Paolo Giordano (PG)’s 2009 debut “The Solitude of Prime Numbers” sold over a million copies in Italy alone and has been translated in over 30 languages. In a recent interview he said the constant media attention and book signing tours in Italy and abroad seriously delayed his PhD dissertation in particle physics. When the storm died down and with his PhD finalized, he wrote for an entire year with his head only, not his heart, ending up with a few short stories he considered fit for human consumption. So, when offered the chance to go to Afghanistan as a journalist embedded in an Italian Alpine unit, he seized it with both hands. In the interview PG said it was his cure and salvation.
This second novel has several layers and reads like a thriller. It is about the boredom of some 200 Italian troops serving in Afghanistan in a remote, hilltop FOB near Helmand province: poor food, bench-pressing, posturing and pestering, gaming, phoning home and making rare inspections of the village below, heavily armed but with plenty of sweets for the dirty, fly-ridden children. There is nothing to enjoy and no sense to what they are doing, pacifying Afghanistan from a hilltop.
When Lt. Egitto, the unit’s medic and due to go on leave after six months, is phoned by his sister Marianna , their exchange of words and feelings prompts him to forego his leave. Another six months of duty lie ahead, which he is quite prepared to suffer with the secret supply of anti-depressants he has brought along. Why? For readers to find out.
This reader is stunned by how brilliantly PG has composed and written this book. His characters are superbly drawn and cast during and after Lt. Egitto’s fateful second tour: naïve and gullible Ietri, Torsu and his dubious online girlfriend, Lt. Egitto’s vengeful ex-girlfriend or macho soldier Cederna, who added 2.000 euro worth of internet-procured extras to his basic gear, and so on, all lost souls, right up to the ebullient, balls-scratching colonel in charge.
CNN is reporting high suicide rates among US veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 20 per day, perhaps 8.000 a year. This novel ‘s cast of characters feels that the Taliban follow their every move and inevitably, it comes to a dramatically described engagement. In the novel’s final part, PG sketches the psychological impact of the mission on some of them , also back in Italy.
Veterans from many countries who fought in Afghanistan and survived their tour(s) of duty intact in body and mind, will probably enjoy this book about this hapless unit. Written with so much empathy and black humor, this novel may have therapeutic value too. Instantly re-readable and highly recommended.