Q&A with Paolo Giordano,
author of THE HUMAN BODY
author of THE HUMAN BODY
Paolo Giordano is the author of the critically acclaimed international bestseller THE SOLITUDE OF PRIME NUMBERS, which has been translated into more than forty languages. He has a PhD in particle physics and is now a full-time writer. He lives in Italy. THE HUMAN BODY is his second book.
1.) Much of your first book, THE SOLITUDE OF PRIME NUMBERS, came from your background as a theoretical physicist, yet THE HUMAN BODY centers on a very different landscape: a battalion of soldiers at war. How were you able to tap into the mindset of these characters and paint them as realistically as the characters in your first book?
I was in Afghanistan twice as an embedded journalist in the Italian Army, in December 2010 and December 2011. These experiences, though short, were enough for me to grasp the details I needed about military life, about the conflict (of which I didn’t fully know beforehand) and about the place. The point is that these details are always the easiest part in a novel. What is truly difficult, in any kind of story, is to build real, living characters.
Because there are many characters in the book, this process took many months, and I think I approached it in a very similar way to SOLITUDE. I tried to give to each soldier a part of my own personality and a few of my memories and developed him/her starting from those. I’m not sure whether the result is a complete and faithful picture of people serving in the Army, but for sure it is a wide picture of the currents that flow inside of me – a sort of spectral analysis of my inner self.
2.) How do most Italians feel about their country’s involvement in Afghanistan? How did that shape the way you wanted to tell this story?
Most Italians—and I was among them before thinking of this book—are simply detached from the mission in Afghanistan. There is a sort of collective removal about the conflict, though we have many soldiers involved in it, and though this war has been going on for more than ten years now. The overall feeling is that we shouldn’t be there at all and that the mission hasn’t brought any meaningful result, but there is no real discussion about it—the issue is simply avoided, unless in the 24 hours after the loss of an Italian soldier. This sort of indifference involves the military life as a whole: only the people involved seem to care about it. I live very close to these big barracks in Turin, surrounded by high walls. I used to go jogging in the park nearby and, until I started thinking of this book, I didn’t ask myself what happened inside there—it was something that didn’t concern me at all.
3.) What spurred your decision to write about the soldiers in your novel? Did you have past military experience?
No direct experience. The military service in Italy is not mandatory anymore and I would have hated doing it at eighteen years old. Ten years later, though, I realized that I had some sort of longing for a time spent among people of my same age, a longing for a collective experience (still, not for weapons). Life driven by studies doesn’t provide many occasions for living among others like you (in Italy we seldom spend the college years in campuses etc.). Also, by the time I decided to do my first trip to Afghanistan, I felt a mysterious attraction towards war. I’d just readTHE NAKED AND THE DEAD by Norman Mailer and couldn’t figure out what exactly in that book struck me so much. I had to go there and find out.
4.) Similar to the characters in SOLITUDE, many of the characters in THE HUMAN BODY are outsiders, shy or introverted, which contrast with the “alpha-male” stereotype of a soldier. What draws you to characters that are sometimes socially awkward and not comfortable in their own skin?
There are also a few alpha-males in the novel. But that’s, as you suggest, a stereotype and literature should always avoid stereotypes (or play with them). I met many different people in the Army, but most of them were more of the introvert kind. I had the feeling that many young boys ended up there, looking for a way out of something—families, the places where they grew up in. I think they were looking for a shelter, more than fighting. I found this very moving and very close to my own sensibility. That’s basically what drove me to write about them—I could very easily imagine myself in their shoes.
5.) THE HUMAN BODY has already drawn some impressive comparisons to the great war stories of the last century—LAWRENCE OF ARABIA author Scott Anderson cited Heller’s CATCH-22 as an apt comparison. Do you think writing about war has changed as the nature of war itself has changed?
That’s very flattering, thank you. War narrations still share many aspects, I think. I experienced that, once you decide to place a story in war, you are no longer completely free. It’s like the spirit of war itself comes into it and drives part of the work. But, of course, there are specifics about these so called “new wars.” They are way more similar to the First World War than to the Second or to the Vietnam War, that produced so much of the recent literature both in Europe and in the U.S. That’s why I chose an extract from Erich Maria Remarque’s Nothing New On The Western Front for the opening of the novel. These are basically still conflicts, not much action in them. Soldiers wait and wait for an enemy that’s almost invisible. Most casualties are due to explosions etc. This reminds a lot of the cruelty of the First World War. The lack of confrontation with the enemy and the fact that these wars are fought in deserts make them psychologically sneaky. And that offers new interesting challenges to a writer, I guess.
6.) The majority of THE HUMAN BODY is written in the omniscient third person, which closely follows members of third platoon, Charlie Company. In a few chapters, however, the point of view changes, and is narrated from the perspective of Lieutenant Alessandro Egitto, a medical officer. What is it about this character and his story that prompted you to switch the narrative focus?
After one year of work on the novel, I felt very immersed in the place and in the characters, but Afghanistan and the idea of war felt a little too abstract to me, like I wasn’t yet getting to their core. I needed a direct connection between my everyday life and the conflict. That’s how the first person of Lieutenant Egitto came in. Once I started using it, I realized that there are so many little wars we fight also in our own lives—within families, within groups of any kind, and also against ourselves—and that these wars have the very same dynamics of the big ones: alliances, ambushes, betrayals, etc. We know war much better than we are willing to admit. The voice of Egitto was the bridge I constructed between Afghanistan and Europe. I guess I wanted the reader to feel overwhelmed by that distant war, in order to re-establish the missing participation.
7.) In the last few years, modern war novels and story collections like Ben Fountain’s
BILLY LYNN'S HALFTIME WALK, Kevin Powers’s THE YELLOW BIRDS, and Phil Klay’s REDEPLOYMENT have not only garnered critical acclaim, but were hits with readers world-wide. In your opinion, what is it about the Iraq/Afghanistan wars that are drawing so many writers to explore them? And, in your opinion, how does THE HUMAN BODY add to this conversation?
It’s way different here in Europe, where the attention to war is very low. As I already said, I’m afraid that we’ve lost our connection to war, which was so relevant in the literature of the last century (I’m thinking of Calvino, Pavese, Fenoglio and Levi, only to name a few Italian authors). I think writers are understanding that such a loss is very dangerous, because it’s right when you forget about war that one gets started again. Many books came out in Spain and in France on the subject in the last couple of years. I think there is a common feeling that it’s up to us writers to rebuild a conscience about war. Also, I’m convinced that each war deserves its own novel. Not only: each side of each war deserves its own novel, because that’s the only way to build an everlasting memory of such a crucial moment. I don’t know what THE HUMAN BODY can add to this all. I hope it may at least be interesting for the American readers to understand a European perspective on the conflict that we’re both involved into. The American version has been way more explored than ours, but there are differences, I think.
8.) What do you want to write about next?
A new novel has just come out in Italy. It’s called Il nero e l’argento (The Black And The Silver). It’s the story of a young couple with an only child and of the old maid who’s worked with them for many years. This lady, called La signora A. (Ms. A.) takes care of everything and is a sort of witness and strong reference for the couple, but she gets sick of cancer and has to leave them. The novel follows the last year of La signora A. and the consequent difficulties that the young family has when it ends up alone. It’s a small story, very intimate, and I hope it will soon be available in the United States.