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Alessandro Baricco: Novecento [Novecento]

This is a very short novella, really nothing more than a short story but, as it was published separately, I have included it here. Besides, it is a fascinating story. Danny Boodmann T. D. Lemon is a sailor on a transatlantic liner, the Virginian, at the beginning of the century. One day he finds a newborn baby and, as no-one claims him, Danny claims him and brings him up. He names him Novecento – Twentieth Century. Ten years later, Danny sadly is injured and dies. The Captain decides that it is time that Novecento’s life be put in order. His birth has never been registered and he has never even left the liner. However, when they dock, Novecento is nowhere to be found. They assume he has escaped and gone ashore and the ship again sets sail for America. However, when they are safely at sea, the Captain is awakened by a strange music and, when he investigates, he finds Novecento, surrounded by many equally captivated passengers. Novecento is playing a strange sort of music on the piano, though no-one was aware that he could play at all.

Novecento becomes the house musician and forms a band. His reputation spreads far and wide, despite the fact that he never leaves the ship. One day, Jelly Roll Morton, hearing of Novecento’s ability, decides to travel on the ship to see this young talent. On the first two rounds, Novecento only plays ordinary tunes and Jelly Roll is easily able to prove his musical superiority but, on the final round, Novecento blows him away and Jelly Roll retires to his cabin and takes the next liner back to America. Novecento stays on the ship and, even when it is sent to scrap, the narrator tracks him down to the scrap yard, waiting on the ship, dynamite all ready to go.

Baricco tells a wonderful story, sympathetic to his hero, his enclosed world and his music, without being mawkish. Novecento’s actions and talents are never explained or interpreted. They just are. All he needs are 88 keys and he is away and we should be grateful to Baricco for introducing him to us. Note that a stage adaptation presented as a monologue of this novella has been published in English.

Publishing history

First published 1994 by Feltrinelli
First English translation in 2010 by Oberon
Translated by Ann Goldstein