At the end of the screening, the fat guy was the first to have his say. What he said in a speech that lasted thirty-five minutes can be summed up as: “What a crock of shit!”…I was about to retaliate with a long (very long) series of not very PC remarks…when…The blonde girl asked permission to speak….She stood up (she was really pretty) and said, in a very strong German accent, “I’d like to ask you. What’s the exact word for Neid?” I burst out laughing and mentally thanked my dear Mutti for her insistence on teaching me her mother tongue. “Mein liebes Fräulein,”….. “Sie sollten nicht fragen, wie wir ‘Neid’ sagen, sondern wie wir ‘Idiot’ sagen.” My dear young lady, you shouldn’t ask how we say “envy,” but how we say “idiot.” Her name was Annelise. Annelise was neither German nor Austrian nor even Swiss. She came from a tiny province in the north of Italy where most of the population spoke German. It was a strange place was Alto Adige, or Südtirol.
Luca D’Andrea’s book, read for Italian lit month, is set in the Alto Adige at Siebenhoch, a small mountain community in Italy, North of Bolzano, where the traditional language is German, a once poor mining community that seemed destined to disappear before the advent of tourism from the 1980’s. Salinger, a successful documentary writer comes to stay with his wife Anneliese and their daughter Clara. Soon after his arrival he sees the red helicopter of Dolomite Mountain Rescue and after discovering that it had been his own father-in-law, Werner Mair, who had been responsible for creating it, he decides to shoot his next documentary around this subject.
During the shooting, there is a tragic accident in the mountains where the helicopter is lost and Salinger is the only survivor, but he is injured both physically and mentally PTSD. This marks the true beginning of the story, whilst trying to recover Salinger discovers a mysterious Cold Case, the horrific murders of Evi, Kurt and Markus up in the mountains, at the Bletterbach caves, near the old mines on the night of April 28, 1985. In trying to solve the mystery of the deaths he meets resistance from the local community, discovers that in this remote community, despite his marriage, he will always be an outsider. As he investigates, he meets all of the remaining protagonists, Max Krün the local policeman and Werner Mair, his own father-in-law, who were both in the rescue team that discovered the bodies, the other two rescuers Gunther and Hannes are both since dead, he meets Gunther’s alcoholic girlfriend, Brigitte Pflantz, and Gunther’s rich brother, Manfred Kagol, the owner of the Bletterbach Visitor Centre, built soon after the deaths to welcome visitors to this fossil rich mountain area, the catalyst for a local tourist infrastructure bringing relative wealth to the area.
Salinger discovers many dark secrets, touching everyone around him including his own family, as well as a fair share of red herrings. Luca D’Andrea brings us a well written, well paced thriller in this unusual setting.
First published in Italian as ‘La sostanza del male’ by Einaudi in 2016
Translated into English by Howard Curtis as “Beneath The Mountain” and published by Harper in 2018