ISBN: 978 0 7022 3915 1
Reviewed by Jason Nahrung
Brisbane writer and academic Venero Armanno returns to his family’s roots in Sicily again for his latest novel, Black Mountain. Armanno, who won the now defunct Queensland Premier’s Literary Award in 2002 with The Volcano, describes his latest as speculative fiction, and rightly so, though the speculative elements are a slow build.
Black Mountain opens with Mark, living an isolated life on the coast, more in love with books than people, who is set on a short detective trail when he finds out a creature from his dreams has also appeared in a novel published many years before. This leads him to Cesare Montenero, a Sicilian writer whose story takes up the bulk of Black Mountain, told as a biography. Cesare started his life as a child labourer in brutal sulphur mines before escaping and being raised in a far more genteel manner by Don Domenico Amati.
Mt Etna, an important element of The Volcano, again plays a starring role as the titular backdrop here – so important that Cesare’s surname is taken from the mountain.
Amati and Montenero share a similar personality, in that neither is comfortable in crowds or society, both enjoying the solitude of rural life and the intellectual stimulation of the written word. Encouraged by Domenico, a troubled soul in his own right, to explore the world, Cesare goes to university, a fairly lonely and loveless experience, but there uncovers the secret that unites him and his saviour.
Armanno paints Cesare’s world in an economical but engaging manner, backgrounding the story against global affairs and avenues of scientific invention. The story travels from Italy to Paris to Australia and Mexico, but is mainly concerned with Cesare’s journey of self-discovery, particularly once the enigmatic Parisian courtesan Celeste enters the scene in what is a life-changing moment for them both.
Armanno takes an understated approach to the science fiction element, grounded in a collison of emerging eugenics theories, using it to set up the undercurrent of the story’s plot but never letting it become the story. Given the conspiracy aspect of the story – it’s real X-Files material at its heart – there is a real-world atmosphere at play, with not all good deeds being rewarded and bad ones going unpunished.
I wasn’t overly convinced by the book-ended sections with Mark’s discovery of Cesare and his work, and the legacy that occupies the epilogue; this frame was absent for too long as the story followed the course of Cesare’s accelerating life experiences, and ultimately felt a little forgotten, a device for adding a positive conclusion. Along the way there are snipes at the isolationism of universities; Italian and indeed global politics; criticisms of certain aspects of history, and beautifully rendered pictures of Sicily and Paris in certain periods.
Once the underlying plot kicks in and Cesare’s true journey begins – and it does take some time for the Gothic elements of Cesare’s past to emerge – there is much to enjoy in this experiment of soul and identity, set against a truthfully drawn period piece.