Review | Monday 30 July 2012
Venero Armanno’s latest novel, Black Mountain, is in many ways a rich and romantic journey epic – driven forwards by the life and survival of a singular character through exotic cities, histories and times, but with a decidedly chilling twist.
A boy named Sette (‘Seven’ in Italian) remembers little else but his harsh life as part of the country’s cruel underground slave trade. He is eventually sold to Sicily’s sulphur mines and put to work harvesting what was once known as biblical brimstone. Starved, beaten and abused, he mysteriously survives the harshest wounds and punishments, eventually making his escape to the slopes of the volcanic Mount Etna.
There, he is saved by a man named Don Domenico, a kind-hearted aristocrat who takes it upon himself to give the boy a new beginning and an education. Grandly renamed Cesare Montenero after the black mountain on which he was found, he journeys through the regions of Italy and the decadent streets of Paris, only to slowly uncover a darker meaning to his own origins, and his saviour’s, which find their roots in a new yet rudimentary science.
There’s something equally gritty and baroque about this novel, a tone that is at its height during Armanno’s richly textured descriptions of the sulphur mines and the poor carusi who suffer there. The book perhaps could have done without the contemporary prologue and epilogue, which, while aiming to extend the dramatic reach of the unfolding events, end up feeling slightly underdeveloped and unnecessary. Equally, for such a tightly written first half, the conclusion spirals a little in its attempt to reconcile its many threads.
Yet at its core Black Mountain is still lush, ambitious storytelling that gives historical fiction a dark and unexpected inflection, as well as grappling with those eternal questions of fate and identity.
Jessica Au is the editor of the Readings Monthly and an occasional bookseller down at Readings St Kilda. Her first novel, Cargo was published in 2011.