Spawned by fire and brimstone
By Venero Armanno UQP, 278pp, $29.95
THIS is a remarkable novel. Brisbane writer Venero Armanno writes across several registers without a single discordant note, delivering a clear narrative drive and assured character development.
Black Mountain, Armanno’s ninth novel, is a literary work that embodies magic realism and tells its tale with diamond-cut description and lilting language. We are taken on an extraordinary journey and the author’s compass is sure throughout.
We meet Mark Alter, a 22-year-old university dropout with ambitions to be a screenwriter. He writes a story and sends it to a producer, Justin Blackmore. Soon after, Blackmore calls and accuses Alter of stealing the work of one Cesare Montenero.
Alter pleads his innocence, insists his story was entirely imagined and says he was not aware of the work of Montenero. This is a subtly cast plot hook.
Alter makes contact with Montenero and heads off to meet this mysterious writer whose work he supposedly has plagiarised. From this point, the narrative quickens. When Alter arrives at the address he has for Montenero, he finds the house empty of its occupant, but notices a set of notebooks, strategically left behind. He begins reading, and so we are taken into the life and times of Montenero, whose story starts in the Sicilian sulphur mines of a century ago.
As a child, Montenero was known as Sette, as he was the seventh child. He is sold into slavery and consigned to the violent, lawless world of the mines. Armanno’s writing is graphic, compelling and unremitting. Sette’s master, Salvatore, a sadistic punishing man, is superbly drawn.
Sette flees and is saved by a stranger, Don Domenico Amati, who renames the boy Montenero, which means black mountain. The older man takes Sette into his world of Sicilian culture, especially writing. It is not long before we realise Don Domenico is preparing Montenero for greater purposes. He asks him to copy a quote that resonates throughout the rest of the story: ‘‘ Man is a free agent; but he is not free if he does not believe it.’’ Don Domenico is a writer and he leaves his work to Montenero to perfect and publish under Montenero’s name. This patient preparation of Montenero’s life begins to flourish in a published career.
Black Mountain is engrossing and entertaining. Even the minor characters are memorable. Signora Rosa Bortolotti, who cares for Montenero after Don Domenico’s death, is generously created. Then there is literary agent Bruno Pasqua. His urbanity impresses Montenero but we soon realise his life has a seamier side. Pasqua and Montenero go to Paris to do a publishing deal. Pasqua is a regular at the city’s high-class brothels, and it is in one of these that Montenero meets Celeste, who will become the most important relationship in his life. As the MonteneroCeleste relationship reaches its high point, Armanno cleverly leads us back to Mark Alter. Through reading Montenero’s books, he is changed, as will be any reader of this outstanding novel.