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Jean-Baptiste Andrea:Veiller sur elle [Watch Over Her]

We open in a remote abbey where there are thirty-two inhabitants though there are about to be thirty-one. One of them – ninety-two years old – is dying. He was not a monk and had never taken his vows but turned up some forty years ago. He would come and go but there was never any question of not allowing him to stay. He was good at maintenance and repairs. He never told them why he came so they speculated. Perhaps he was a criminal or a refugee or a defrocked priest. Or perhaps he came to watch over her. She was a marble statue of a woman, kept hidden from the monks’ eyes in case it encouraged them to have inappropriate thoughts. We will later learn that she was a Pietà but not Michelangelo’s Pietà though, as we shall also see, the two are connected.

So now they are around the dying man, saying he has only a few hours to go. A question of hours? Don’t make me laugh. I have been dead for a long time.
But since when can the dead not tell their story?
Of course he means dead to the world rather than biologically deceased.

He was known as Il Francese, i.e. the Italian for The Frenchman. He was born in France in 1904 to Italian parents who had left Liguria soon after getting married, to seek their fortune. The Italians in France were subject to a lot of racism but, as he cynically comments, once World War 1 came, they decide that our hero’s father was a good Frenchman and he is conscripted into the French army but does not last long.

Our hero’s father was a sculptor and, when our hero is born, his mother decides that he will be a sculptor. The father is opposed. My father cursed, replied that it was a dirty job where hands, back and eyes used to wear out much faster than stone, and that if you weren’t Michelangelo, you might as well spare yourself all that.

However we now discover that our hero is Michelangelo. His name is Michelangelo Vitaliani. He prefers to be called Mimo. Italy has now joined the war on the Allied side but Mimo’s mother decides he will be better off in Italy and, accompanied by a friend of the mother he is taken to Turin, specifically to Uncle Alberto, also a sculptor. We now learn two further things. Uncle Alberto is not his uncle or, indeed, any relation but an old friend of the family. We also learn that Mimo is very small. Uncle Alberto does not want a dwarf as his assistant but is persuaded to take on Mimo.

Things do not go too well but, Mimo survives. Uncle Alberto gets a deal and moves away from Turin to Pietra d’Alba where there are two potential clients – the church and the rich Orsinis.

We follow his time here, including Uncle Alberto becoming more and more a drunk and Mimo doing the work. Mimo has an accident and inadvertently meets Viola, the daughter of the Orsinis who is almost exactly the same age as him. They had previously met in the cemetery. They subsequently meet surreptitiously as, of course, her parents would not allow her to be friends with a mere menial. She has been reading in her father’s library (which she is forbidden to do) and even passing books to Mimo to help educate him.

She claims to have certain magical powers and can turn herself into a bear. We will see how she does this later. She performs other strange feats but she wants to be educated at a time when girls were generally only educated to be wives and mothers. More particularly, she wants to be a pilot so the two of them, with help from a daredevil friend, experiment. Viola essentially invents the paraglider forty years before it was officially invented but the trials are not successful.

There has been a war on (World War 1) which has not affected our heroes too much but its ending does as many men return from the field of battle. There is little money, little food and little work for sculptors, though Alberto is helped by his rich mother (the madam of a brothel). Mimo has shown some talent at sculpting and Alberto is jealous but, when Mimo does produce something worthwhile, Alberto takes credit for it. Eventually Alberto ships Mimo off to Florence where he is set to work as a marble cutter till the owner discovers his real talent.

While all this is going on, we are also following Mimo’s slow death. He may think he is dead but the monks do not. He mutters one word. The abbot thinks it is violin but we know it is not. We learn something of his success though he produced very little. We also learn of Laszlo Toth who famously attacked Michelangelo’s Pietà with a hammer, causing extensive damage. But was Toth really after Mimo’s Pietà rather than the one by the more famous Michelangelo one?

Things do not go well in Florence and he soon has to find an alternative career path but he will eventually follow the career path we have known he will follow, that of a successful sculptor, including commissions from the Vatican. We also have known about the statue hidden in the monastery, which seems to be a Pietà, apparently to rival the real Michelangelo’s. A US scholar, Leonard B. Williams from Stanford, has written a book on Mimo and his work and we get excerpts from the book. As far as Williams was concerned, the sculptor, Mimo had disappeared and was probably dead.

Mimo’s career takes off with the help of the Orsinis and the rise of Fascism in Italy helps him as he is not interested in politics and is happy to do business with the Fascists if they accept his ideas, which, on the whole, they do. However, he remains very much his own man, not necessarily a good idea under Fascism.

Nevertheless he is controversial and his Pietà, which comes after the fall of Fascism, is particularly controversial, with the Vatican, who commissioned it, recognising it as a great work of art but not one best suited to promoting religion. Professor Williams, however, recognises one key difference between the two Pietàs – Mimo’s, unlike Michelangelo’s, is clearly based on someone he knew, though, as we learn, this supposition may well be true but not necessarily in the way we might imagine.

This novel won the Prix Goncourt in 2023. Some French critics argued that it was not really deserving, claiming Goncourt winners should be great novels and this was not a great novel. I would argue that many previous Goncourt winners have not been great novels. While this may not be a great novel by French standards, it certainly is a first-class novel. It tells a superb and complex story and tells it very well, with lots of unexpected twists. It has two heroes – Mimo, of course, but also Viola who appears throughout the book as a champion of women’s rights and very much a woman who wants to break free of her ultra-conservative, aristocratic background. It covers a lot of ideas: artistic creativity, the role of the artist in society, the role of women in 20th century Italy, the collusion between the rich/aristocrats, the church and the Fascists, the role of the church and the Vatican in Italy, the complexities of romantic relationships and communities and how they function and how they do not function. I assume this novel will make into English and, if it does, I can highly recommend it

Publishing history

First published in 2023 by L’Iconoclaste
No English translation