Paolo Cognetti ‘The Eight Mountains’


My father and bruno’s Uncle were on their second glass as we caught them in deep discussion about the economy of alpine farming……Luigi Gugliemina was really happy to be able to talk about it to a competent man,51570AFD-D86D-4CE0-B5D6-A3119E50F5C4 as he went through his accounts out loud to show him that with the prices and he ridiculous norms imposed on the farmers, his work no longer made any sense, and he only carried on out of pure passion for the job.
He said, “When I’m dead, up there, I won’t give it ten years before the forest will have reclaimed the land.***


In this Strega prize winning novel, the narrator, Pietro tells us the story of his and his best friend Bruno’s contrasting lives, with the mountains and nature providing their common ground. The novel slowly shows us the choices Pietro is free to make whilst Bruno cannot and would not want to see any choices but those he is born into.

Pietro is a city dweller whose parents take him, from a young age, each summer to discover the mountains in the Aoste valley where he meets the young Bruno and year after year as they play in the alpine farmland together, they slowly get to know each other, or at least the parts of each other they are willing to acknowledge. The village, Grana, that Pietro visits and in which Bruno lives, in these days just before mass tourism discovers the alps, is extremely poor and is slowly dying, an example of the senselessness of the way of life, as well as an announcement of things to come is given in the opening quote by Bruno’s uncle, the age old way of mountain life is coming to an end.

Role on years later when, after having lost contact, Bruno and Pietro once again become friends, Bruno helps Pietro to build a stone house high above Grana. Bruno becomes as if by prophesy from the earlier times, an alpine farmer taking over his uncle Luigi’s land, whilst Pietro,  as described in the following quote, lives the explorers life, discovering other mountain areas, but never belonging anywhere, up to a point described by the following anecdote. Pietro brings a girlfriend, Lara, up to his mountain home all the time planning not to get involved, not to be weighed down or have his movements, his freedom impeded. Months later Bruno phones to ask if it would be a problem between them if he were to see Lara, whom he then marries.


I wasn’t there that year. In Nepal, I was in touch with the world of NGO’s and was working with a few of them…in the mountains, I came across all sorts of people, from old hippies to students undertaking international civic service, from voluntary unpaid doctors to Mountaineers who, between expeditions, helped out on work sites. Even if all of these people weren’t entirely devoid of ambitions or conflicts of power, they were not without idealism. And amongst these idealists I felt good.***


So does Luigi’s prophesy play out or does Bruno with Lara, show that it is possible to survive as an alpine farmer, in Bruno’s times of need can he count on his friend Pietro? Does Pietro manage to reign in his solitary way of life, of not belonging but of watching life go by? What do you think?

First published in Italian as ‘Le Otto Montagne’ by Einaudi in 2016
Translated into French by Anita Rochedy as “Les Huits Montagnes” and published by Stock in 2017
*** My translation

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Luca Di Fulvio ‘The Boy who Granted Dreams’


She took a length of rope and tied it around Cetta’s left shoulder. “Stand up,” she ordered, and then pulled the rope down to her crotch, so that the child had to hunch over. F56CFD9E-BE6C-44B2-A3E7-35A7AD50EA4BNext, she knotted it tightly around her left thigh. “This is a secret between you and me,” she told her…..“You’re going to tell everyone the fall left you crippled. Everyone, even your brothers,” she explained to the child. “You’ll wear this rope on for a month, to get used to it. After that, I’ll take it off, but you’ll still walk as though you were still wearing it…..And when the padrone comes by in the evening with his beautiful automobile and honks his horn, you run out to greet him.”


Back to Italy at the turn of the century, if you work on the padrone’s land, well you belong to him and Cetta in her early teens, beautiful, has been noticed by the padrone. Her mother goes to the extent of protecting her by the subterfuge of passing her for a cripple at the beginning of Di Fulvio’s sweeping love story of an Italian immigrant in New York, read for the now extended Italian lit month.

Of course this attempt turned out not to be sufficient and Cetta soon finds herself working as a prostitute in far of New York with a baby boy, Natale, re-named Christmas at Ellis Island and so begins the story of Christmas, which in the Italian quarters we are soon lead to understand that this must be a darkies name (I didn’t feel up to the ‘n’ word of the book). As Christmas grows up in this poor cut throat district he creates a gang, the Diamond Dogs, And we live through the petty crime of the beginnings.

