Well, this was interesting. The last book I read by Venero Armanno was The Volcano, (2001) and although it won the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award in 2002 and Murrray Waldren reviewed it with enthusiasm in The Australian, I didn’t enjoy it much. It was very long, and I thought it was over-dramatic. But the author’s name stayed in my mind, helped no doubt by the fact that he has published a new book almost every year: Black Mountain is his ninth novel.
Reading Armanno’s blunt prose straight after Susan Hancock’s lush style in The Peastick Girl was a bit of a jolt, but the difference in style was more than that. Black Mountain is a bit of a boys’ own adventure in a way. Where Hancock explores the inner world of both men and women in a sophisticated meditation on contemporary New Zealand life, Black Mountain is written entirely from the masculinist perspective of the central character Cesar Montanero. There are few women in the story and they are lightly sketched as Mother/Whore/Lover. There is a quest (or two) and there are some fights in which the hero vanquishes The Other, in sequences that reminded me of those martial arts movies where the Strong One is always able to fend off an aggressor with his superior skill and strength. And there is a mystery to be solved…
The novel takes a while to reveal that it’s speculative fiction, based on Armanno’s interest in eugenics, and I preferred the first part of the story before this becomes an issue. Bookended (not entirely convincingly) by the (not entirely engaging) story of Mark Alter who knows there’s something odd about himself, the main story is the strange tale of Cesar Montenero who begins life as Sette, born into poverty in Sicily and sold by his parents into slavery in the sulphur mines. The brutality of this boy’s life is shocking, and the plot moves along at a cracking pace. It is absolutely riveting.
Sette remembers nothing of his parents. As an adolescent he has nostalgic memories of Gozzi (his first Master) and a ceramic tile factory, but then he is onsold to Giovanni and his torment in the sulphur mines begins. This first period was relatively benign given what was to come, but even so, it was a life of drudgery and loneliness. In scenes reminiscent of Germinal, these small children were used to lug the sulphur to the surface, where their sole pleasure was to pet the carter’s donkey Luisa. They were kept isolated from each other, and fed just enough to keep them alive. However when Giovanni’s seam ran out, Sette and his companion Natale were onsold again, this time to the brutal Salvatore.
Escape, in this rugged and remote region of Sicily, seems impossible, and Natale and Sette have already been taken on a punitive expedition to learn what happens if they try. When Salvatore’s wife leaves him, Natale discovers what it is that makes such a risk worth taking, and eventually Sette does too. On the black mountain that looms over everything, Sette is shot - four times, and in places usually fatal - before Don Domenico makes his timely appearance and rescues him.
The hints that all is not normal begin to multiply, but Armanno bides his time before revealing the secret. With a new name, an education and the patronage of Don Domenico, Sette/Cesar becomes an adult, but one whose intrinsic identity is a mystery. With Domenico as mentor, he becomes a writer, and goes to Paris where – despite his ambivalence about women – he becomes a sexual rival to another sort of father-figure called Bruno Pasque. (This rivalry turns out to be fatal for Cesar’s career as an author because Bruno is his publisher).
A subsequent idyll with the lovely Celeste is soon cut short, and the eugenics theme then comes more sharply into focus. In Armanno’s story it has more benign purposes than commonly supposed but the fundamental questions about ‘playing God’ remain unanswered. For this reason, I think this is a book that book groups might enjoy: at 278 pages it’s a much more sensible length than The Volcano but it explores some of the same terrain…questions of identity and belonging, ‘otherness’, living under the lethal threat of Mt Etna, and the irony that while some lives are cheap others will stop at nothing to ensure their own survival.
Author: Venero Armanno
Title: The Volcano
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press) 2012
Source: Review copy courtesy of UQP