The Eight Mountains by Paolo Cognetti (tr. Simon Carnell and Erica Segre)

 Harvill Secker, March 2018, 256 pp

Harvill Secker, March 2018, 256 pp

One of the main ideas in Paolo Cognetti’s new novel The Eight Mountains, originally published in Italian as Le otto montagne in 2016, is introduced right on its first pages: the juxtaposition of two spaces, city and nature. For the novel’s boy narrator Berio and his family, the Alps serve as an isolated shelter far away from the socio-political hassle of urban Milan:

Then on certain rare windy days, in autumn or spring, at the end of Milanese streets, the mountains would appear. It would happen after a bend in the road, above an overpass, suddenly, and the gaze of both my parents would immediately switch there, without one needing to point out anything to the other. The peaks were white, the sky a rare blue, the sensation as of a miracle. Down below, where we lived, were factories in turmoil, overcrowded social housing, riots in the piazza, abused children, teenage mothers: up there, the snow.

Berio’s father is a mountain man through and through, spending every summer exploring the Alps, while the family stays in a cabin lower down. The father is the typical stoic sort of a traveler, an active force, fixated on perusing maps, journeying, and discovering new places. The mother is loving and passive. The contrast is clear, and for some time I was afraid that Cognetti would not address the situation as problematic in any way:

In the evenings, as soon as the remains of supper had been cleared away, my father would unfold a map onto the table and begin planning the next day’s route. He had beside him the grey booklet of the Italian Alpine Club, and a half-filled glass of grappa which he would occasionally sip from. My mother would take advantage of her own moment of freedom by sitting in an armchair or on the bed and immersing herself in a novel: for an hour or two she would disappear into its pages, as if she were elsewhere. It was then that I would climb onto my father’s lap to see what he was up to. I would find him to be cheerful and talkative, the complete opposite of the father I was used to in the city. He was happy to show me the map, and how to read it. This is a glacial stream, he would point out to me, this is a lake, and this is a group of mountain huts.

The mother is mentioned a few times in the middle of the paragraph (where she may be dreaming of an elsewhere), until the father goes on to teach Berio cartography in a passage much longer than is quoted here. Having just recently read and reviewed The Word for Woman is Wilderness by Abi Andrews, it is hard to resist a critical view of the clichéd father-and-son relationship presented in The Eight Mountains. However, Cognetti avoids the pitfall by making Berio resistant to his father’s wishes. Berio’s relationship with the mountains is complicated, after all: he does not want to become a mountain man like his father. He is contrasted with the second most important character of the novel, Bruno, a boy who has lived all his life in the mountains. Bruno is the more ideal son for Berio’s father, and Bruno and the father form a tight bond over the years.

How these two boys, Berio and Bruno, grow up in different circumstances is the main substance of the novel, and we follow their lives for three decades. Bruno is always up in the mountains, while Berio only visits there. The mountains are always integral to the novel, yet the novel’s strength lies in psychological insight, as well as in its ability to engage the reader emotionally. While not A Little Life by any standards, it is touching to follow the two boys’ friendship through the decades: the highs and the lows, and the outcomes of lives lived similarly yet still so differently. Berio inhabits both city and nature; Bruno is insistent on living purely outside the confines of civilization. Milan is far away from Bruno, but somehow the city is always looming there, providing the constant other that he avoids. At what point does the avoidance of others become self-centered and elitist? In only a few glimpses, we hear of the “abused children,” “teenage mothers,” and the bad economy, but the urban space is nonetheless there, and the mountain men know it. 

I think it is this subtle play between city and nature where Cognetti shines, not perhaps by providing any answers, but implicitly setting relevant questions to think about. In other words, Cognetti moves beyond a mere romanticized plot of male adventure and touches upon something wider in perspective. His prose (and the translation by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre) is fluid, never too heavy, and the story is read faster than the page count of 250 or so would suggest. The Eight Mountains has already become a bestseller in Italy, and it is interesting to see how it plays out in the English-speaking reading community. Although set in the Alps, I believe that at its core the novel asks questions applicable to anyone thinking about the relationship between urbanism and the natural environment, and man’s place somewhere between the two.