Alessandro Baricco’s latest novel, Emmaus, centers on the friendship of four working-class Catholic adolescents and their shared love for a tragic, sexual young woman named Andre. The plot of the novel follows the trajectory of a classic loss of innocence story, but Baricco immediately complicates this definition. What distinguishes Emmaus from other narratives of this archetype is its ambiguous stance in respect to Catholicism and sin. It would be a grievous oversimplification to say that the boys live in a world of repression and then find truth, or that they are innocent, pure souls in childhood and are subsequently corrupted in adolescence. To the contrary, Baricco distinctly avoids this simplistic dichotomy of good and evil: the narrator and his friends possess constant awareness of promiscuity and violence, but they don’t label it as such. In the words of the narrator:
. . . we are ignorant of what scandal is, because we instinctively accept every possible deviation betrayed by those around us simply as an unexpected supplement to the protocol of normality. So, for example, when, in the darkness of the parish cinema, we felt the priest’s hand resting on the inside of our thigh, we weren’t angry but quickly deduced that evidently things were like that, priests put their hands there – it wasn’t something you needed to mention at home.
There’s a disturbingly dismissive tone in the narrator’s voice as he describes these deviant acts – these acts of molestation aren’t sinful or bad; rather, things are “like that,” and the boys simply accept it.
When the narrator’s best friend Luca first experiences a break with his childhood vision of the world, it is compared to traversing outside their homeland: “For the first time one of us pushed beyond the inherited borders, in the suspicion that there are no borders, in reality, no mother house untouched. . . From that land he looks at us, waiting for us to follow”. These “inherited borders,” once so immutable, quickly break down as the novel progresses. One by one, the four young men slip into the realm of tragedy – a world where priests molest children but also give the Eucharist, where mothers sleep with Confessors but also fiercely protect their young, where girlfriends will be virgins until they marry, yet submit to sexual touching under a blanket. But readers will struggle to link this shadowy world to the conventional notion of “sin.” The author presents us with a cast of morally mixed characters, whose deviant actions fail to receive the kind of denunciation you’d expect from an insular Catholic community.
Take, for example, “the Saint,” the most ostensibly pious of the four friends. He aims to join the priesthood, displaying a faith that’s beyond passionate in its dimensions: “That mother made us tell her that we prayed, while the Saint burned in prayer; and his legs had a way of kneeling that was like crashing, when we simply changed position—he fell to his knees”. The fervor with which the Saint prays is almost erotic – a quality that makes his faith appear close to his vice, like two sides of the same coin. Likewise, the narrator suggests that the Saint’s sinister tendencies are what propel his piety: “None of us have that sensitivity to evil, a kind of morbid, terrifying attraction – increasingly morbid, inevitably, because it is terrifying – as none of us have the same vocation as the Saint for goodness, sacrifice, meekness, which are the consequence of that terror”. Perversely, a disturbingly intimate familiarity with evil fuels the sanctity of characters like the Saint.
One of the more poignant elements of the novel was its meditation on faith. The Catholicism posited by this book, however, is hard to define – the priests try to teach the boys “that faith is a gift, which comes from on high and belongs to the world of mystery”. In other words, it is a holy and untouchable boon from God. Yet despite their respect for the Bible and their clergymen, the boys see their faith as derived from a different source: “From somewhere, and in an invisible way, our unhappy families passed on to us an immutable instinct to believe that life is an immense experience”. Conventional teachers of faith, such as priests, parents, or scriptures, lack the authority that you’d expect them to wield in this book; that power instead belongs to human instinct, which molds their particular religion and guides their actions. This frequently-iterated sense of humanism would seem to throw traditional Catholicism into question, an idea which is later echoed in the statement, “long before God, we believe in man – and this alone, in the beginning, is faith”. Faith isn’t a dry scripture or a fixed doctrine for the boys; it is something fluid, malleable, and organic, constantly remodeled to match the changing structure of their lives.
Emmaus is a painful and lyrical chronicle of adolescence, but the narrative voice is too cognizant, too reflective to belong to a young boy. The pensive tone implies a back-looking narrator, who possesses the objectivity and emotional detachment to explain to us, calmly and logically, the shock two boys experience when they find out that a parent is severely depressed:
. . . this gives an idea of how we’re made. We have a blind faith in our parents; what we see at home is the just, well-balanced way of things, the protocol of what we consider mental health. We adore our parents for that reason—they keep us sheltered from any anomaly. So the hypothesis doesn’t exist that they, first of all, can be an anomaly—an illness.
Yet what are we supposed to glean from the fact that the ostensibly adult narrator chooses to speak in the present tense whenever he comments on the general state of his adolescent life? Does he still have a blind faith in his parents, or is he merely inhabiting his youth linguistically as well as emotionally? This is another way in which Baricco complicates the simple architecture of a loss of innocence narrative; the voice of the boy, the adolescent, and the man are indistinguishable.
The narrator spends so much time grappling with philosophical and religious conundrums that we come to expect a reconciliation of these tensions, but this is in no way fulfilled. The book’s final pages are filled with just as much uncertainty as the middle. Finishing it feels like waking up from a dream, one full of would-be-contradictions that nonetheless make perfect sense according to the logic of the dream. Upon waking, all that’s left is the disarming question of whether or not this logic can apply successfully in the real world.