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Ear to the Earth

By Liam Johnston

On a preternaturally hot summer’s day in the high mountain valleys on Italy’s border with Slovenia, the goats were suddenly still. Their milk tasted unusually bitter. Vipers appeared in villages, squeezing their way through gaps in pieces of crumbling mortar into houses. Unlike humans, goats and vipers can sense when an earthquake is about to strike. All signs – for the initiated at least – that disaster lay in wait.

As usual, the animals were right. In May 1976 an earthquake ripped through the region of Friuli killing hundreds, leaving thousands homeless, and destroying entire villages. But did anyone even notice the animals’ peculiar behaviour? In some ways, Rombo is all about this kind of missed sign. The fictional inhabitants of the valleys like to see their homeland in this interpretative, hermeneutic light. The craggy rock faces and sheer peaks are features of a landscape that ‘can be read as a script.’ The river that meanders through various rock formations carries with it a sense of human and geological history, speaking ‘the language of the past, of translations, of displacements.’ But even though the landscape seems to invite close attention, it is not always clear what exactly this attention might repay.

Rombo’s rotating cast of witnesses seem to understand this intuitively. Children at the time of the earthquake now reminiscing about that summer, Kinsky’s first-person narrators stand in a relationship to nature that straddles complicity and distance. Lina has spent her entire life in the valley. ‘Here I know everything,’ she tells us. ‘Every stick and every stone. The animals and the people.’ But familiarity with the natural world does not necessarily lead to a better understanding of it, as much as we might like it to. Despite being composed of an admixture of testimony, excerpts from nineteenth-century treatises on seismology, and allusions to local folklore, Rombo slinks around the question of why the earthquake took place without ever arriving at a particularly satisfactory conclusion. Any explanation would require a kind of communion with the natural world, a communion made impossible by the recognition that human experience cannot be neatly mapped onto a dispassionate landscape. After all, Lina wonders, even though the mountains bear the scars of seismic destruction some decades later, can they really remember what it was that the earthquake did to them?

Nothing is more human in Rombo than the ability to remember. The earthquake marked a caesura in the life of all those who lived in the valley and split the span of lifetimes into pre- and post- disaster. The earthquake is a lodestar for memory but naturally marked the lives of some people in a different and altogether more corporeal way. For Gigi, a goatherd, the earthquake blends together physical suffering with the destruction of the landscape, scars in flesh and scars in rock. For some, the scar ‘is small and hidden, while for others it is out in the open, like a white raised lip from a hand slipped whilst hacking wood.’ Likewise, for Olga, the act of remembering is corporeal. She continues to be woken in the middle of the night by a suffocating sensation, as if she is still lying buried under rubble, her throat tight with mortar dust and chalk: ‘In my nose and my mouth I still have this memory, as if it were embossed.’ Where the landscape can forget, absorbing the traces of its own destruction, the human body remembers. Its inscriptions stand out and mean something, even if that meaning remains affective and ineffable.

Traces and marks appear as something of a preoccupation for Kinsky throughout Rombo. In a way typical of the novel’s fragmented yet associative structure, a series of digressions provide sober descriptions of the mountain landscape, alongside unexpected pieces of information on the substances that lie beneath it. We learn that the limestone found in the region is streaked with seams of bitumen. In the early nineteenth century, the chemist Nicéphore Niépce developed a rudimentary method of photographing objects using bitumen smeared on glass. The forms that resulted from what Niépce called ‘heliography’ bear little resemblance to actual, physical objects and are more redolent of abstract paintings than photographic records. This brief excursion into the history of early photography prompts the appearance of one of the novel’s most intriguing features.

In a series of ekphrastic passages on photographic ‘found objects,’ Kinsky meticulously describes various family photographs: of wedding days, of children posing with a shiny new scooter, of trips to the beach. The contents of the photographs are rendered meticulously and exactly to the extent that it becomes possible to imagine their frayed edges and stained backs; yet it’s not at all clear how they have made their way into the narrative and what function they might serve. They could easily depict the childhood of any one of the novel’s narrators. We have a series of traces, marks, and records to work with but it is almost impossible to say what exactly they are supposed to represent. After all, records left purposefully or accidentally for posterity mean very little when stripped of context. Niépce’s heliographs, the photographic objets trouvés, striations in the mountain landscape, even personal testimonies, struggle to mean anything in isolation. This is perhaps why Rombo aims to recover the past in a patchwork of shared experience that relegates the earthquake to a moment of disruption rather than a complete picture in and of itself.

