- The Mountain, by Massimo Donati. Text. $32.99.
Two boys, best friends, on the cusp of puberty. Summer in an alpine hamlet in Italy. A peak. A pact between the boys. And an accident. At the opening of this moody novel, the elements of the story seem both wonderfully simple and full of possibilities.
When we first meet young Roberto Beltrami, it is the summer of 1981 and he is beating a hasty retreat from the hamlet of Madonna del Bosco, with his father Carlo, and his nonna, Lia. He is both victim and perpetrator but we don't yet know what he has done.
This first part of the work set in 1981 in Madonna del Bosco is a wonderfully intense study of a few weeks of childhood. This section alone might have made a near perfect novella. Roberto, heir to the Beltrami Publishing house and a city kid from Milan has returned to Madonna del Bosco as he does every summer.
His friend, Mattia Slat, a boy who looks like a "permanently pissed-off angel", is a local lad of working-class parents. Mattia's mother, the local beauty Rosa, works in the hotel where Roberto and his family stay every year.
Roberto and Mattia are inseparable that summer, roaming the town and the countryside and setting each other a series of ever grimmer tests and exercises. These form part of a hodge-podge philosophy which they dub "the alternation". Children, peering into adulthood, the boys' increasingly edgy antics are recorded in a secret notebook, and form almost a series coming of age rituals which they cobble together in the complete absence of guidance from any one older.
Even as Roberto and Mattia goad themselves into shucking off any vestiges of childhood, they are blissfully unaware of their elders' failings. Unbeknownst to them, the boys are already caught in a web of lies, infidelity, violence and small-town crime wrought by the adults around them.
If childhood is fear and a lack of power, the boys set out to prove that they can overcome both. They swear that they are unafraid of death or inflicting pain on anyone. They adopt the swastika as one of their symbols. Mattia baldly declares that he likes it because it's powerful. Roberto knows his parents are disgusted by it, but he neither knows nor cares to find out why. They despise young children and especially Mattia's young brother, Dino, who will later bear the brunt of their callousness. They are also contemptuous of adults such as Mattia's volatile father, Leo.
Part one closes as the two boys begin to climb the ominously named Black Peak on their own. In their notebook, they rejoice in the fact that this is to be their last day of childhood.
The story then jumps forward to 2005. Carlo has died and Roberto is summoned to Milan for the reading of his father's will. Roberto is haunted by that "fabulous and terrible land" of childhood, and has never recovered from what happened in the summer of 1981. Unfortunately, at this point it feels as though the plot has suffered a similar fate.
The remainder of the novel is overly long, with several unnecessary diversions. The main problem in the latter part of the work, however, is Roberto himself. At one point he describes himself as "grotesque and lonely". It is hard to feel much empathy for him or his quest to piece together clues to the tragic events of 25 years prior. The bitter irony for Roberto is that the adulthood he and Mattia once yearned for so desperately has become a long and joyless march away from the easier certainties of childhood.
In the author's acknowledgements, Donati mentions that The Mountain was originally a film script. Scripts from Super 8 movies shot by Carlo during Roberto's childhood are an interesting, if not always wholly successful, feature throughout the novel. Donati's style too is lean and script-like in places. This is tonally appropriate in the first part of the work where it adds to the sense of impending doom.
But in the final two thirds of the novel when Roberto is an adult, Donati's style often feels stilted and lacking in responsiveness. Supporting characters such as Roberto's partner Elena are also rather one-dimensional.
I am reminded of another Italian writer, who has also written about an intense childhood friendship. But where the characters from Elena Ferrante's hugely popular Neapolitan novels are impossible to resist, it feels as though Donati has sacrificed character depth for plot and pacing.
A series of final revelations about how the adults in Maddona del Bosco contributed to the tragic events of the summer of 1981 are sufficiently interesting to keep the reader guessing. But there is both a degree of padding in between which could have been judiciously excised, and at a lack of psychological insight into adults like Roberto who were earlier drawn with such acuity.
- Christine Kearney is a writer and reviewer.