I loved my vegetables as a child but disliked the bitterness of cucumber with a passion. My father made time to discuss acquired taste with me. The concept of acquisition is interesting; as he explained it, taste applies to many things other than sensations provided by receptors on the tongue.
I think of that chat some 70 years back whenever I read a book translated from the author’s mother tongue into English. There are many books read in the ensuing years – Saint-Exupery, Dostoyevsky, Hugo, Kafka, James Joyce (oops, this last has to do entirely with my warped sense of humour!) – all translated from their original language into one we understand. Where my thought processes forever take me is along the path of how greatly enhanced might be my understanding and potential enjoyment were I well versed in the tongue in which these tales were first scripted.
Marco Missiroli’s story, The Sense of an Elephant, has been translated – and rather sensitively, I believe – by Stephen Twilley. It is a compelling read while, at the same time, raising a number of moral issues. Other than saying they relate to life and death, I won’t attempt to discuss them here because, by so doing, I could spoil the book for you. Better I allow you to read The Sense of an Elephant and draw your own conclusions.
I find the title somewhat bemusing because it refers to elephant father-son relationships: “…that was the sense of the elephant and of all fathers, their devotion to all sons.” In fact, elephant society is matriarchal, with the senior matron leading her herd, which comprises of sisters, cousins, nieces and young, immature bulls. When they mature, the bulls go off in small male groups or as individuals. Father-son devotion? To the best of my understanding, that won’t exist when it comes to fighting for the right to service the cows. That said, I did not allow it to colour my view of the book.
I enjoyed this story of an elderly man, once a priest but now concierge at a small block of apartments in Milan. The book devolves upon Pietro and his relationship with the residents. These include Mr Poppi, a dear old solicitor who has not long lost his beloved (male) partner; the lovely widow, Luciana, and her man-child son, Fernando, twenty years old but with the mind of a child; the Martini family, Luca, the doctor, Viola, his wife, and Sara, their daughter. Another main character, Riccardo, Luca’s longtime friend, is a visitor.
From the very beginning, it is evident that a bond exists between the concierge and the Martinis. It won’t take you long to work out what this is, or might be, but that in no way detracts from the enjoyment of the story. Even when you know for sure, a certain doubt remains as to the direction it will take. Don’t take anything for granted in the reading; just absorb it all as you proceed.
Missiroli takes us back and forth between the modern setting, Milan, and Pietro’s earlier life as a young priest in Rimini. As the modern story develops, vivid flashbacks to his past establish a link between the two time periods. It is this, every bit as much as relationships between the current characters, that creates interest in the story. In the end, despite the empathy we cultivate for a little old man, once priest, now concierge, it is not necessarily easy to understand the difficult decision he makes. I assume the author means for it to be accepted – or rejected – as it relates to the reader’s own conscience.
On the face of it, this is a simple story that in fact makes us search deep within for our own answers, The Sense of an Elephant is both entertaining and thought-provoking. Its translation has created no difficulty in either enjoying it or understanding its message.
Oh, and cucumber…? Nah! Still can’t stand it.
Love books? Sign up for our Starts at 60 Bookclub, coming soon by filling out the form below. Receive deals, giveaways and updates on the books other over 60s are enjoying.