The Human Body

The Human Body

Translator: Anne Milano Appel

  • Ebook
  • ISBN 9781101631690
  • 336 Pages
  • Penguin Books
  • Adult


From the bestselling author of The Solitude of Prime Numbers, a searing novel of the journey from youth into manhood
A heartrending, at times darkly comic but ultimately redemptive novel, Paolo Giordano’s The Human Body is an exploration of brotherhood and family, of modern war and the wars we wage within ourselves. It is a novel that reminds us of what it means to be human.

A platoon of young men and a single woman leave Italy for one of the most dangerous places on earth. At their forward operating base in Afghanistan—an exposed sandpit scorched by inescapable sunlight and mortar fire—this band of inexperienced soldiers navigates the irreversible journey from youth to adulthood. But when a much-debated mission goes devastatingly awry, their lives are changed in an instant. And on their return home, they will confront the most difficult challenge of all: to create a life worth living. 

From the Trade Paperback edition.
The Human Body

The Human Body

Paolo Giordano, Translator: Anne Milano Appel


The Human Body is a great novel of life in wartime: a chronicle of war’s multifarious crimes against the body and soul, and a heartfelt meditation on how men, together and collectively, repair the burdens of their fate.”
Joshua Ferris, author of To Rise Again at a Decent Hour
“Paolo Giordano’s new novel, like his last, is full of sensitivity and intelligence. The Human Body is a brilliant addition to the literature of our modern wars.”
Kevin Powers, author of The Yellow Birds
“With an extraordinarily keen eye and a pitch-perfect ear, Giordano has magnificently captured the surreal existence of the modern soldier.  By turn poignant and gripping – when not downright hilarious – every page of The Human Body rings with an authenticity and appreciation of the absurd that very few novelists writing about men stumbling about the business of war have achieved.  Very few indeed; think of O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato or Heller’s Catch-22, because Giordano is just that good.”
Scott Anderson, author of Lawrence in Arabia
“Paolo Giordano has written his generation’s war novel.  Tender, cruel, beautiful, heartless, a brilliant story of desire and youth and death in Afghanistan.  Readers of Kevin Powers have been searching for another modern classic, and The Human Body is it.”
Andrew Sean Greer, author of The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells
“Giordano follows THE SOLITUDE OF PRIME NUMBERS with a stunning exploration of war. Giordano makes the tedium of combat fascinating with his well-drawn characters. The first page indicates that the platoon’s experience was particularly horrible… but the fact that the mission runs off the rails is almost secondary to the beauty, texture, and acuity with which Giordano captures the day-to-day routines of the soldiers, and their efforts to make sense of both their lives in Italy and their military assignment.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“The Human Body is a memorable entry in the literature of the Afghan war, the characters crisply drawn and the writing full of telling details.”
“Despite the tragic events, this is a very entertaining novel, with the characters’ innate and passionate sense of the absurdity of their situation, and of life itself, evident in every scene. The fast-paced, present-tense narrative seems to have been translated accurately to capture the nuances of emotion and drama conveyed by the highly intelligent and perceptive Giordano.”
Library Journal (starred review)
“Giordano’s (The Solitude of Prime Numbers, 2010) unorthodox Afghanistan war novel is short on action but rich in psychological insight…. As the title suggests, the book is less about military heroism than the devastating human impact of combat. Well-observed and compassionate, this is a memorable look at imperfect people in extreme circumstances.”—Kirkus

Selected praise for Paolo Giordano’s THE SOLITUDE OF PRIME NUMBERS:

“Mesmerizing . . . [Giordano] works with piercing subtlety. An exquisite rendering of what one might call feelings at the subatomic level.”
The New York Times

“The story—the explanation, really—of how two people come to find solitude more comforting than companionship is the subtle work of Giordano’s haunting novel, a finely tuned machine powered by the perverse mechanics of need.”
The New York Times Book Review

“Seductive and unnerving.”
Entertainment Weekly

“The elegant and fiercely intelligent debut novel by 27-year-old physicist Paolo Giordano, The Solitude of Prime Numbers revolves around Mattia and Alice, friends since high school—‘twin primes, alone and lost, close but not close enough to really touch each other,’ wherein resides the seductive enchantment of this singular love story.”

“Giordano’s passionate evocation of being young and in despair will resonate strongly with readers.”
USA Today

Los Angeles Times


1. Much of The Solitude of Prime Numbers came from your background as a theoretical physicist, yet The Human Body centers on a very different landscape: a battalion of soldiers at war. How were you able to tap into the mind-set of these characters and paint them as realistically as the characters in your first book?
I was in Afghanistan twice as an embedded journalist in the Italian army, in December 2010 and December 2011. These experiences, though short, were enough for me to grasp the details I needed about military life, about the conflict (which I didn’t fully know about beforehand), and about the place. The point is that these details are always the easiest part in a novel. What is truly difficult, in any kind of story, is to build real, living characters.

