Tag Archives: Italian fiction in translation

The Eight Mountains by Paolo Cognetti (transl. Simon Carnell and Erica Segre): Enduring friendship

Cover imageI wrote a post about friendship a little while ago, part of my Five Books I’ve Read series, beginning it by saying how few novels there seemed to be about friendship, and fewer still about male friendship, at least in my reading experience. Paolo Cognetti’s The Eight Mountains offers a corrective to that. At its heart is the friendship between two men who meet as boys when they’re eleven years old: one who has never set foot outside the mountains in which he was born, the other a city boy from Milan whose father yearns for a return to his own mountain roots.

The Guasti family first visit the mountain hamlet of Grana in the summer of 1984. Exacting and taciturn, Pietro’s father is determined to pass on his love of the mountains to his son but seemingly unable to communicate it. His mother sets about making the little rundown house homely, quickly becoming acquainted with the family to whom it belongs. It’s at her urging that Pietro talks to Bruno, the son of a local stonemason who no longer lives with him. Over the years Pietro and Bruno become firm friends. Eventually, as teenagers do, Pietro finds reasons to spend his summers in Milan. When his father dies, Pietro is in his early thirties, struggling to make a living as a documentary maker. Gianni has left him a small patch of land in the mountains on which to build a house. Reluctantly, Pietro takes himself off to Grana where Bruno offers to help. Over that summer, their boyhood friendship is renewed and Pietro comes to understand his father in the way that Bruno always has. Over the next decade, each will live their lives as mountain men in very different ways: Bruno as a farmer, taking care of his beloved cows; Pietro pursuing a career which takes him to Nepal. Both will remain the lynchpin of each other’s lives.

Hard not to gush about this novel, not least because its beautiful descriptions took me back both to alpine holidays and to Nepal whose mountains were the first I properly walked in. Cognetti writes evocatively of the landscape and how deeply Pietro’s father and Bruno are rooted in it –  one torn from it by circumstance, the other determined to pursue the old ways despite great personal cost

In its woods that fire was still ablaze: on the flanks of the mountain the gold and bronze flames of the larches were lit against the dark green of the pines, and raising your eyes to the sky warmed the soul

There’s a quiet poignancy about Cognetti’s writing, both in its depiction of Pietro’s relationship with his father, a man made angry by city life, and in its portrayal of the enduring bond between two men who are very different from each other, the one unable to help the other. It’s a beautiful novel, a testament to friendship and a loving tribute to a challenging but gorgeous landscape.

Ties by Domenico Starnone (transl. Jhumpa Lahiri): Three sides of a marriage

Cover imageI seem to have reviewed several books about marriage in the first few months of this year – from the comparatively happy Wait for Me, Jack, to the decidedly bleak First Love, to the seemingly inextricable entanglement of A Separation – each one very different from the other, as are relationships of course. Domenico Starnone’s Ties is about another marriage, first broken then apparently reconciled. I’d have been attracted by it anyway but when I found out that it was Jhumpa Lahiri’s first piece of translation I had to read it having been intrigued by In Other Words, her memoir about her love affair with the Italian language.

Vanda and Aldo have been married for well over four decades. They live in a comfortable apartment in Rome with a view of the Tiber. They married in their early twenties and have two children, Sandro and Anna. Twelve years into the marriage, when Sandro was nine and Anna five, Aldo confessed his infidelity with Lidia, a passing fancy or so he thought. Furious, Vanda threw him out, lambasting him for his betrayal and eventually winning full custody of their children. Four years later, Aldo began to feel that he’d let his children down, resuming some sort of relationship with them and eventually proposing a rapprochement with Vanda. Reconciliation came at a high price: Vanda commandeered the moral high ground while Aldo lay low, accepting whatever punishment was doled out to him, quietly continuing along his path of infidelity. Their children grew into unhappy adults: Anna, filled with bitter resentment and determined not to have children; Sandro charming all and sundry, leaving a trail of ex-partners and children in his wake. Things come to a head when Vanda and Aldo return from their summer break to find their apartment ransacked and their cat missing.

Vanda and Aldo’s marriage feels very much of its time: Vanda finds herself financially dependent on Aldo, keeping house and looking after the children while Aldo is surprised at her angry reaction to his infidelity, assuming that she will tolerate his self-expression in the new era of sexual liberation. Starnone cleverly structures his novel to reflect the repercussions of their actions. First there are the angry letters from Vanda to Aldo during their separation, so filled with fury that they feel like a smack round the head. This short, very sharp, section is followed by Aldo’s version of events as he searches for photographs of Lidia tucked away for years but now missing in the disorder of the wrecked apartment. The third brief section offers Anna’s point of view, filled with bitterness at the behaviour of her parents and its apparent acceptance by her brother. Each of these narratives is in the first person making them all the more powerful. Starnone deftly switches perspectives, reflecting his characters’ point of view through language, from Vanda’s viscerally furious letters to the slightly puzzled, faintly martyred tone of Aldo’s musings. What’s missing is Sandro’s version which left me feeling that the novella was incomplete. That said it’s an extraordinarily powerful piece of work, elegantly slim but delivering a sucker punch.