ERNESTO by Umberto Saba


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Set at the cusp of the 20th century, Saba’s story takes the reader into the mind of a teenager in small-town Trieste, Italy.

Living at home with his mother and aunt, 16-year-old Ernesto is an apprentice to become a flour merchant. As a worker, he is frustrated, angry, and, most of all, hungry. Saba (Songbook: The Selected Poems of Umberto Saba, 2009, etc.) began writing this novel in 1953 but hadn't completed it by the time he died in 1957 at age 74. Written in three episodes, the story follows Ernesto's involvement with an older co-worker (“The Man”) to the point of jeopardizing his job, his relationship with his mother, and his own sanity. The Man propositions Ernesto in the opening scene of the book. Curious and desired, Ernesto agrees to various episodes of sex, at times playful but also violent, on top of the haystack while the boss is out. These moments catapult Ernesto into a world of confusion. As he navigates a complicated, lukewarm relationship with his mother, Ernesto is guilt-ridden about what has occurred (and keeps occurring). Interspersed through these scenes are interjections by the author, who can’t help but provide contextual notes to what he has written—almost to justify his text by providing more depth to his characters: “Of course, there were other reasons too, deeper ones, but [Ernesto] wasn’t aware of them.” Ernesto’s character is captivating, and it's clear that the author poured his heart out in creating him. In her introduction, translator Gilson (Ms. Juvenal, 2014, etc.) explains the deep relationship the author developed with Ernesto, and this love seeps through the sentences—a complicated love that puts up with Ernesto’s thoughts and whims and that, at times, tires Saba. As he wrote in a one-page section called "Almost a Conclusion": “Add to those pages, Ernesto’s breakthrough to his true calling, and you would in fact, have the complete story of his adolescence. Unfortunately, the author is too old, too weary and embittered to summon up the strength to write all that.”

An exciting, pithy translation that will surely leave readers electrified and wanting to read more of Saba's work.

Pub Date: March 28th, 2017
ISBN: 978-1-68137-082-8
Page count: 160pp
Publisher: New York Review Books
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 2017


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