Though the earthquake serves as an organising principle for the narrators’ memory, their recollections of 1976 pick up on the more common features of their childhood. In compact prose, bordering on laconic – ably refashioned in Caroline Schmidt’s translation – Kinsky’s collective narrative passes a series of familiar touchstones. Children are upbraided by frugal grandparents for wasting food; they play with and tease each other, bemused by the seemingly inexplicable behaviour of the adults in the village. Their memories are inflected too by the cultural peculiarities of their isolated mountain community, all signifiers of a lifestyle that the earthquake only rendered more fragile.

Just as the narrators ponder the dividing line drawn by the earthquake in their lives, they reflect too on a more artificial, national border that has complicated their sense of communal identity. The narrators do not feel particularly Italian, nor do they feel much affinity with the neighbouring Slovenes. They are generally happy in their own cultural niche as speakers of a Western Slavonic language with Italian citizenship. Their way of life, at least as it is reconstituted in memory, seems to have retained a kind of timeless rhythm. Scythes are still used to work the fields and every family keeps a pig or two in a pen under their house. Pigs were prized commodities and several narrators remember the desperate (and ultimately futile) efforts made to save the unfortunate animals that were left trapped under collapsed houses. But Kinsky avoids any false sentimentality here. There’s no naïve, nostalgic sense of natural abundance and plenitude. Life in the isolated mountain valleys demands a brutal hard-headedness and, naturally, a dark sense of humour.

In any case, when the earthquake struck, a creeping process of modernisation was already visible. Many people from the valley had left to work in the factories that were springing up in nearby towns. The unpredictability of life as indigent smallholders could hardly compete with the mechanised regularity of factory work. Likewise, the possibility of emigration – to Germany, Switzerland, South America, even to Russia – brought with it the sense that life could in fact be different. But that is not to say that the villagers immediately discarded their deeply held traditions. Several of Kinsky’s narrators reflect fondly on the valley’s very particular, almost ritualistic, styles of music and dance. Their collective imagination is still steeped in folklore. It is no surprise, then, that even the fault for the earthquake is laid at the door of the Riba Faronika, the ‘pharaonic fish.’ Present in the local version of the Christian creation story, the Riba Faronika lies dormant at the bottom of the Adriatic Sea. Whenever the Leviathan-like creature is disturbed, she flicks her tail against the sea floor, setting off a wave of seismic tremors that gradually amplify into powerful earthquakes by the time they reach the Italian alps.

In some ways, the Riba Faronika is emblematic of the way the natural world appears in Rombo. Whilst the legendary mermaid gives the inhabitants of the valley a culturally specific way of explaining a natural process, she remains essentially unreachable and indifferent to them. Can the Riba Faronika ever know the destruction wrought on humanity by the shake of her tail? ‘No one can say, because even the vaguest beginning of an answer ... might mean humanity’s end.’ Humanity’s relationship to the natural world is ironically figured as one that strives for communion but that can only ever reach a frustrating sense of the incommunicable, of an insurmountable distance. There is no sense of an easy affinity with the natural world in Rombo, a frustration is echoed in the narrators’ testimonies.

Lina laments the distance between her and the Kanin, the mountain at the epicentre of the earthquake: ‘Sometimes I wish I could say something to the mountain, when I stand there all alone and no one is listening. For example: “You just keep quiet, nothing like that ever again”. But it’s too late.’ What the novel does so well – in tacit opposition to the more exasperating features of contemporary eco-poetics and nature writing – is revel exactly in the gap between a group of people and the environment that sustains them. This gap, this liminal zone of simultaneous acquaintance with, and removal from, nature underpins and structures the novel’s multiple narrative threads. In this way, Kinsky manages to avoid the easily and routinely commodified literary promise of ‘thinking with nature’ in favour of something altogether more unstable and more intriguing for it.

The signs, the bare traces of destruction to be found in nature are bound to remain incomplete and ambiguous, unable to tell the entire story. The human voices from the other side of the gap are just as relevant. What Rombo perhaps gestures at, then, is the ‘natural world’ as palimpsest: the unadorned face of nature overlain with memories, folklore, and scientific discourse. Meaning is not to be found in individual signs but in their layering over each other.

This might make it seem as if Rombo offers an all too harmonious resolution, as if Kinsky is suggesting that nature can indeed be understood by humans with a certain amount of effort. But this promise of completeness is undercut with a constant sense of impermanence. Two temporal scales are at work in the novel. The geological signs of the earthquake will remain but they will soon appear abstract to those who never experienced the trauma of the event itself. Childhood memories can be recorded, as in photographs, but they will eventually only serve to recall a vanishing way of life that will soon seem impossibly distant. Goats might once again start behaving strangely in the mountains of Friuli but, as before, no one will want to pay them the slightest bit of attention, even if their milk does taste unusually bitter.

LIAM JOHNSTON is reading for a DPhil in Modern Languages at New College. A fan of the letter ‘B’, his thesis is on Brecht and Barthes

Art by Davina Gray


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