One night whilst still young, Christmas comes across Hannah, a young Jewish girl from a wealthy family, half beaten to death, raped and with a finger sheared off (to obtain her ring) by the families gardener, Bill. Christmas takes her to hospital in his arms and so begins an epic love story, or at least that is the intention. A story where Hannah and Christmas are separated, Hannah becomes a professional photographer in the Los Angeles of the movies, never recovering from her assault, always afraid, Christmas, remaining in New York, becomes a star of the radio telling stories about  his New York, the lower east side, of the gangs and in particular of the Diamond Dogs and finally Bill also ends up in Los Angeles working in the violent pornography business.

As the story works towards a climax I berate myself for reading through to the end a story entirely ruined for me by the longwinded descriptions of their feelings for one another, taking up easily a hundred pages of the book! A shame as the story itself relates an era.

First published in Italian as ‘La Gang dei Sogni’ by Arnoldo Mondadori in 2008
Translated into English by Ann McGarrell as “The Boy Who Granted Dreams” and published by Bastei Lübbe in 2015

Cesare Pavese ‘The Moon and The Bonfires’


A town means not being alone, knowing that in the people, 4E345BB0-9B0F-4027-96D6-58EC98F24484the trees, the soil, there is something of yourself, that even when you’re not there it stays and waits for you. But it isn’t easy to live there and not be restless.


Which one of us doesn’t recognise himself a little in this opening quote from Pavese’s Moon and The Bonfires, read for what is now the extended Italian lit month, as the narrator at forty years old comes back to his native village in the countryside above Genoa just after the Second World War and after twenty years of absence in America where he has made his fortune.

The book circles around his erstwhile and newly re-emerging relationship with Nuto, a few years older than the narrator and who had stayed in their valley through the fascist times:


“Nuto, unlike me, has never gone far from Salto he says that to live a full life in this valley you should never leave it.”


This is a story of unspoken yet irrational guilt, the narrator for leaving his home town, where he had been brought up without a past in the ancient poverty still active in these villages and where, in flash backs to his own upbringing and the parallel with the actual story of Cinto, we understand the hopelessness of his previous situation. He was brought up in Gaminella by Padrino and Virgilia.


“Forty years ago there were people on these hills wretched enough to saddle themselves with a bastard from the hospital, in addition to the children they already had, just to lay eyes on a piece of silver.”


And he illustrates the cause of this poverty by the case of the young Cinto, in the present day living on the same farm as that on which he had worked, where they shared their crops with the land owner. Cinto tells us of events after the farmhouse is burnt down by Cinto’s father, the violent Valino:


“He’d gone down to Belbo. Then he’d heard the hog barking, his father tying up the ox. The madame of the villa had come to divide up the beans and potatoes. She’d said that two rows of beans had already been dug, so Valino would have to make up for them….He started shouting at Rosina and the grandmother because they hadn’t picked the green beans earlier. He said that now the madame was eating the beans that belonged to them.


Nuto takes most of the book, circling the question of his own guilt as bodies occasionally come to the surface in the hills from the shallow graves of the hectic wartime struggles between the partisans and the Fascist Republicans.
Firstly we learn of the family that employed the narrator, whom they had nicknamed Eel, Sor Matteo and his three daughters, Silvia, Irene and the much younger Santina. All of them now dead and how Nuto’s story is entwined with Santina’s, as Nuto finally gets to the point where he talks about his small part in those tumultuous times, the narrator asks him:


“And you, were you a partisan? Were you there?
Nuto swallowed and shook his head. Everybody did something. Too little….but there was the danger that a spy might send someone to burn down your house…


Nuto was still alive when so many others were not, the root of his guilt. Pavese himself committed suicide shortly after the book was published in 1950.

First published in Italian as ‘La luna e il falò’ by Giulio Einaudi in 1950.
Translated into English by R.W. Flint as “The Moon and The Bonfires” and published by The New York Review of Books in 2002.

