Tullio Avoledo: L’anno dei dodici inverni [The Year of the Twelve Winters]
The book opens on 7 January 1982. An old man is walking through a snow storm to a house at the end of the village. He once loved someone there, we are told. His name may be Emanuele Libonati (we are told he calls himself Emanuele Libonati but the implication is that that is not his real name; we later learn that he took the name from a book. The book is Avoledo’s earlier work L’elenco telefonico di Atlantide [The Atlantis Telephone Directory]). He is visiting the Grandi family, Emilio, Esther and their newly born daughter, Chiara. He is a journalist by profession but wants to write a book about children born on Christmas Day, as Chiara was. He tells them that he plans to visit just once a year, about this time, and ask a few questions, no more than that. They concur.
However, there is something odd about him which neither they nor we can put our finger on. He is clearly old but yet wants to write a book about following these children over a period of time. Emilio is interested in football and talks about the forthcoming World Cup where he expects Italy to do badly. Emanuele says he has no interest in football whatsoever but then, just before he leaves, he predicts that Italy will beat West Germany in the final and Argentina and Brazil en route to the final. He is right.
The other oddity, repeated for others years, is a recounting of the key events of 1982. 1982 was not a quiet year, comments the narrator. Yet, the events we are given are a mixed bag, from the Falklands War to the brutal massacres at the Sabra and Shatila camps in Lebanon, but also the deaths of John Belushi and Philip K Dick.
He turns up again next year, though a day later than scheduled. Esther queries him about his accent. It seems to be partially English but he denies it. She also tells him that she is not happy in her marriage. What is it that he is writing: a novel or history? Perhaps poetry. But written as a novel, he replies.
She says that she has a question for him and will he answer it? He tells her to write it down and he will answer by letter. We later learn that the question is Have we met before? as she has a vague recollection that she had met him when she was younger. Inevitably, the answer is entirely cryptic and will not be revealed, he says, for many years. She is furious at his evasion.
While we have been following this story, we are following another one, that of the narrator. Who is the narrator? We do not know. Is it the author, Libonati as a young man or someone else? All is, of course, revealed later in the book. We do know that it is the narrator that tells us about the key events of the different years as well as telling us the main story. The narrator has messed up his life, dropping out of college, turning to drink and drugs, alienating his parents and losing his job. Things will later change when, one day, he meets a man who speaks to him in German, asking him to borrow money to return home by train, as he has no money. The man offers him a Japanese camera in return for the the 30,000+ lire our narrator gives him. When he later has the film developed, he finds some beautiful photos of people and landscapes on it. The German also gives him an envelope which says on it: DO NOT OPEN THIS ENVELOPE – ALWAYS CARRY IT WITH YOU – ONLY OPEN IT WHEN YOU KNOW THAT IT IS THE RIGHT TIME TO DO SO. His life eventually changes, though not till after a suicide attempt, and he gets himself sorted out.
Meanwhile Libonati has made another prediction that may have saved Emilio’s life, though Emilio will later die of leukaemia. After Emilio’s death, Chiara goes off the rails. She and her mother argue a lot, she has various messy affairs and an abortion and, finally, a messy affair with an older man that goes terribly wrong.
Apart from a brief interlude, where Chiara meets a young man she is attracted to, we are suddenly taken to the year 2028 and, specifically, to a futuristic London that looks like a video game. The strange plot elements are all explained but not how we might have expected them to be, with Philip K Dick being key to the whole story. Dick is, of course, a science fiction writer and Avoledo is a great admirer of Dick. This book becomes, at this stage, at least to a certain degree, a science fiction work but remains above all a love story and an imaginative story about life, life going wrong and how, sometimes, we wish we could go back and correct out mistakes of the past.
While there are certainly a few science fiction works on this site, there are not many, though I have, in the past, read quite a few. While we have our suspicions early on, this book does not really become science fiction till well over half way and certainly should be considered as more literary science fiction, like the others on this site. However, whether you enjoy science fiction or not, I really think it is superbly well written, a very clever idea and has a lot to offer. I really enjoyed it and can thoroughly recommend it. To my surprise, it has not been translated into any other language.
First published 2009 by Einaudi
No English translation