The Book Group climbs Venero Armanno’s Black Mountain, plus sonnet #4

Venero Armanno, Black Mountain (UQP 2012)

Before the Book Group meeting:
A hasty read of this book’s cover blurb led me to expect a kind of fictionalised misery memoir cum migration tale, a book where a second or third generation Australian explores his European heritage:

Beginning in the sulphur mines of Sicily over a century ago … Based on factual events … Italy … rural fringes of coastal Australia … a haunting exploration of what it means to be human.

There are elements of misery memoir: in the most powerful and memorable part of the book the main character, Cesare Montenero, is sold as a child into virtual slavery to work in Sicily’s sulphur mines in the early 20th century. But Cesare’s story is told in the literary equivalent of found footage, and the sulphur mines account for only 40 of the 200 or so pages of the found manuscript. A 30-page prologue has already set some creepy, horror-genre expectations, so that one’s antennae are out for hints of the darker, weirder underlying story. It’s hard to say much more without giving stuff away, but there are plenty of pleasing twists and turns. I’m glad I didn’t read any reviews beforehand, as one of the book’s pleasures is in the way appearances turn out to be deceptive, the ground shifts constantly under your feet, you can’t really be sure what kind of book you’re reading.

I enjoyed it, but can’t say I found it satisfactory. Too often I became aware of the plot mechanics, that someone was making it all up. A gauge of my lack of engagement is that I kept wanting to have a conversation with the copy editor: ‘If we’re going to opt for the US practicing,’ I wanted to ask her/him, ‘why not consistently use US spelling, like sulfur?’ Or, ‘Are sure you shouldn’t have queried whether resiled to should have been resigned to?’ There are more such moments, and the fact that I noticed them may say more about me than the book, but it does indicate I was less than fully engrossed.

After the meeting:
This was an unusual meeting. The group had been going for exactly 10 years last night, so there was much taking stock and reminiscing, and passing on of lore to those of us, like me, who weren’t there at the start. But our in-house facilitator made sure we each had a moment to give our personal take on this book, and uncharacteristically a consensus emerged: the book was OK, no one hated it, but all but one of us found it fairly ho-hum. The sulphur mine section got a general thumbs up – one chap had read the book a while ago and had trouble remembering anything else about it. And, as someone said, we enjoyed the brothels of Paris. But, while I think we all read to the end, the overarching plot failed to impress. Most of us didn’t feel the sulphur mines and the brothels to be integrated, so when those parts came to an end, the wheels of the plot had to start from a virtual standstill. The one person who had a different reading argued for a deep thematic coherence, but I won’t say more because it really is a book that can be spoiled by too much being given away.

And the obligatory sonnet:

Sonnet 4:
Ten years and more than 60 books
discussed by us (and mostly read) –
by builders, architects, home cooks
and sundry ageing chaps, well fed
each time in mind and body. Park,
Malouf, McEwan, Stead, Houellebecq,
Coetzee (twice), White, Ghosh (a naval
title), Falconer, Miéville:
We all loved Tolstoy. Tsiolkas split us.
Tonight: Armanno, reminiscence,
but mostly – here’s the Book Group’s essence –
not so much a tute on lit as
time for sharing – hip, hooray-able –
lives and minds around a table.

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