Spawned by fire and brim­stone

Black Moun­tain

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Christo­pher Bantick Christo­pher Bantick

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.

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