Review: Timeskipper by Stefano Benni

On a beautiful late-winter morning in the Italian mountains, Timeskipper – a boy with a vivid imagination – has a chance encounter with a god. A god with a talking dog.  The god endows Timeskipper with a gift: an internal duoclock which enables him to see into the future and experience a heightened version of reality in the present.  We share in his coming-of-age: from childhood in a small village under threat of modernisation, to student life, love and political activity in the city.  Intermingled with our narrator’s life story, the reader is introduced to a host of surreal characters and visions, and you’re never quite sure whether Timeskipper believes in them himself or whether he is playfully pulling your leg.

Timeskipper does jolt you about in all sorts of ways.  There’s the uncertainty of an unreliable narrator to deal with, plus the jumps between “reality” and “fantasy”.  There’s also so many characters that you keep wanting to turn back a couple of chapters to check who’s suddenly re-entered the story; at any time and without warning you could be propelled into a vision of the future;  and even the writing itself has a choppy, sometimes sloppy feel.  This is all, I believe, part of an intentional style… however, this is a translation from Italian to English, and as with any translation you’re reading an interpretation, not the original novel.  How much of this supposed style is because of the translator, rather than the writer?

In my book group we talked at length about the translation, which often seems inconsistent and appears to feature a number of mis-translations: enough to lead some of us to a gradual loss of faith in the novel itself.  We discussed how much this really impacted on our overall reading experience, and for some it was too much of a distraction to enjoy the novel.  For me, although I noticed these things, they just didn’t bug me enough to mar the whole story.  In some ways the sloppy translation actually suited the crazy plot of the novel!

So… would I recommend this book to you?  It’s a tricky one, based on the varied reactions from my book group members.  I think if you’ve already been put off by what I’ve said, don’t bother reading it.  If, however, you’re intrigued, and you can accept this novel with all its quirks and run with it, Timeskipper will take you to wooded groves where you will meet schizophrenic gnomes, devils with violins and famous literary and political figures; it will plunge you into the future (which, as the novel is set in the 1970s, means that Timeskipper’s future is our present day); and you will laugh at Timeskipper’s witty observations and mischief-making.  If you love magical realism, as I do, you should enjoy this.

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