The most human thing, the novel. About Paolo Di Paolo's latest book…


By John

And you, have you entered or already exited your Little Ice Age? Because we know, every woman and every man is not a world, but the world, or rather the Earth, with all its immense upheavals and climatic arrangements, its very slow, indeed literally immeasurable, time. If it weren't for us, humans, who measure time, because we invented it – even if it would be more correct to say that we invented the way to cut it, divide it (the etymology of “time” says so) -, just as we have invented the word. So each of us is a planet unto ourselvesprey to its own climatic and meteorological changes (we have learned, in these years of frenetic worries, to keep them very distinct, damn it), its glaciations or its monsoons, its siroccos or tramontanes, its meteoropathies.

Also Mauro Barbi, historian, specialized in the study of the so-called “Little Ice Age”or the freezing of Lake Constance between 1572 and 1573 (ah, how wonderful the scholars who spend an entire life studying just one thing among billions, without ever wearing themselves out, without ever consuming it), protagonist of Paolo Di Paolo's latest novel, «Novel without humans» (Feltrinelli), tries to understand something about a very special, small but devastating ice age: his. (The author, in Messina to meet students from many city schools, will present the book today at 6.30 pm at Feltrinelli Point).

Having arrived, as if suddenly, at a somewhat ungrateful middle age – marked by hardening, irritability, unpleasantness which are completely the opposite of the flow of youth (and then, isn't middle age perhaps the moment in which often let's do “revisionism” of our history, which can even reach the point of… “cancel culture”?) – Barbi undertakes his most arduous investigation as a historian, that of himself. AND he sets off in search of evidence, starting with what seems the most certain to him: the testimony of others. The ones she let go, the dissolved friends, the lost loves, the ones whose kindness and emails she never responded to.

The Author says it clearly: the generative question of the novel is: “What do others remember about us?”. Which is a question with an ambiguous and even dangerous background. Because the point is not the difficulty of realigning shared memories, but the risk of discovering that they don't exist at all. And that for every negligence, disappointment, misunderstanding that you attribute to others – everyone else, but especially those who are and have been dearest to you – you are destined to discover, if you decide to investigate, to “follow yourself”, that you were negligent, disappointing, misunderstanding. And that memory and history can be pure “invention”, like any laborious reconstruction from any source and document (“Documents never say enough, and are not always proof: substances, I had read, to which “a remaining life”.
Who are we in the gaze of others? And is it possible, a world without any gaze, hence the provocation, the oxymoron of the title, “a novel without humans”? The answer is already noif this book exists, and it is a novel of human words that tells a human look at things, human or in any case of which man is the measure.

A book with a surprising structure: eight chapters with majestic incipits in which with a powerful and lofty language the inhospitable landscape of that remote frozen lake is described, the result of immense and multi-millennial forces completely beyond the small human times (the time of a grape harvest, the time of a walk , of a page, of an embrace, of a kiss), and then the passage to that other intimate and personal “era” of Mauro Barbi, his somewhat asphyxiated interiority, his substantial lack of courage and lightness, his difficult interactions with the world, in tight and sometimes comical dialogues or in almost non-fiction pages, as in a continuous flow (just as happens in thought and memory, the great truthful lie). Towards a finale of rare grace (which, yes, deserves to be discovered).

Di Paolo is very clear: no, there is no more human art than the novel, of naming things and making a narrative out of them, of times that overlap and dissolve, of structures within which to summon the reader, for a ride on the carousel, of Earth's crust. Of questions: what do others remember about us? Where are you all? Just like another aspiring historian, Italo, in 2011 asked himself “Where were you all”. It was Paolo Di Paolo's second novel (this is the seventh), and that also had to do with time and the possibility we have of telling stories, History. Indeed, in a beautiful and generous dedication he himself had written to me about a “personal universal chronology” (on the subject of oxymorons, and of novels which are the best proof of their existence in life).

There too, “documents” were inserted into the narrative (those were newspaper front pages) which above all document our dismay as historians of ourselves, our inability to “predict our past”, to use the information “valuable for disasters”. to come”. We, the disasters to come. The disasters that occurred.
The novel “without humans” is so immersed among humans that it even passes, at a certain point in Barbi's journey, to the spa, where humanity is at its zero degree: naked, crowded, exposed, subjected to extreme temperatures. Yet united in pure being a body, with its “unspeakable truth”, in pure expressing life, being it without needing to say it (“We are here, we are alive. We speak to each other without words”).
But is there a “thaw of words”, is there a possible story? Maybe many. And among the learned materials that Di Paolo lists in the final note (another exciting thing about his writings is this minute indication of flashes, references, references – “inventions” in the etymological sense – that are inside and beneath the narrative) figures the ” Cultural history of climate” by Wolfgang Behringer. One might think that, instead, Di Paolo's novel could be a sort of “climatic history of emotion”. Is there anything more human?