The world whisper of Richard Powers could is considered the Bible of eco-fiction, the literature that investigates the relationship between man and nature. In fact, this novel – winner of the Pulitzer 2019 award – has all the characteristics to be read as the culmination of this trend: the environment is not a frame of the plot but shows how human civilization affects the history of nature; the interest of men is as important as that of the natural world – there is even talk here of tree rights; men’s responsibility towards the landscape is the ethical compass of the text. Powers, however, keeps to this side of the cli-fi (climate fiction), which instead focuses on the long-term consequences of the impact of man on the planet: we are far from the dystopias that describe escapes from deserts and metropolitan ruins. Powers has a more sophisticated goal: to prove that trees – endless virgin forests, intricate and inaccessible forests, single miracles laden with leaves that stand out on the plains – are such an organized and refined system, a universe so advanced and intelligent as to deserve to be considered sacred at least as beings are sacred humans: “Children, women, slaves, aborigines, the sick, mad and disabled: all inconceivably transformed into people by law over the centuries. So why shouldn’t trees and eagles and rivers and living mountains be able to sue humans for theft and permanent damage? But does everything run out here? a universe so evolved and intelligent that it deserves to be considered sacred at least as human beings are sacred: “Children, women, slaves, aborigines, the sick, mad and disabled: all inconceivably transformed into people by the law over the centuries. So why shouldn’t trees and eagles and rivers and living mountains be able to sue humans for theft and permanent damage? But does everything run out here? a universe so evolved and intelligent that it deserves to be considered sacred at least as human beings are sacred: “Children, women, slaves, aborigines, the sick, mad and disabled: all inconceivably transformed into people by the law over the centuries. So why shouldn’t trees and eagles and rivers and living mountains be able to sue humans for theft and permanent damage? But does everything run out here?
The whisper of the world it is a literary clock with a perfect mechanism, supported by a structure as solid as it is dizzying, with nine protagonists presented one at a time in the nine initial chapters – the first part called “Roots” -, so that for about two hundred pages the reader has the impression that the plot has not yet started and that, apart from the insistence on the trees, the stories are unrelated. When the second part opens – called “Tronco” – the reader immediately finds peace, realizes that he is in the hands of a skilled narrator who has everything under control, and so we proceed for almost seven hundred pages. In addition to the stories of planted seeds, mammoth redwoods, infesting leaf diseases, trees photographed for decades, dying trees, cut trees, life-saving trees, trees from which one falls, helpless trees,
Richard Powers’ literary parable is somewhat reminiscent of the structure of this novel, its fourteenth. The first two books, the debut Three peasants going to dance (1985) and the other masterpiece The prisoner’s dilemma (1989), could be considered the roots of which this last book is the most mature and fruitful fruit. In the middle, between roots and foliage, a dozen trunks and branches, remarkable literary flashes, poignant novels and mostly unclassifiable. The first two books were published in Italy by Bollati Boringhieri (since 1991), then Fanucci, Mondadori, and now La Nave di Teseo came up with the translation. In his most post-modern and metal-literary novel, the fifth, entitled Galatea 2.2(1995), Powers staged himself, and was referring to the novel The Dilemma of the Prisoner thus: “One by one I raised the stories with which my father had accompanied me throughout childhood”, and called it: “The book more American than I would ever have written ». Galatea 2.2, on artificial intelligence, paves the way for a series of books in which it deals with the delicacy of human relations and the myths of American culture.
If one were to say of what Richard Powers’ literature speaks, one could simply note that the emotional is the families with their stainless and extravagant rites, families – as happens in the Whisper of the World- who live in houses full of objects, glass spheres with snow inside and boxes of biscuits, houses with attics crammed with memories, in which the grandmothers live waiting for the arrival of Christmas anti-generation: «When the old house full of drafts is filled with heirs ». Powers is a teacher in telling families, usually composed of complicated fathers and adorable children, brilliant fathers who raise their children by enigmas, puzzles and scientific notions, fathers who convey their affection through riddles, children as talented and brilliant as overwhelmed by their own virtues, very tender and with a misfit future, all while outside the windows the landscape of the Midwest, up to Nebraska, is beaten by blizzards. Even in the Whisper of the world men appear who fall asleep on reclining chairs in front of the news and organize carefree holidays in the parks of Yosemite or Yellowstone, and in the journey on the American interstates, the children in the back seats practice their musical instruments.
If absurdly you had to choose only one emblematic scene in Powers literature, you could go back to any description of a Christmas. In the novel Il tempo di Una canzone (2003), for example, the son who went to Chicago to study music, returns for the holidays: «Mamma made him roast potatoes with ham and Ruth showered him with pastel portraits for weeks he had made from memory. He was the hero back home. ” The family gathers on the flowery sofa to open the presents. The narrator receives from his sister an illustrated book on the history of the blues: “I give her the black pullover that she wanted so much and that she will not take off for the next two days, not even to go to bed”. It is the lumpy and flowery sofa in the altar where all the characters of Powers sit.
Each book by Powers is at the same time a family album and a portrait of America, although in this latest book the protagonists’ roots are scattered around the planet
It may seem exaggerated, but the Capgras syndrome, the disease that affects the protagonist of The eco-maker (2006, winner of the National Book Award.), Or the pathological lack of alignment between the emotional and the rational part of the brain, surfaces in a mild form in many of his characters. Does the protagonist of Orpheus (2014) who would like to bring the clarinet to the moon and who cannot love those around him not suffer from this disorder? And don’t the protagonists of the Whisper of the World have this inclination? Always an army of geniuses who when it comes to loving someone is misfiring.
Now that Philip Roth is dead and the great old men of American literature – DeLillo, Pynchon and McCarthy – are old, it is clear that we must ask the question of who will take their place in twenty years. Franzen, okay, but then? In the generation of American writers whose main objective is to tell us about America, there is definitely Powers – perhaps together with Jonathan Lethem and Jeffrey Eugenides. The whisper of the world is as ambitious as the Corrections by Franzen and endowed with the same ability to make mythical families with old-fashioned and flawed faces. In the end, each Powers book is at the same time a family album and a portrait of America, even though in this latest book the protagonists’ roots are scattered around the planet, from China to Norway to India.
Among all the characters of the Whisper of the world, stands out Patricia Westerford, it is she who discovers how trees communicate with each other in the air and underground, finds out how they care for and nourish each other, how they build extended immune systems. Trees help each other and inherit it, says Patricia. The intent of Powers, to make us fall in love with the trees, making them observe them with new eyes, is reached. But that trees can be put on the same level as human beings remain to be demonstrated. Reading, we fall in love with Olivia and Nick Hoel, she cuts her ankle with a change of bike on the day of the collapse of the Berlin wall, sleeps in the open, at night she reads Thoreau. It swoops down from Nick, who photographs the same chestnut every month, for years, as did his father and grandfather, and together, Olivia and Nick make long car rides, touching their hands, becoming more and more intimate. Powers seems to want to look away from humanity and fix only barks and foliage. But as long as the trees don’t begin to tell us complex stories, the reader thinks, it will always be better to hold on to the excellent humans and writers.