The Sense of an Elephant, by Marco Missiroli (translated by Stephen Twilley), is a book about love, secrets, the importance of family and of memory. It contains a number of deaths but as an inevitable part of life; something that may be imposed but also chosen. The reasons for choosing are varied and complex, as are the characters who populate this tale.
The protagonist, Pietro, has recently taken a job as concierge at a condominium in Milan. Prior to this he was a priest, a role he embarked upon as he felt he had no other choice. He has never been satisfied with God, but finally gave up on him because of a photograph and a letter he received.
The reader is introduced to each of the occupants of the condominium, all of whom will be affected by their interactions with Pietro. He is most interested in getting to know Luca Martini, a doctor who lives with his wife and young daughter on the second floor. He lets himself into the Martini’s flat when they are out using the keys his job provides. He observes photographs and takes away random objects of little value which he adds to his boxes of memories.
Beside the Martinis lives Poppi, a lawyer and the administrator of the condominium who keeps a close eye on all the residents, caring for their secrets. Also on this floor are Paulo and her son Fernando who believes he is in love with Alice, the barista in a cafe across the street. All are drawn to Pietro but for very different reasons.
Alongside the unfolding plot lines, which include several of the doctor’s patients, there is a slow reveal about a young priest and a girl he gets to know when she kills his cat. He calls her the witch and it is not hard to guess that this priest is the young Pietro. Working out where each plot line is going offers interest, but the strength of this story lies is in its structure and development.
The denouement was unexpected, at least to me. The poignancy had been intensifying as the tale progressed but I did not anticipate where this would lead.
The style of writing made me feel that I was getting to know each character personally. The prose is sensual yet sparse with each scene evoked through action as much as description. Pietro’s journeys on his bicycle made me feel that I was riding alongside him.
This is not a book to be rushed but rather should be considered and savoured. It is an unusual read but one which stays on the mind. Despite having only just finished, I am already tempted to start over and read it again.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Picador.