Because there are many characters in the book, this process took many months, and I think I approached it in a very similar way to The Solitude of Prime Numbers. I tried to give to each soldier a part of my own personality and a few of my memories and developed him/her starting from those. I’m not sure whether the result is a complete and faithful picture of people serving in the army, but for sure it is a wide picture of the currents that flow inside of me—a sort of spectral analysis of my inner self.
2. How did most Italians feel about their country’s involvement in Afghanistan? How did that shape the way you wanted to tell this story?
Most Italians—and I was among them before thinking of this book—are simply detached from the mission in Afghanistan. There is a sort of collective removal about the conflict, though we have many soldiers involved in it, and though this war has been going on for more than ten years now. The overall feeling is that we shouldn’t be there at all and that the mission hasn’t brought any meaningful result, but there is no real discussion about it—the issue is simply avoided, unless in the twenty-four hours after the loss of an Italian soldier. This sort of indifference involves the military life as a whole: only the people involved seem to care about it. I live very close to these big barracks in Turin, surrounded by high walls. I used to go jogging in the park nearby and, until I started thinking of this book, I didn’t ask myself what happened inside there—it was something that didn’t concern me at all.
3. What spurred your decision to write about the soldiers in your novel? Did you have past military experience?
No direct experience. The military service in Italy is not mandatory anymore and I would have hated doing it at eighteen years old. Ten years later, though, I realized that I had some sort of longing for a time spent among people of my same age, a longing for a collective experience (not for weapons). Life driven by studies doesn’t provide many occasions for living among others like you (in Italy we seldom spend the college years in campuses, et cetera). Also, by the time I decided to do my first trip to Afghanistan, I felt a mysterious attraction toward war. I’d just read The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer and couldn’t figure out what exactly in that book struck me so much. I had to go there to find out.
4. Similar to the characters in The Solitude of Prime Numbers, many of the characters in The Human Body are outsiders, shy, or introverted, which contrast with the alpha-male stereotype of a soldier. What draws you to characters that are sometimes socially awkward and not comfortable in their own skin?
There are also a few alpha-males in the novel. But that’s, as you suggest, a stereotype, and literature should always avoid stereotypes (or play with them). I met many different people in the army, but most of them were more of the introverted kind. I had the feeling that many young boys ended up there, looking for a way out of something—families, the places where they grew up in. I think they were looking for a shelter, more than fighting. I found this very moving and very close to my own sensibility. That’s basically what drove me to write about them—I could very easily imagine myself in their shoes.
5. The Human Body has already drawn some impressive comparisons to the great war stories of the last century—Lawrence of Arabia author Scott Anderson cited Heller’s Catch-22 as an apt comparison. Do you think writing about war has changed as the nature of war itself has changed?
That’s very flattering, thank you. War narrations still share many aspects, I think. I experienced that once you decide to place a story in war, you are no longer completely free. It’s like the spirit of war itself comes into it and drives part of the work. But, of course, there are specifics about these so-called new wars. They are way more similar to the First World War than to the Second or to the Vietnam War, both of which produced so much of the recent literature both in Europe and in the United States. That’s why I chose an extract from Erich Maria Remarque’s Nothing New on the Western Front for the opening of the novel. These are basically still conflicts, not much action in them. Soldiers wait and wait for an enemy that’s almost invisible. Most casualties are due to explosions, et cetera. This reminds me a lot of the cruelty of the First World War. The lack of confrontation with the enemy and the fact that these wars are fought in deserts make them psychologically sneaky. And that offers new, interesting challenges to a writer, I guess.
6. The majority of The Human Body is written in the omniscient third person, which closely follows members of third platoon, Charlie Company. In a few chapters, however, the point of view changes and is narrated from the perspective of Lieutenant Alessandro Egitto, a medical officer. What is it about this character and his story that prompted you to switch the narrative focus?
After one year of work on the novel, I felt very immersed in the place and in the characters, but Afghanistan and the idea of war felt a little too abstract to me, like I wasn’t yet getting to their core. I needed a direct connection between my everyday life and the conflict. That’s how the first person of Lieutenant Egitto came in. Once I started using it, I realized that there are so many little wars we fight also in our own lives—within families, within groups of any kind, and also against ourselves—and that these wars have the very same dynamics of the big ones: alliances, ambushes, betrayals, et cetera. We know war much better than we are willing to admit. The voice of Egitto was the bridge I constructed between Afghanistan and Europe. I guess I wanted the reader to feel overwhelmed by that distant war in order to reestablish the missing participation.
7. In the last few years, modern war novels and story collections, such as Ben Fountain’s
Billy Lynn’s Half-Time Walk, Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds, and Phil Klay’s Redeployment, have not only garnered critical acclaim, but were also hits with readers worldwide. In your opinion, what is it about the Iraq/Afghanistan wars that are drawing so many writers to explore them? And, in your opinion, how does The Human Body add to this conversation?
It’s way different here in Europe, where the attention to war is very low. As I already said, I’m afraid that we’ve lost our connection to war, which was so relevant in the literature of the last century (I’m thinking of Calvino, Pavese, Fenoglio, and Levi, to name only a few Italian authors). I think writers understand that such a loss is very dangerous, because it’s right when you forget about war that one gets started again. Many books came out in Spain and in France on the subject in the last couple of years. I think there is a common feeling that it’s up to us writers to rebuild a conscience about war. Also, I’m convinced that each war deserves its own novel. Not only: each side of each war deserves its own novel because that’s the only way to build an everlasting memory of such a crucial moment. I don’t know what The Human Body can add to this. I hope it may at least be interesting for the American readers to understand a European perspective on the conflict that we’re both involved in. The American version has been way more explored than ours, but there are differences, I think.
8. What do you want to write about next?
My new novel is Like Family. It’s the story of a young couple with an only child and of the old maid who’s worked with them for many years. This lady, called La Signora A. (Ms. A.), takes care of everything and is a sort of witness and strong reference for the couple, but she gets cancer and has to leave them. The novel follows the last year of La Signora A. and the consequent difficulties that the young family has when it ends up alone. It’s a small story, very intimate, and, I hope, reminiscent of my first novel, also about domestic life, The Solitude of Prime Numbers.

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