Annie Messina (Gamîla Ghâli) ‘The Myrtle & The Rose’


“Well, my lord, I happen to have a consignment of exceptional merchandise, right now at this moment —six boys from the Greek coasts, all under the age of ten, superb little creatures, veritable budding flowers, the stuff of connoisseurs.8BE84CE6-68FC-43B4-B37C-8C7DAADDDA65 But I realize this sort of thing doesn’t interest your lordship.” “No,” said the prince brusquely. “If you’ve got some pretty little boys among your flowers you might propose them to the Emir Husain ibn Ali. He has a harem that could use wet nurses instead of eunuchs.”


This book, read for Italian lit month, when first published, was so by an unknown author Gamîla Ghâli, who was later revealed to be Annie Messina, an elderly Italian lady of Little or no previous literary success but who did not want to benefit from the name of her aunt, the author Maria Messina. And who probably wanted to avoid the public uproar surrounding the book’s subject matter.

The book is a fable set somewhere at the turn of the first millennium in the Arab world and concerns the relationship between Prince Hamid , known as al-Ghazi, the warrior, who is the Myrtle of the title and of the beautiful fourteen year old  bought from Boutros during his visit to the slave merchant, described in the opening quote, the Rose of the title.

As the story begins, during the visit to Boutros, there is a loud disturbance and Hamid discovers that a beautiful young yet rebellious boy, who has lost his memory, is about to be castrated, Hamid buys him for a pittance and so begins a story of love, respect and desire as the boy slowly becomes prince Falcon:


Thus it may happen that a bird comes down momentarily from its domain in the sky and lands beside us. And we watch it, happy to have it so close but wishing to touch it, hold it in our hands. Yet we know if we reach out for it a flutter of wings will carry it far away


Hamid and Falcon grow close as the subject of the fable develops, the Emir Husain ibn Ali from the opening quote has designs on both Hamid’s land and on Falcon and Hamid has a treacherous son, Prince Harazad who wants vengeance on his father for banning him. An alliance is reached whereby Harazad would be allowed to capture his father alive, to display him in a gilded cage and to keep his land and the Emir to capture Falcon. The fable is a background to test the relationship between the the man and the boy, the following two quotes illustrate firstly how Hamid sees their relationship:


Even the intimacy between them had changed into something more virile. They shared long rides on horseback, swimming races, mountain climbing. Sometimes when they reached a summit at dawn the two of them would sit together and silently watch the sunrise while their guards kept watch nearby.


And then secondly, in a world where slaves belong to their master, who have the right of life or death over them, we see through the eyes of Boutros  how the outside world must see them:


What sort of magic had the prince resorted to to tame that little rebel? One had only to look at the boy (which Butros attempted to do surreptitiously) to read in his eyes the adoration he held for his master, a feeling clearly mutual. Oh well, of course. The two didn’t have to be touching and making eyes at each other for anyone to see what held them together, quite simply a vigorous mature man’s feeling for a pretty submissive boy.


This was a well written, well translated fable well worth reading, is Hamid aware of his own temptation? How far will Falcon go for Hamid?

First published in Italian as ‘Il mirto e la rosa’ by Sellerio editore in 1982
Translated into English by Jessie Bright as “The Myrtle and The Rose” and published by Italica Press in 1997

Luca D’Andrea ‘Beneath the Mountain’


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!”…4B3AEFDD-E132-4BE7-BDDC-D37E89C80E28I 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

 

Cristina Comencini ‘When The Night’


The milk will come, you just have to believe. It seems you have to believe in milk, and maybe I just didn’t believe strongly enough, and that’s why it didn’t come. F1BF3673-7EEB-4B3F-A6DB-69CFE34962D9My mother tried to reassure me. “It will come, don’t worry. I didn’t have milk, but you will be more fortunate.”


In this story, read for Italian lit month, Cristina Comencini contrasts the mental mistrust of Manfred, the rough mountain guide, and Marina, visiting from the city, for each other with their overwhelming physical attraction one for the other.

The story is told in two voices, first Manfred and then Marina as we first discover Marina through Manfred’s narration, a young woman come to stay in the mountains with her baby son in Manfred’s rental flat above his home. Manfred is bitter and has his misgivings about women in general and about Marina in particular, he hears a baby crying above him, a bang then silence, he reacts rushing uncannily quickly upstairs to find Marina crying in a corner and the young child who has “fallen” from the table and against Marina’s wishes he rushes them to the hospital. We learn from Marina of the difficulty she has coming to terms with having a baby in the opening quote.

