Giuseppe Conte: I giorni della nuvola [The Days of the Cloud]
Sometime in the late 1980s, Conte stayed alone in a flat in Saint-Nazaire. He met a group of people there, with whom he became friendly. While there, the police came round telling everyone to remain inside as there had been a leak from a nearby chemical plant and a cloud of poisonous gas passed over the city though it soon disappeared. All of these events became the basis for this novel. The story is told by an old man who lives in a remote area by the sea, clearly the Côtes d’Armor area of Brittany. We soon learn that he lives near the menhirs of Ménec and the role of myth and legend is key to this novel, as it is key to the work of Conte. He is visited by young people who want him to tell them stories of the old times – towns, countries and books. He clearly has some documents relating to those times, particularly the story of a group of people in a flat near to where he lives. Most of the rest of the book is the story of seven days (with a chapter for each day) of the key events that led to the current situation.
The period is the end of the twentieth century. During this period clouds starting appearing in the skies over Europe. They are rather like normal clouds, except that they have a dirty yellow tinge to them. They are also poisonous. When they appear, the area over which they appear is quickly evacuated but the clouds soon go and the people can return home. The symptoms of the poison are not too drastic and consist mainly of burning in the eyes and a slight cough. Soon after these clouds start appearing, an Italian called Lorenzo arrives in a port town in Brittany (presumably Saint Nazaire, where Conte himself stayed). Lorenzo, as the narrator tells us, may be a professor of physics or of ancient history, he is not sure which but sees that the two are similar as physics is the ancient history of the earth. Lorenzo stays in the only tall building in the town, in a twelfth floor flat. He seems to enjoy walking, looking at the port and the lock. We soon learn that he is there to study the sun and its effect (more mythical than physical) on people and has visited other places for this purpose. One evening he is dining at a restaurant on the quay when he sees a man and a woman dining. He surmises that they are not married or a romantic couple and is soon invited to join them. He meets Anna Mor, a journalist, who is hiding her son, Noël, inside her jacket and the somewhat mysterious Jean-Luc Re. (We learn nothing of Noël’s father. While Jean-Luc seems to have a girlfriend, we learn nothing of her.) Soon two friends of Lorenzo – Rosa A (clearly in love with Lorenzo) and Pueblo (a native American) – arrive and the five become friends.
Meanwhile the clouds are still coming – Jean-Luc rather likes them. No-one sees to know what the poison is that they contain and they seem to be spreading everywhere. One day, when all the six (seven if we include Noël’s cat) are in Lorenzo’s twelfth floor flat, a large cloud comes and stays. Most of the rest of the book is a day-by-day account of what happens over the next seven days. The group initially stay in the flat, as it is dangerous to go out. They have enough food and water, though electricity, telephones and running water are not working. But gradually tensions rise. One to two venture out and find dead gulls and, later, dead plants. They are visited by a beggar who is looking for drinking water but who also gives them the news from outside. There seems to be a gang of toughs who have been breaking into houses to get food. Jean-Luc continues his strange ways, saying The poison is the highest expression of our civilisation.
They observe from their tower the goings-on below. They have been surprised that the authorities have not come to provide relief and see what is going on. One day, two armoured cars do turn up but no-one gets out. The people down below attack them from the buildings but some die because of exposure to the air while others die from the fighting to get into the cars. The cars disappear the next day. What is remarked by the person who provides the narration is that no-one prays, no-one goes to church, except for the Muslims who do pray and are attacked by the gang of toughs. We also get a report from Paris, where we learn that bodies are piling up. But much of the story is about the relations between the group, which are generally good but there are tensions as to whether they should go out or not. Outside things do get worse, as people die, cars are pushed into the sea and houses are looted.
Of course we know in advance that somehow they do survive, as the old man has survived to tell the story. But we also see that the whole affair has clearly had a major change on the survivors. What that is may not be exactly clear but it does seem that there is a yearning for the old, myth-based type of existence, not particularly religious but more proto-religious and that the cloud, if it symbolises anything, symbolises the loss of these old ways and reliance on a materialistic, industrial way of life. Conte does manage to keep us interested for the whole seven days of events. Sadly, if you do not read Italian, you will not be able to read this book.
First published 1990 by Rizzoli
No English translation