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Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll? Italian youngsters have something else on their minds - see Paolo Giordano's new novel.

Bestselling author Paolo Giordano (35) shuns in his new novel Devouring the sky the topical issues do not. Poverty, environmental problems, capitalism, (un)fertility - twentysomethings and thirtysomethings have a lot to wrap their heads around. 'I find the fixed pattern of life we grow up with strangling.'

Devouring the sky

Young people who have to find their way in the world and learn to deal with pain, loss and responsibility - Italian writer Paolo Giordano has devoted previous novels to this, such as his The loneliness of prime numbers and The human body. His new book Devouring the sky follows four young people whose lives become intertwined. Turin-born Teresa spends her summers with her grandmother in southern Puglia. She gets to know the three boys from the nearby farm, Nicola, Bern and Tommaso, who receive a very different and much more religious upbringing than she does. As they grow up and each asks themselves how they want to shape their own lives within our capitalist world, what values they consider important, the friendships between them are damaged by differences in outlooks on life, jealousy and drastic events.

Crisis

In an earlier interview, you said that you need a crisis for every novel. What kind of crisis was behind this book?

Giordano laughs. 'In this case, it was actually two,' he confesses. 'The book begins with a scene where Teresa watches the three boys undress to sneak into the pool near her house for a swim. You can see undressing as a metaphor for shedding the layers around you. I missed the feeling we all know from when we were little: that you could lose yourself completely uninhibited and unreserved in a story. I think I somehow lost the ability to face the world like that without reservation when I was about 12 or 13 years old. And since becoming a physicist and a writer, I've become a lot more thoughtful and analytical altogether. I realised that if I wanted to be able to read, write, live so open-mindedly again, I had to try to let go of everything I knew and had learned, and the protection I had built up over the course of my life. That felt like undressing, getting naked. Eventually, this resulted in a story about young people discovering the world for the first time.'

So what was the second one?

'It sounds strange to say it out loud, but that was a spiritual, or rather, a religious crisis - which is why faith plays an important role in this book. What role faith plays in my own life was a question I had put away for years. Now that question presented itself again, I started thinking about it again. I came to the realisation that I had just simply banned faith and religion from my life, because it is very easy to do so in our current times, even in traditionally Catholic Italy. The younger generations in our country differ little from other Europeans in this regard. That only made the issue more urgent. Because faith, the values associated with it, is not something you just throw away. I started reading about it, attended some Bible studies. From a deep interest, but also from a very theoretical basic attitude, like that of an atheist. But from the question: where do I stand, in the midst of all this?'

Meaning

Many younger people are turning towards mindfulness, yoga or other spiritual movements for meaning.

'True, but I don't think there is any real substitute for our longing for God. My character Bern, who was born and raised with faith, later seeks it in other things too, but nothing can actually satisfy his deeper longing. I myself was brought up areligious. While Bern at one point rejected faith and sought his own way, as a teenager I did the opposite: I was baptised. Although that was also out of rebellion against my atheist father. Later, when I started studying physics, religion got further away from me again. That scientific world is very anti-religious, although I myself believe that one does not exclude the other at all.

After 10 years, I came to the realisation that something was not right with the way I was in life. I felt something was missing. My faith is very rudimentary, I doubt a lot, too much. About everything. But writing is what comes closest to prayer for me. The sense of connection that others find in prayer, I experience while writing. In a way, this book is the answer to my question of how I relate to faith. But I also wrote it because I feel that there is a strong relationship between today's world and religion. Between the fact that we have renounced faith, while on the other hand it comes back in very uncontrolled ways.'

Through terrorism and suicide bombings, you mean?

'Exactly. It's like there are geysers in the ground everywhere, erupting unexpectedly and violently. You can say: those people are crazy. But we have to realise that such events have a relationship with ourselves, they are a reaction, a search, a wrong response to something we all have to deal with. I think literature and art should hold up that mirror and make us reflect.'

Ecology and economy

In what ways does your novel reflect the problems of the present day?

'That concerns not only faith, but also issues like ecology and the search for a different way of life from the conventional capitalist way to which we are all subjected. In Puglia - but not only there - the environmental problems are huge, and this leads to fights. The scene of hundreds of olive trees being cut down to be replaced by genetically modified olive trees is something that is currently going on there. But there are more examples like that, from France, Spain or Germany to India. It is a global issue. But in Italy, the situation is extra complex because there are huge differences between the north and the south. If you travel from Turin to Puglia, you enter a different world. In the south, life is much more difficult socially and economically. There are whole villages there where no young people live anymore; they all had to move because they couldn't make a living there.'

Most beautiful place in the world

You write fondly about Puglia. What is the attraction of that region for you?

'It is so beautiful there - one of the most beautiful areas in the world, I think. When I first came there, about 20 years ago, I fell in love with the region, the olive trees, the red earth, the light, which you don't see anywhere like there. Something is touched in me there that is not expressed in the north, like the southern, sunny feeling and the connection with nature. Summers there are hot, you walk half naked. When I am there for a while, I really feel very different: more in my body, healthier, more energetic. Being more present in my body is the biggest challenge of my life, being a physicist and a writer - two professions that make me very much in my head. Being present here and now is a challenge. That's why I have a vegetable garden in Puglia. I'm not good at gardening, but I try. It's not really about the vegetables, I do it mostly because it's good for me.'

Family formation

Like your colleague and compatriot Silvia Avallone write about how difficult it is for young people to have children.

'In fact, that was one of the starting points for the book. In our age phase, it is all around us - friends are having their first or second child, struggling to get pregnant or they just decide not to have children at all. For many people, it is a much bigger struggle than I had thought. It strongly reflects the social and economic context of the world we live in. We all grow up with a very fixed idea: first we have to study, then get a job, then you have to earn enough to have a stable life, afford a house, and a car. At the very end, we start thinking about a family. And by then we have to, because by then there's actually not that much time left. I find that strangling. Life should just break in so that there would still be something spontaneous about having children. But younger generations can no longer think about it that way, and I think partly for that reason, more and more young people just give up on it altogether: because having children becomes yet another thing on the to-do list.

This is also how my characters fare in a sense: at some point, they decide that there should be a child. But nature turns out not to be generous. So how do you deal with such a setback? And with what is now possible in terms of reproduction? There is a very scary side to medical and technological progress, at the same time there is a lot of suffering associated with infertility. All these topics are not talked about openly. But silence actually leads to excesses.'

Can novels help break this taboo?

'I think so, because they raise an issue that is not covered on television or in newspapers. From a human point of view, not from condemnation. We are surrounded by judgements, but it is precisely the job of literature to highlight the human side of such issues. Individual readers dealing with them will hopefully feel supported by it. If a novel can alleviate their sense of shame and loneliness to some extent, that will be the greatest success.'

You are 35, your wife has two children from a previous marriage. Are you thinking of having another child yourself?

'I don't really think about it. I decided not to think about it. On the study-work-home-child path, I skipped certain stages, because I had to cross that line. My wife had two children, and that meant a lot of responsibility. In the same year, my debut novel was published, and that turned everything upside down. Somehow, I always try to be in a different place from where ordinary life expects me to be.'

Good to know Good to know

Devouring the sky was published by De Bezige Bij.

Buy at bol.com

A Quattro Mani

Photographer Marc Brester and journalist Vivian de Gier can read and write with each other - literally. As partners in crime, they travel the world for various media, for reviews of the finest literature and personal interviews with the writers who matter. Ahead of the troops and beyond the delusion of the day.View Author posts

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