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

Niccolo Ammaniti ‘As God Commands’

–Three stars.
Cristiano ranked his father’s rages on a five-star scale. No, three to four. Already in the ‘approach with caution’ area, where the only strategy was to agree with everything he said and keep out of his way as much as possible.IMG_1102 His father turned round and kicked a white plastic chair, which hurtled across the room and fetched up against the pile of boxes where Cristiano kept his clothes. No, he had been wrong. This was five stars. Red alert. Here the only thing to do was to keep shtum and blend in with your surroundings.

Who would want to be Cristiano Zena, brought up in terror by a violent alcoholic father who taught him that the only thing in life that counts is the bond between father and son. Ammaniti, in stubs Strega Prize winner, takes us on a trip into the consequences of Berlusconi’s impact on Italy. Rino Zena has drifted out of work in the new Italy, and is a Nazi sympathiser. His two friends are Quattro Formagi, an unstable halfwit who has been watching the same pornographic film for many years in private so that he knows the lines and is hovering between reality and fantasy, and Danilo Aprea a drunken night watchman whose life fell apart at the accidental death of his child, that spends his nights stalking his ex-wife at her home or on the telephone. And to complete the background, this is Italy, there is religious mumbo jumbo throughout:

–God comes down hardest on those that are weakest, you’re a doctor and you need to know it’s important Enrico, evil is attracted by the poorest and the weakest, when god strikes he strikes the weakest.

When the story does go off the rails each of the pals falls fowl of his own particular weakness, Danilo wants money for no real purpose, Quattro Formagi thinks he recognises one of the actresses in his old American porn film (a school friend of Cristiano’s):

–Quattro Formagi on the saddle of the Boxer was climbing back up around the hairpin bends of the Saint Rocca woods, a fire burned in his shoulder, every rut that he crossed was agony, but that too was a sign that god was with him, just like the holes in padre Pio’s hands.

Rino’s known weaknesses are violence and misplaced loyalty, we discover another weakness that Ammaniti throws in unexpectedly and as for Cristiano, Well you’ll just have to read it, how far can you take filial loyalty? This is not a book with hope as a central theme.

First Published in Italian as “Come Dio Comanda” in 2006 by Mondadori
Translated into English by Jonathan Hunt and published as ‘The Crossroads’ in 2010 by Canongate Books
Also published in English as ‘As God Wants’ in 2009 by Black Cat