The Human Body
Paolo Giordano's first novel, THE SOLITUDE OF PRIME NUMBERS, is a book that I have recommended to numerous friends and acquaintances. Its combination of emotional intensity with narrative restraint and intellectual rigor resulted in a reading experience I haven't easily forgotten. When I saw that his second work of fiction was about to be published in English, I was eager to see how this talented young writer tackled a novel about the recent war in Afghanistan. Although THE HUMAN BODY might not have made quite the profound impression on me as Giordano's debut did, it nevertheless offers an intimate and powerful portrayal of life and death in the combat zone, one that balances humor, pathos and pain while remaining remarkably free of political statements or moral judgments.
"[THE HUMAN BODY] offers an intimate and powerful portrayal of life and death in the combat zone, one that balances humor, pathos and pain while remaining remarkably free of political statements or moral judgments."
The novel opens when two men, former comrades-in-arms, encounter each other on the street. It's been more than a year since they've seen one another, but it's clear that both are still haunted by some horrific experience they shared. We don't find out what that experience is right away, however; instead, we are sent backwards, to the time when most of the soldiers were just arriving at Forward Operating Base in Afghanistan.
There's Lieutenant Egitto, an orthopedist who has signed for another tour of duty as a way of avoiding the loneliness and heartbreak that await him at home. There's Senior Corporal Major Cederna, a bombastic blowhard who manages to insult nearly everyone but nevertheless works just as hard as anyone. There's First Corporal Major Torsu, who maintains what he hopes is a genuine human connection through an online friendship with a woman (or is she?) he knows only as Tersicore89. There's Corporal Major Zampieri, the only woman in the platoon, who manages to keep her safety and sanity by convincing most of the men in her unit that she's a lesbian. And there's Corporal Major Ietri, the youngest soldier in the group, fondly called verginella by Cederna because he's never been with a woman.
The novel's first half is concerned mostly with introducing us to these characters and a handful of others, their relationships back home in Italy and their new relationships with each other on the front lines. There's plenty of humor here (notably, a camp-wide bout of food poisoning and some practical jokes involving a decapitated snake), as well as glimpses of the boredom and terror at the heart of life in the combat zone. When Egitto's former girlfriend, Irene, shows up at the camp and starts making trouble both emotionally and militarily, the book takes a darker turn as, in a particularly intense narrative sequence, we find out what it was that still haunts these soldiers many months later.
Although THE HUMAN BODY is not as elegantly crafted as THE SOLITUDE OF PRIME NUMBERS, it nevertheless offers a depiction of war and recovery that is well worth reading. American readers would do well to read it if for no other reason than to realize the extent to which the war in Afghanistan involves countries other than our own. And, of course, for those of us who have never been to war, novels like Giordano's offer an invaluable opportunity for us to glimpse, if only for a brief moment and through the lens of fiction, the brutality and horror of war.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on October 31, 2014
The Human Body
- Publication Date: November 3, 2015
- Genres: Fiction
- Paperback: 336 pages
- Publisher: Penguin Books
- ISBN-10: 014312773X
- ISBN-13: 9780143127734