Manfred is one of three sons, brought up in the mountains alone by his father, a rustic life taught to be frugal and untrusting of women, his elder brother has a restaurant high on the mountain slopes and his younger brother is a womaniser living in the same mountain town, as he says to Marina:


But I was honest: I told her what I was like, that I know nothing about women, and that my mother abandoned us when we were little. Ran off with an American. I never saw her again. I know she remarried and had more kids in America, because our father told us.


Manfred eventually decides not to report Marina to the police for his suspicion about her son’s injury and despite themselves they are slowly drawn together, after quarrelling in Manfred’s brothers restaurant one night, Marina gets a lift down the mountain and Manfred decides to walk, when she doesn’t hear him down stairs in his apartment she calls the rescue services who consequently find him injured and save his life in the mountains. Marina visits him in hospital ready to leave her husband for him and then abruptly leaves the mountains to go back home to her husband, we learn years later that the story turned here about Manfred’s youthful family trauma as she tells years later when she revisits the mountains hoping to see Manfred, after her son has grown up and left home:


How long should I wait? What if he doesn’t come? What would Marco and Sylvia think if they saw me? That’s not our mother sitting waiting for a man and how about Mario he’s never known that I might need him that for me none of this is natural, but I still want to dance, to flee, to inflict pain. I never made a promise to them, but I made a promise to him, don’t leave the boy.


Theirs is a tragic love, how does their second chance end? Well you’ll just have to read it to find out.

First published in Italian as ‘Quando la Notte’ by Feltrinelli in 2009
Translated into English by Marina Harss as “When the Night” and published by Other Press in 2011

Diego Marani ‘New Finnish Grammar’


‘At heart, we have always been Lutherans, even before we became Christians. The heroes of the Kalevala were already Lutherans in the same way that Achilles and Ulysses were already Orthodox. 2F042AD6-7A56-4C98-8D52-428CB0A1F403Ulysses practised his wiles on a sophisticated and sceptical society which was familiar with mental trickery. Väinämöinen’s mode of speech is craggy, immediate, uncomplicated, like the first blow of a chisel on rough stone. The Greek Gods mingled with men, wrangled and negotiated with them. The God Ukko never comes down to Earth; he judges our actions and then visits light or darkness upon us, punishment or reward.’


In Diego Marani’s left of field book New Finnish Grammar, read for Italian Lit Month,  the story of roots and the need to belong is brought to us in this improbable story. During the Second World War a man is found in the port of Trieste, badly beaten and having lost his memory and speaking no language, the only clue to his identity is the Finnish name Sampo Karjalainen found on his jacket. He is brought aboard a german hospital ship to be treated where the doctor that treats him, Pétri Friari, has himself unsure roots, in the German forces but himself of Finnish descent. He tries to teach Karjalainen, the rudiments of Finnish before sending him to Helsinki to better discover and understand his own country and language and to then maybe discover more about himself. But Finnish is no ordinary language as we learn:


Finnish was not invented. The sounds of our language were around us, in nature, in the woods, in the pull of the sea, in the call of the wild, in the sound of the falling snow. All we did was to bring them together and to bend them to our needs. When God created man, he did not bother to send any men up here.


The reader feels something of the poetry, of the essence of Finnish, without Marani trying to detail the actual language. As the Finns prepare to defend their country against Russian attack, Sampo is housed in the military hospital where he meets Ilma, a nurse who feels for him, maybe a new start is possible with her as he struggles to speak Finnish, helped by the pastor Koskela who tries to teach him not only the language but also what it is to be Finnish through Finnish mythology, The Kalevala, the spirit of which is rendered in the opening quote.

Marani’s tale is told by Pétri Friari, pieced together from notes written by Sampo in Finnish whilst Sampo was struggling to learn the language. Who was Sampo? What was he doing in Trieste? Is their hope, through Ilma for a man that does not know who he is? A chance observation by Sampo at the end of the story makes all clear, As Pétri says:


If Doctor Friedrich Reiner had found the handkerchief with the initials S. K. even a day earlier the fate of Massimiliano Brodar would have been different, as would have been my own.


First published in Italian as ‘Nuovo Grammatica Finlandese’ by RCS Libri in 2000
Translated into English by Judith Landry as “New Finnish Grammar” and published by Dedalus in 2011