This review should be a love letter, because after listening to The Gentleman from Peru, my first thought was that only a love letter could do justice to a novella that is, at its core, an ode to love. The Gentleman from Peru is a love story at once epic and discreet, fierce and tender, real and fantastical, infused with magic, irony, wisdom, and, ultimately, with hope. In André Aciman’s lyrical, stirring, and evocative writing, we believe that a lost love is never lost forever, and that time is merely an artificial, temporary barrier to the inevitable reunion of soulmates. The story reassures us that those who were created of the same spiritual and emotional substance—or, as I like to call them, souls spun from threads of singular consent—will always find each other no matter how many lifetimes and epochs it takes them. The haunting quality of this tale is the very haunting of love, and love haunts everyone who has loved and lost, as it haunts the title character.
I dislike spoilers in any shape or form so I will divulge only a little. The setting is a luxury hotel on the Amalfi coast where, ten years after graduating college, a group of friends is stranded while their boat’s engine is being fixed. In the hotel’s dining area they observe and interact with an enigmatic stranger—the titular hero—an elegant, solitary gentleman in his early sixties about whom they discover that he has healing hands, a clairvoyant mind, and uncanny knowledge about each one of them. Gradually, the gentleman enchants and disarms them of their reticence and mistrust, except, at first, for the most challenging skeptic of the group, the beautiful Margot. Yet it is Margot who is the unsuspecting epicenter of the magical upheaval of revelations that will follow. The tale unfolds with the gripping suspense of a whodunit mystery, yet this is not a murder mystery, although… As promised, there will be no (blatant) spoilers. Above all, this novella’s mystery lies in identity, existence, and time; in the philosophical and mystical enigma of love’s transcendence, fluidity, and oneness of seemingly-separate selves.
Edoardo Ballerini’s narration is smooth, nuanced, and well-paced; it does not distract from the flow and spellbinding construction of the story. His changes of vocal inflections, register, and accents as he speaks the lines of different characters are discernible yet subtle enough as not to seem caricatural. I especially found the voice and accent of the title character to suit the style and personality that Aciman creates for the otherworldly Gentleman.
Shakespeare’s inspiring influence on the story is delicately felt: his play The Tempest begins with a magically-induced shipwreck that leaves an entire cast of characters stranded on an island. While the motive behind the shipwreck is revenge on enemies, a consequence of it is love at first sight between those who stem from enemy parents. The hate-love paradox reverberates throughout The Gentleman from Peru. It is the initial enmity between the Gentleman as a young man and his future true love that surreptitiously and unexpectedly propels them into passion and love. It is the resentment, the Gentleman explains, towards those who see us for who we are and still love us, “these are the ones we spurn the most.” Yet, he adds, “the moment two individuals love each other for who each truly is, then time for them stops…” An echo of the Bard’s poem of perfect love, The Phoenix and the Turtle, amplifies in meaning as the plot develops after the Gentleman quotes from the poem to say that lovers mirror each other and live in each other forever.
I highly recommend spending time in the company of André Aciman’s mesmerizing, poignant, and cinematic prose. It will actually feel like time has stopped. The Gentleman from Peru will rouse memories and longings perhaps long ignored. It will keep you wondering about the end until the very end. But, above everything, it will dare you and make you want to believe: in magic, in healing, and in the boundless power of our most divine and noble human trait—the capacity to love. True love is never lost forever, so let us listen to Aciman’s Gentleman who tells us: “It’s life that is provisional, not love.”
The Gentleman from Peru by André Aciman is available on Audible, narrated by Edoardo Ballerini.