An Ear to the Ground

Esther Kinsky, Rombo

Fitzcarraldo Editions, 232pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781804270035

reviewed by Magnus Rena

The oldest text in the Friulian language is a 14th-century poem. ‘Piruç myo doç inculurit,’ it begins, ‘Quant yò chi vyot, dut stoy ardit. . .’ ‘My pear so sweet, so coloured, / When I see you, I feel brave.’ You could mistake it for a Slavic tongue, all consonants and gutturals. But Friulian is a distant cousin of Italian, descended directly from Latin with a bit of Celtic thrown in. 600,000 people speak it today, almost all of them from their namesake region of Friuli in the northeastern corner of Italy, nestled between the Carnic and Julian Alps. It’s a mountainous landscape, white with limestone and dense with river-lined forests. However, remoteness has taken its toll. Through the 20th century it was a region in decline; mountain trade routes were dwindling and unemployment rising. And in 1976, Friuli — in particular a string of villages in the foothills of Monte Canin — underwent a more immediate reckoning. Two earthquakes struck, one in May and another in September, milder but dreaded. It left 157,000 without homes and 990 dead. Rombo, Esther Kinsky’s new novel, is about those earthquakes and the villages they tore open. It’s a novel that’s not really a novel. If you tried to classify it you might say it was a mixture of oral history, memoir, travelogue, psychogeography, natural history. . . But that’s not the point. In fact there is no single point. Rombo isn’t interested in one story but in an entire assembly of stories, of grappling with a collective trauma and the nature of remembering and retelling.

Much like her two previous titles translated into English, River and Grove, Rombo indulges in aimlessness. The book has no real plot. If typical novels are streams, Kinsky’s are endlessly forking estuaries, a confusion of currents diverging and rejoining one another. Rombo is made up of the fragmentary recollections of villagers who survived the earthquake. These miniature memoirs are then interwoven with descriptions of the landscape. There is no protagonist, only a handful of characters that we hear from in snatches: Anselmo, Sylvia, Olga, Toni. . . you quickly lose track of who’s who. Each is rendered in their own uncannily unique voice — a feat owed to Caroline Schmidt’s tender, clinical translation. The narrative jinks and swivels from one scene to another. A childhood memory — driving to the beach in the family Fiat cinquecento — cuts to a scene in the midst of the earthquake — a woman rescuing her mother from her bedroom, the walls already heaving and splintering. It’s a demanding and slippery narrative style that could become dizzying, your concentration wrenched from one scene to another, but it reads cinematically; the cuts are determined and stylistic.

In many ways the book is a study of village life, of local tensions and relationships. It’s peppered with references to regional dialects: reminders of the sense of belonging these people must have to an identity more precise than Italian. Still, these are places caught between one state and another. The spine of Monte Canin forms the Italian-Slovenian border. By the 1970s any trade which once flowed through the valley had reduced to an unhappy trickle of comings and goings. Bitterness is reserved for anyone who leaves, and all the harsher if they choose to come back, ‘to the homeland they shed like dead skin.’ Kinsky is attuned to these social and political strains. Her skill is to draw them out without putting too fine a point on them. If tensions do flare up they are never addressed, only intimated at: seen through a child’s eyes, overheard, implied. Incidents are suppressed to rumours; rumours become stories. This is how, Kinsky suggests, communities metabolise trauma.

Stories like this one have lined the state road since the earthquake, covering its traces like a creeping vine, a bare whisper that can be wiped away with an arm motion, a beer bottle held tightly in the raised hand, just like that.

It’s these novelistic moments, holding everything in what is left unspoken, what can’t bear to be listened to, that are most poignant. The book excels when it manages to balance the grand geology of its subject matter on the tiny gestures of daily life.

The places Kinsky is drawn to — thick forests, mountaintops, the sublime earthquake — are well-trodden. What’s inventive is the way she takes that tradition of the sublime, Romantic landscape and considers it in a new light. She handles it in an experimental literary style that reflects its subject matter. The ground buckles and so does the narrative, fissures opening up between thoughts, memories interrupted.

More than that, she observes how these places affect language, how they shape and stifle the way we think. A line from River, her novel set between the Rhine and the marshes of East Hackney, distils this idea: ‘For days it seemed the river had taken our tongue and weighed so heavily in our clothes we could barely move.’ She understands that people don’t just inhabit places, places inhabit them. They crawl and sit deep within us. Clear thoughts sink out of reach and a murkier, more haunted kind of thinking arises.

Kinsky has always been attentive to the weather. Hardly a page of River goes by without descriptions of various states of cloudiness. In Grove, a whole passage is dedicated to the nuances of blue sky: ‘the grey-tinged Trieste autumn blue, for instance, whitish Mantua blue, a purple-toned Naples blue. . .’ Of course, the pleasure of all these passages is her handling of language. But in Rombo the weather isn’t simply the object of poetic writing, it’s something to contend with, a character in itself. The weather becomes physical, the air thick ‘as if you could reach out and grab it, all viscous.’ The sun bores ‘a lurid hole in the clouds,’ and for a while, appears to float in the sky alongside two mirrored suns, reflected off the mist and the mountaintop, a mythic portent of the danger to come. There’s a palpable sense of the environment conspiring against a handful of villagers. It’s thrilling at points, at others dense and over-written. The sheer word-count devoted to the weather, to botany and geology means that Rombo can be considered, at least in part, as a piece of natural history. It’s an exercise in pushing the traditions of nature writing into new ground, exploring how that genre might be adapted for storytelling.

Rombo doesn’t try to be a conventional novel. The fact it’s labelled as one is frustrating — a shortcoming, perhaps, of the Fitzcarraldo binary: their chic but reductive division of everything into Yves Klein novels and white non-fiction. There should really be a stripy French sailor pattern for the ones in between. Once you accept it for what it is — a not-really-a-novel, a piece of adventurous narrative non-fiction — Rombo is staggering. There is something epic about it. Ultimately, it’s an attempt — faltering, watchful, patient — at reorientation: ‘at carving a path through the rubble of masonry, mortar, split beams and shattered dishes, to understand the world anew. To begin living in a place anew. With one’s memories.’ It’s about how we make places habitable — homes, memories, the past — and carry on.

Magnus Rena works at John Sandoe Books in London.