We know what they are thinking—even or especially when they are mysteries to themselves and to the people they love.
Canobbio is unusually adept at depicting the ways in which people can hold two disparate subjects in mind, more or less at once (Cecilia’s attentions are perpetually tracking back and forth between thoughts of her lover and her children) and simultaneously inhabit the present and the past. From its opening sentence, the novel announces that its subject is memory, which will prove to be the obsession, refuge, and nemesis of each character. For Viberti’s mother, memory has become a tricky path to navigate without losing her balance; keeping up the pretense that her recall remains sharp has become a game. Much of Viberti’s memory is occupied by three towering figures: his mother, prone to depression when he was a boy; his father, who died young; and his father’s friend, a doctor who stepped in to fill the absence left by Viberti’s lost parent.
Cecilia’s day off, at the beach, is both enhanced and spoiled by her intense longing for the bygone, paradisiacal time when the children were younger and completely hers, more like affectionate puppies:
Especially nice to see the children playing in the distance, having fun and yelling excitedly. Even nicer when they ran back now and then, taking turns. But that happened rarely now. At one time, when they were little, those return visits were the most delightful part of a day at the beach. Every twenty or thirty minutes, one of them would race back and collapse on top of her, clinging to her. And she’d pretend she was tired and that they were heavy, all the while smiling as she pretended to be impatient and somewhat irritated. Now she would give anything for one of those appearances, and when it happened she had to contain her joy.
It is also at the beach that we first meet Silvia, unmarried, childless, lonely, difficult, a nonstop talker, and a fantasist—another reminder of Chekhov: the loaded gun on stage that will go off by the end of the play. She is the less pretty, the less successful, attractive, and accomplished sister. With her signature black headband that makes her hair puff out so that her head looks like a mushroom, she reminds us of a creature in a children’s book: the resentful fairy who hasn’t been invited to the christening party. Silvia works alone at home as a copy editor:
At times of sinking self-esteem she feels like a cleaning lady venturing into other people’s pages…. She spends hours at the stupidest job in the world, she checks to see that she’s made all the revisions, spelling the words out on the screen, tapping them out, as if she were knocking to find out who’s behind them.
Of all these forlorn men, women, and children, Silvia is the saddest. Even a pleasant evening out with friends is basically bleak:
She recalls many shameful things her friends have told her, but she isn’t sure she remembers all the shameful things she’s told them about herself. They laugh, but they’re really not joking, because the questions that fascinate them are questions of life and death: a life they’re afraid they won’t live, a life that hasn’t begun, a love life, a professional life. They fear the lack of strong, passionate feelings and exciting, long-lasting careers, or an excess of tenuous feelings and precarious careers. An absence of life that is fear of death; that is always there.
With her inability to forget the one lover who came closest to (and still remained far from) being “the right man,” her unrelenting grief for the dead father she adored, her attachment to her troubled adolescent niece, and her stormy relationships with her mother and sister, Silvia is a slightly more extreme, slightly more frustrated version of the other characters. As she becomes more of a presence in the last part of the novel, it undergoes a shift in tone and becomes more manic, and darker. Her intercession—or interference—in her sister’s love affair has dramatic consequences that not only affect Cecilia and Viberti’s future, but also alert the reader to the fact that we (like the novel’s characters) have somehow misunderstood the most important things; we’ve jumped to conclusions and gotten it wrong. In fact the story being told to us by the narrator—the son whose doctor-father, Viberti, wanted him to be an architect and who became a writer instead—is significantly different from the one we assumed we were reading.
These final sections not only provide the principal characters with an ingenious (if not entirely desired or desirable) means of rescue from the mire into which we have watched them sink, but they allow Canobbio to maintain, until the book’s conclusion, a delicate, even precarious balance between gravity and levity, between the comic and the tragic. The last few pages remind readers of what the preceding ones have made clear: how impossible it is to understand ourselves, let alone anyone else, and how we can be held hostage by obsession and self-doubt until fate intercedes and sets us free, or until some combination of chance and character makes our decision for us.