The Eight Mountains review: An arduous ascent into adulthood
Paolo Cognetti’s coming-of-age in the Alps story is vividly rendered and wonderfully lucid
Paolo Cognetti: The Eight Mountains has won multiple awards in Italy and is his first novel to be translated into English
The Eight Mountains
Paulo Cognetti (translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre)
The peaks and troughs of our journey through life get a fitting backdrop in Paolo Cognetti’s debut The Eight Mountains. Midway through the novel, the narrator, Pietro, pauses in typical fashion to reflect on his experiences of trekking through the Alps as a child with his fanatical mountaineer father. “Is it much further?” is the forbidden question, as much a summation of the father’s unyielding character as it is a metaphor for the lives of the book’s central characters.
An epigraph from Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner establishes the novel’s overriding theme of the impact of nature on the development of the individual. Now in his late 30s, Pietro looks back on a childhood and adolescence split between Milan during term time and the mountainous village of Grana in northern Italy every summer. An enduring friendship with a young mountain shepherd, Bruno, is billed as the heart of the novel but The Eight Mountains is in many ways more preoccupied with the bond between father and son.
Although astute observations on human behaviour carry the novel to its close, it is Pietro’s troubled relationship with his withdrawn father that makes for the most absorbing part of the book. It is a familiar dynamic, not least from a late-20th century Irish perspective: a proud, taciturn father attuned to the outside world and his indoorsy, thoughtful son struggling to keep up. The rules are made clear: “One, establish a pace and keep to it without stopping; two, no talking; three, when faced with a fork in the way, always choose the uphill route.”
There is something penitential in the father’s desire to scale the most difficult, glacial parts of the mountains, and the doggedness of his pursuit is beautifully depicted from his son’s perspective. This is further brought to life by the introduction of Bruno, a more natural heir to the father, and the relationship, unsullied by blood, that Pietro watches unfold before him in the icy atmosphere of the Alps: “I still had in my eyes the image I had seen of them there, so close and triumphant, like father and son.”
In the hands of a lesser writer, this could give way to bitterness, but Pietro’s contemplative tone brings the mature and generous assessment of hindsight.
Captivating scenes of severe nausea and near-tragedies are mixed with stunning descriptions of the landscape: “Now the fog-filled valleys below us and the sky was clear, the colour of mother-of-pearl, with the last stars slowly fading out as the light spread.” Cognetti is a sensual writer who uses his gifts to vividly render the self-sufficient lives of the villages, “the smell of the stable, of hay, curdled milk, damp earth and woodsmoke which has always been for me, from that moment onwards, the smell of the mountains.”
The power of nature to transform the individual, for good and for bad, is seen through each of the characters. Pietro’s mother favours the woodlands and meadows before the mountains, reflecting her easy nature and role as family pacifier. His father, meanwhile, prefers wildlife to people, unable to communicate with his loved ones the way he can with an immovable mountain. The boys and he make their treks “in mute private communion with our own exertions”. The theme of loss is starkly felt in the novel, particularly with Pietro’s regret at not figuring out a way to understand his father before it was too late.
The locals also struggle with relationships. Bruno and his mother are autonomous beings, but each ultimately loses something in their isolation with nature. One interesting observation notes how differently the pair are treated in their desire for solitude. A man’s retreat is acceptable, even admirable; a woman’s is an affront to the community and blamed on illness.
An editor and novelist from Milan, Cognetti divides his time between New York and a cabin 2,000 feet up the Alps. The Eight Mountains has won multiple awards in Italy and is his first novel to be translated into English. There is something of his countryman Primo Levi in the wonderfully lucid sentences and contemplative tone of his prose. As Pietro looks at Bruno and his former girlfriend Lara settling down together, he finds that his life “seemed to me to be only partly that of a grown man, and partly still like that of an adolescent”.
The novel flags in the final third as the father fades into the background and random anecdotes about Pietro’s travels fail to fill in the gaps. It is nonetheless a beautifully crafted piece of writing, whose inevitable conclusion movingly sees the past repeat itself. Amid a backdrop of physical exertion, Cognetti has written a leisurely, reflective story about a journey over arduous terrain: “Finding your way is easy if you have a rope above your head: it’s something else entirely when the rope is at your feet.”