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Paola Capriolo: Il nocchiero (The Helmsman)

Walter is a helmsman. He did not want to be one but his father died and he had to leave school to earn a living, instead of continuing his studies, as he would have liked to do. Now, every night, he has to take a barge across to the Island and back. He does not know what his cargo is, though the manifest says it is animals and the occasional noise from the hold confirms this. He takes the full barge over and brings an empty one back. On the Island is a villa. It is now boarded up but clearly had been grand in its day. No-one other than Company officials are allowed to visit it. Walter sleeps during the day and, in the evening, he goes to the café and sits on the terrace and has a drink and watches out to sea. Sometimes, he is joined by his two friends from school who are both also called Walter. He is somewhat jealous of the other two as they call him The Helmsman and have both gone on to other things. One Walter, called The Scientist is studying physics at university. The other, called The Magician, was an expert on theosophy and symbols. At other times, he is on his own.

While on his own, he has noticed, while sitting on the terrace, the arm of a woman who is sitting inside the café. She is wearing a large bracelet which looks a bit like a snake. He is fascinated by her and sees her or, at least, sees her arm, for several days. One day, he decides to go and investigate and enters the café. However, by the time he locates her table, she seems to have gone. He checks wth the waiter and he confirms that she left a few moments ago. He can give Walter little information about her. He thinks that she might be foreign, though he has not heard her speak. She had a male companion once or twice and the waiter thinks he might have called her Carmen. He knows nothing else. Walter is at his seat the next day. However, she does not turn up. Nor the next day nor the day after.

Eventually, however, he sees her again. He goes into the café and finds her. Is it her? Is it Carmen? He cannot be sure. However, she does not really look as he imagined her to look. Nevertheless, he approaches and starts talking to her. He finds out that she is called Linda, not Carmen. She is not foreign, though her mother was. He meets her again the next day and the next. They seem to get on very well so that eventually he writes her a letter, proposing marriage, which he asks the waiter to give her. She accepts but not with any great enthusiasm. By this time, he knew little about her and she did not even know he was helmsman. Thanks to the Captain, Walter’s boss at the Company, they get a company flat and even company furniture, which apparently came from the villa on the island. Linda thinks that it is too grand for their flat but they take it, as it is free. Linda asks Walter to take her to the villa on the Island on their wedding night but he refuses, saying that he is not allowed to.

The marriage does not seem to go well. Linda is always listless, rarely wants to go out and when guests come – the two Walters or the Captain and his wife – she shows little enthusiasm. Walter starts going back to the café, with the Walters or on his own. There he meets an older man and eventually gets to know him. He claims to be the nephew of the last owners of the Villa. He had been away in another country for a long time but had come back. He had been back before for a while and had been to the café – with a friend called Carmen. He had had to go away on business and when he returned, Carmen had disappeared. He has not seen or heard from her since. Meanwhile, Walter is getting more and more suspicious about what he is transporting every day and what is happening on the island, particularly as all his efforts to find out are thwarted.

Capriolo keeps us guessing with what exactly is going on. Who was the woman with the bracelet? Was it Linda or was it Carmen? Are they the same person? If not, who are they? The mysterious man Walter meets, whom he calls the count, is he really the count and what is his relationship with Carmen, with Linda and with the Island? And what is Walter carrying on his barge and what is happening on the Island? But she does not give easy answers. There are no easy answers, except the explanation that Walter was looking for the truth and that is not always a good idea.

Publishing history

First published 1989 by Feltrinelli
First published in English 1985 by Harper Collins