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Esther Kinsky: Rombo (Rombo)

When writing novels/quasi-novels about the landscape in the modern era it seems the Germans shine. Sebald and Hilbig are two obvious examples and clearly Kinsky is one of the foremost landscape writers today.

This book concerns the 1976 Friuli earthquake and, in particular, its aftermath. 990 people were killed, around 3,000 were injured, and more than 157,000 were left homeless.

The title of the book is defined in History of Geognosy and an Account of Volcanic Phenomena by Friedrich Hoffmann, quoted by Kinsky at the beginning of the book: One of the few phenomena that almost always accompany an earthquake, and often announce its arrival shortly beforehand, consists of a curious subterranean sound, seemingly of the same nature almost everywhere it is given mention…in Calabria, where they call this dreaded phenomenon il rombo.

The book gives us a description of what happened, both as regards the geology but, more particularly the effect on people and animals. Seven people from an affected village in the region describe their experiences many years after the event.

We start, perhaps appropriately, by meeting Anselmo who is a cemetery worker. He knows where the graves are and which ones are sinking. He also knows the appropriate way to bury the dead in an earthquake zone (forget mausoleums – they crack). But Anselmo was there on the fateful day of 6 May, scything grass with his grandmother and sister.

Kinski tels us about the animals. The region has a kind of snake – Hierophis viridiflavus ssp. carbonarius. In Italian it is called carbone. Kinsky has translated this as Carbon and translator Caroline Schmidt has followed suit, though carbon snake has a very different meaning in English. The locals put out milk for the snake as they feel it will bring them luck. On the day of the earthquake a female carbon was run over by a bus driver, bringing bad luck. Vipers will also make an appearance.

However, we learn of other animals’ reactions just prior to the earthquake – goats refusing to be milked, dogs barking, birds in the trees restless. Kinsky wonders why animals are far better than humans at realising an earthquake is about to strike. A human being, with two legs planted on the ground, with scythe, hammer, saw, wood and fiddle, becomes the most clueless creature of all, once the vibrations can no longer be overheard.

We soon go into the testimony of the seven individuals mentioned. Each one recounts their experiences, both as regards the earthquake but also their life in general, which gives us an idea of what life was like for the people before, during and after the earthquake. Interestingly the seven start by telling us their views on memory and what they remember. Memory is like a shadow. It follows you wherever you go. And if you had none, perhaps you would be left standing there, as awkward as without a shadow, says Anselmo who starts us off, with the others having different perspectives. The question as to whether the mountain has a memory is also posed.

We learn a lot about the situation if the people. Several have spent time abroad – Venezuela, Germany, Russia. Many of the people of the village, particularly the boys, want to get away and work elsewhere, particularly in Germany and quite a few do, sending money home and visiting occasionally. Some of the men travel round as knife grinders.

Of course, the main interest is their account of the day of the earthquake and the immediate aftermath. All have different perspectives though, of course, fear was common to all and several lost their houses and would later have to sleep in tents when the army turned up a couple of days later. They worried about losing their animals (one man says he would rather lose his wife than his pig) and, of course, losing loved ones. One man immediately fled to the hills and was berated by his family when he returned a few days later.

Those lucky enough to have cars slept in them as it was unsafe to sleep in the houses but they could not drive away as the roads were impassible. The reaction of the animals, both wild and domestic is also given. The aftermath saw the army arrive and help and they even go some help from the neighbouring Slovenians, helped by the fact that their local language was similar to Slovenian.

Just to give a comparison we even get an account of the even worse 1348 Friuli earthquake which was exacerbated by the fact that plague was rife in Italy at that time.

We also get an account of the second earthquake which took place in September of that year. It was not as serious as the first one but was still frightening and caused more damage. Quite a few people left after the first one and more after the second one. In both cases politicians eventually popped in for photo ops with the locals and the damage. They had assistants who walked ahead of them, clearing out of the way whatever lay around – wooden boards and stones – and calling over anyone they thought would cut a good figure in a picture.

I have focussed on the people aspect of the earthquake and clearly this is key, with the testimonies of the seven witnesses. But Kinsky is an expert at landscape and she does give us an excellent view of the landscape, geology, geography and rivers of the region.

Once again Kinsky produces a first-class work, showing us not just what an earthquake does to a community but a detailed portrait of that community before and after the quake but also a wonderful portrait of the region – the people and animals but also the broader picture.

First published 2022 by Suhrkamp
First English translation 2022 by Fitzcarraldo
Translated by Caroline Schmidt