It's difficult to reinvigorate the story of a shared past between old friends, but Alessandro Baricco has achieved just that in his taut novel of youth and faith, Emmaus. Told with captivating erudition, the narrator in Emmaus reflects on his formative teenage years and how a shared fascination with a neighborhood girl had dramatically shaped how he and his friends matured. The four boys central to Emmaus were all very confident in their faith; they clung to celibacy, volunteered at the hospital and even played Sunday concerts at their church. When a local girl named Andre enters their lives, the boys are confounded how someone so alluring could exist outside of their small realm of good, Christian living. The friends drift apart, but also drift from the pious lives they were once so certain about.
Andre is rife with problems-she struggles with depression and is sexually active in a troubled, possibly prostitutional way. One of the first memories the boys have of Andre is watching her, late at night, jump from a bridge in town. But, the boys are more intrigued than concerned for her safety. Andre is a beautiful, young specimen of faithlessness: she understands her body, her independence, and her mortality in a way that the narrator and his friends have yet to learn. From their faithful corner, all they can really do is watch:
"But those who begin to die never stop, and now we know why Andre attracts us beyond any common sense, and in spite of our every conviction. We see her laugh, or do things like ride on a motor scooter, and pat a dog-some afternoons she goes around with a girlfriend, holding her by the hand, and she has a purse that she puts useful things in. Yet we no longer believe in it, because we're thinking how she suddenly turns her head, eyes terrified, searching for something-oxygen."
What's most outstanding in Emmaus is how this parable only slightly fits into Baricco's story. It's not explicitly apparent where the two tales correlate, or really what Baricco intends readers to glean from the comparison. At times, it seems Baricco interprets the story of Emmaus to mean something more about growing up than it does about believing in Christian myth. "How, for so long," the narrator ponders, "could we know nothing of what was, and yet sit at the table of everything and every person met on the road? …We are dawn and epilogue-forever belated discovery." Growing up, these boys are faced not just with challenges to their own faith, but challenges to their entire understanding of humanity. And this is difficult to grapple with because they are song young. They've not yet experienced death, love or heartbreak, and in watching Andre spiral downwards their own beliefs seem suddenly less important. Even if they are confident in their faith, there are things that these boys are just too young to understand.
As Emmaus evolves, the story shifts slightly away from religion and focuses more on the shaping of one's identity. In a masterful turn, Baricco's characters look inward and try to actualize the personality within them that's lain unrecognized. Faithfulness is just a trait these boys shared; the real struggle is finding what else they stand for. In one scene, a character realizes the sheer scope of the task before them: "I will not lose faith…we haven't found it, we can't lose it. It's something different, not magical at all. What comes to mind is the geometric crumbling of a wall-the instant when one point of the structure gives way and the whole thing collapses." As Andre and her seemingly "heathen" ways may have been the point that began this crumbling, Baricco points his readers and characters to the moment of clarity that may be instrumental in rebuilding that wall.