I would like to pose the argument that it is rare for one to ever come across a truly passive protagonist in a novel. The protagonist (perhaps) of Three Light-Years, Claudio Viberti, is just that—a shy internist who lives in an apartment above his mother and below his ex-wife, and religiously eats boiled vegetables every day for lunch at the same cafe at the same table. Claudio spends over two years obsessing about Cecilia, a doctor and fellow colleague, until the day he is able to stutter out his profession of love for her, only to proceed in engaging with her in his car a safe distance from the hospital where they work. Following and/or during this engagement (not clear), Claudio also stumbles into a relationship with Cecilia’s sister, Silva, who shortly thereafter learns she is expecting. These ingredients and known plot “twists” are the makings of an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, except with a passive protagonist as a stand-in for McDreamy. Disappointingly, no attempts were really made to make the characters compelling or interesting beyond those of our typical hour-long sitcoms located in hospitals in Seattle and Los Angeles. The only interesting twist was that this hospital is located in a suburb of a large Italian city, and with that comes the typical romantic stereotypes.
After working through Three Light-Years with determination and perseverance, I tried to identify other works that had truly passive protagonist. Honestly, the best I could conjure up were the isolated, solitude-loving types, but not ones who barely cross the barrier of being a prop and being a plot driver like dear Claudio. Perhaps that is the beauty of this work. However, the reader will likely remain skeptical of this model and distance themselves from the work because the reader is never provided with any insights into what is motivating the characters’ actions and decisions, or rather mistakes and poor choices. This is no surprise as the work seemed wholly unconcerned about the reader and more concerned presenting the the narcissistic tendencies of the two antagonists, the two sisters who stumble into affairs with Claudio without any analysis, question, or notion of attraction for him. Further, the reader will have to experience the same episode of the well-known sitcom not only from Claudio’s prop-like existence, but also from Cecila’s and Silva’s perspectives as well.
What was compelling and redeeming about Three Light-Years were the anecdotes about life peppered through the work at just the level to motivate the steadfast reader to continue. The following quotes provide a few examples:
“. . . [T]here is no present that is of greater interest to me than that distant past that I did not experience, about which I know almost nothing, and which I continue to imagine, fabricating other people’s memories.”
“As a general rule, it’s always best to know as little as possible about other people’s business. Not that it’s difficult to keep the things you accidentally come to know to yourself and pretend you know nothing. But even if you pretend not to know, you do know, and your life is invaded by the lives of others.”
“Memory is unfair . . . the person remembering is now older anymore disillusioned and forgetful than the young, deluded, determined protagonist of her memories. That’s why memory is unfair.”
Perhaps I have been reading too much Cesar Aira lately, but I appreciate being captivated by the awkward or self-imposed solitude of the characters of his works. This requires insights into the inner thoughts and motivations of those characters. Without being provided with such insights, the reader has to really justify why he or she has read Three Light-Years and, more importantly, whether engagement with the work was even possible.