In Other Words

Like Fam­ily by Paolo Gior­dano

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - — Priyanka Ku­mar (

Like Fam­ily by Paolo Gior­dano, trans­lated by Anne Mi­lano Ap­pel, Vik­ing, 146 pages

Like Fam­ily goes by so quickly that it feels like a wisp of a novel. And yet, it con­tains real mean­ing: how fam­ily life can play out more vividly when there is some­one else (in this case, a house­keeper) to wit­ness it; how gath­er­ings with ex­tended fam­ily can be like go­ing through the mo­tions, whereas em­ploy­ees can be­come like fam­ily. Anne Mi­lano Ap­pel has trans­lated this novel, pub­lished in Ital­ian as Il nero e l’ar­gento The Black and Sil­ver), smoothly into English. The Ital­ian ti­tle sug­gests that the novel is about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the nar­ra­tor and his wife, Nora — the nar­ra­tor char­ac­ter­izes Nora as sil­ver and him­self as black — but the heart of the novel, as re­flected in the Amer­i­can ti­tle, is how the cou­ple’s re­la­tion­ship with their house­keeper molds their fam­ily life.

The nar­ra­tor, a physi­cist, re­calls that the cou­ple hired Mrs. A. as a house­keeper when Nora needed bed rest dur­ing her preg­nancy. The power Mrs. A. will ex­ert on the house­hold is ev­i­dent from the start. The nar­ra­tor finds him­self re­fus­ing an im­por­tant grant to do re­search in a Zurich lab be­cause Mrs. A. and Nora are in con­sen­sus that the baby should be brought up in Italy. The nar­ra­tor only oc­ca­sion­ally de­ploys his lan­guage as a physi­cist to nar­ra­tive ef­fect. Af­ter re­fus­ing the grant, he feels, al­beit briefly, deep sat­is­fac­tion that he has his Nora who un­der­stands him. “All progress made by physics from the be­gin­ning — he­lio­cen­trism and New­ton’s law of uni­ver­sal grav­i­ta­tion; Maxwell’s syn­thetic, per­fect equa­tions and Planck’s con­stant; re­stricted and gen­eral rel­a­tiv­ity; mul­ti­di­men­sional twisted strings and the most re­mote pul­sars — all the glory of those dis­cov­er­ies taken to­gether would not be enough to give me the same sense of sat­is­fac­tion.”

When Emanuele is born, Mrs. A. be­comes not only his nanny, but also a ground­ing force in the fam­ily. A few years later, how­ever, Mrs. A. leaves, and the nar­ra­tor ex­pertly de­tails how the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Nora and him threat­ens to un­ravel in the af­ter­math. Mrs. A. leaves be­cause she feels “tired,” but she is quickly di­ag­nosed with can­cer. In the mean­time, Nora be­comes over­whelmed with bal­anc­ing house­hold chores with her pro­fes­sional life, and she finds out that her mother is no help at all. Mrs. A. seem­ingly di­vines the ten­sion be­tween the cou­ple and makes a last at­tempt from her deathbed to ce­ment the bond be­tween them. Last year’s ac­claimed trans­la­tion of The Door by Magda Sz­abo cov­ers some­what sim­i­lar ter­ri­tory — a house­keeper who be­comes in­dis­pen­si­ble and then falls sick — from the per­spec­tive of her fe­male em­ployer, Magda. What’s in­ter­est­ing is that Magda ex­pe­ri­ences far greater guilt than the male nar­ra­tor of

Like Fam­ily about whether she is car­ing suf­fi­ciently for her ail­ing for­mer house­keeper. Like Fam­ily is nar­rated al­most ca­su­ally, though it is braided with in­ti­macy: To pre­pare Mrs. A. to un­dergo chemo­ther­apy, the nar­ra­tor un­ex­pect­edly takes her to a shop to pick out a wig.

The novel is not nar­rated se­quen­tially, and we keep wait­ing in vain to see Mrs. A. in ac­tion, in her prime. Wit­ness­ing what Mrs. A. ac­com­plished in the nar­ra­tor’s home may have given the story ad­di­tional force. We might un­der­stand bet­ter what the nar­ra­tor and his wife miss so acutely af­ter Mrs. A.’s de­par­ture. But the nar­ra­tor de­tails only a brief ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing cared for by Mrs. A. while his wife was on a sum­mer va­ca­tion with her mother.

The nar­ra­tor’s fam­ily and Mrs. A. were a part of each other’s daily lives for sev­eral years, and Emanuele was all but a grand­son to Mrs. A. Af­ter act­ing in a stage per­for­mance at school, Emanuele feels de­spon­dent when he re­al­izes that Mrs. A. has left al­ready. It doesn’t mat­ter that his real grand­mother and her hus­band were in the au­di­ence. Emanuele wants to be seen by Mrs. A., the per­son who used to be his nanny and play­mate.

When the grim busi­ness of death ap­proaches, Mrs. A.’s rel­a­tives scoop her up and the nar­ra­tor and his wife have lit­tle ac­cess to her. She leaves them two pieces of fur­ni­ture: a ta­ble and a cre­denza. The same rel­a­tives pre­sum­ably sell off the cher­ished paint­ings that Mrs. A. had kept cov­ered up for years, and which be­longed to her late hus­band. The nar­ra­tor ob­serves: “Poor, fool­ish Mrs. A.! You let your­self be duped — death tricked you, and ill­ness be­fore that. Where are the paint­ings that you kept hid­den be­hind the screen? ... You of­ten boasted about how smart you were, how you learned ev­ery­thing you knew from ex­pe­ri­ence, but un­for­tu­nately it didn’t turn out to be very use­ful ... The end does not par­don us even the slight­est of faults, even the most in­no­cent of fail­ings.”

It’s puz­zling that the nar­ra­tor at times be­comes hy­per­crit­i­cal of Mrs. A., and it is a re­minder that de­spite his brush­strokes, her true char­ac­ter some­how eludes us. As re­lat­able as this story is, there per­sists some­thing feather-like in the way it f loats away: By not bring­ing us closer to Mrs. A’s essence, the novel lacks the weight it might oth­er­wise have had. What is clearer is that the re­la­tion­ships we con­sider to be our clos­est hu­man con­nec­tions can be ten­u­ous and may shift some­day. A cold vac­uum is left when sick­ness and death part us from peo­ple who may not be re­lated to us, but who nev­er­the­less were like fam­ily.

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