There are times when I want to travel to exotic lands, sup on different cuisines and waltz away my time lolling under the sun. And since I cannot live such a life in reality, I tend to reach out for a book. This time, it was a beautiful story set in Italy narrating the powerful love between a boy and a young man in a town referred to only as B in the novel, Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman.
The story begins with seventeen-year-old Elio Perlman living with his family in sunny Italy, who enjoys his time listening to music, transcribing compositions by famous composers, spends time swimming, lounging under the shade of trees or wining and dining their relatives, friends and guests. Basically, a life of ease that had me wishing for the same. And enter Oliver, their guest for the summer.
The Perlmans invited Oliver, a professor who teaches in Columbia University, to their villa to keep up the tradition of helping young academics polish up their manuscripts before publication. In return, the guest helps Elio’s father with his correspondences, and in general, keep the conversations running in the household. And their discussions were so rich and unhurried, academic and acutely observant, which made me yearn for such an environment myself.
The book begins with Elio’s memories of Oliver, who conjures such a strong vision of the latter that it is impossible to not imagine him vividly enough. Of course, my imagination is a little biased in this regard since I had seen the movie last year. I did want to read the book first, but at the time I was in a double-decker Airbus hurtling over the Atlantic, and keeping my mind distracted and dreaming of sun-kissed Italy and orchards of peaches was my sole aim. So I can think of no one but the marvelous Armie Hammer in his “billowy blue shirt” winning over hearts with his self-confident and detached demeanour. Elio, portrayed by the ever wonderful Timothee Chalamet, is truly a powerhouse of talent, and in my head I could only think of the two of them as Elio and Oliver.
In the story, Elio narrates how his interactions with Oliver left him unhinged, forced him to try and impress him and vie for his attention. But it wasn’t easy. Oliver made it difficult for one to gain his attention, to be held onto and rooted to one spot, and when moments with such a person seemed to be on the run. Such people are not easy to love. Elio was clearly not himself. He woke up in the morning wondering if he would bump into Oliver or be able to converse with him at breakfast, or sometimes he would come home for dinner sick with worry if Oliver hadn’t already had dinner with someone else. Elio had clearly lost himself in his desire for Oliver, for his skin, and lusted after every angle of his body. The early ‘brief’ interactions between the two, set Elio off into another zone, a zone most of us know all too well.
There is a point in the story when Oliver massages Elio’s shoulder, when the latter is taken by a surprise and his reflex is sudden and seemed harsh. Later, Elio explains it to the reader…
“It never occurred to me that what had totally panicked me when he touched me was exactly what startles virgins on being touched for the first time by the person they desire…”
Remember when we develop a really strong crush on someone, be it in college or at work, we constantly try to bump into them or get noticed (at least I did!), and every moment around them made us sick with anxiety. I would constantly think of as many possibilities possible, real and/ or imaginary, thought processes which would seem to wind their way towards each other before zipping in completely opposite directions. Such was Elio’s thinking, rampant with doubt, worry, passion and a desire to offer himself up to Oliver, body and soul.
“How is it that some people go through hell trying to get close to, while you haven’t the haziest notion and don’t even give them a thought when two weeks go by and you haven’t so much as exchanged a single word between you? Did he have any idea? Should I let him know?”
Elio had even set up a system to help gauge Oliver’s mood by connecting it with the colour of his swimming trunks. Quite a unique idea, but something all of us may have done at some time or the other – to find meaning even in the most absurd things. According to Elio, when Oliver wore red, he was bold, almost gruff and ill-tempered. When he was in yellow, he was sprightly and buoyant but could easily turn to red. But clearly Elio preferred him in green, acquiescent and eager to learn, eager to speak.
The book has a number of strong sexual scenes, and they can be quite a revelation. The part when on an impulse Elio wears Oliver’s bathing suit because he wanted to feel him on his skin, to take in his very scent, and then proceeds to lie naked within the sheets of Oliver’s bed, to leave his scent and yet feel every part of Oliver all around him…it brought forth a very strong imagery and no doubt, it left me stunned. Andre has such skill to weave words so beautifully, to lay bare the human soul and to put desire, shame, love, guilt and a multitude of emotions on display. Then pick at them, and tear them apart.
Oliver was the spark that set Elio alight. It was Oliver who helped Elio get to know more about himself, to understand his sexuality, to find himself at peace when entwined around another human being- man or woman, to go after the love he so desired and to be blessed to find someone to call him by his name.
One of the most intense moments in the book is when Elio takes a peach, caresses it, feeling its smooth curves and bumps, and then ejaculates in it. While it does offer a release to the sexual tension building up inside him, it also becomes a symbol of intense love for him as Oliver, later, proceeds to ingest this very peach. Can there be anyone who wants to be part of someone so badly that they’re willing to consume them so intimately? Andre has written about love, sexuality, intimacy with such keen observations, it took me time to ponder over them to fully appreciate its brilliance. The way Andre has dissected their relationship, their almost-relationship and Elio’s constant fight with himself left me in a puddle of emotions. I identified with it so much.
I must confess I am partial to gay love, especially when narrated so beautifully. When I saw Armie Hammer onscreen, it reminded me of another character he had portrayed in the Hollywood film J. Edgar. Hammer, who plays Clyde Tolson, the then associate director of the FBI and protege and long time top deputy of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, had brilliantly brought to life love that was restrained yet simmering. I succumb to stories of unrequited love, and even though Tolson and Hoover (as per the movie) lived and worked together, they did not reveal themselves to the public.
I must thank my dear friend K, and his companion, for getting me a signed copy of this book. Andre was in India visiting the Jaipur literature festival. I was told there was a terrible rush during his sessions, and am extremely grateful to my friends who stood in line for almost an hour. I am grateful. Meanwhile, Andre is apparently working on a sequel to the book and I am not sure exactly what to expect from it, but I hope love like Elio’s and Oliver’s bloom brighter than the sun. Often sequels don’t go the way we imagine they would. Case in point, I haven’t been able to pick up The Mountain Shadow by Gregory Roberts yet. It’s been years since I bought it. But then again, there are sequels like those by George RR Martin that has us thirsting for more. Quite a gamble, this business.
As always, I shall leave you with my favourite quote in the book, which made me cry. It made me feel the way Elio felt, I could sense the tug in his heart, my throat choking up and I curled up and stared at the blank wall after finishing this book. It is beautiful, unlike any other story I have ever read. Till the sequel is published and we can either cry over lost opportunity or revel in the writer’s and the characters’ brilliance… ‘Later!’
“I’m like you,’ he said. ‘I remember everything.’
I stopped for a second. If you remember everything, I wanted to say, and if you are really like me, then before you leave tomorrow, or when you’re just ready to shut the door of the taxi and have already said goodbye to everyone else and there’s not a thing left to say in this life, then, just this once, turn to me, even in jest, or as an afterthought, which would have meant everything to me when we were together, and, as you did back then, look me in the face, hold my gaze, and call me by your name.”