Paolo Cognetti: Le otto montagne (The Eight Mountains)
Our narrator is Pietro Guasti. His parents met in the Dolomites where they grew up. Both enjoyed the mountains, though he preferred the high peaks and she the lower areas at around fifteen hundred meters. Their wedding was held with only a few friends, all wearing anoraks and they had a bed in the Auronzo refuge for their first night as husband and wife. They then left for Milan, where they both had jobs. She was a health worker, he worked in a chemical factory, where he disagreed with everyone on principle. They took their holidays in the mountains, not back in the Dolomites but towards the West, towards the Alps.
She did not like the high mountains but Pietro seemed to be interested as from the age of six. However, she had had enough and she persuaded her husband to rent a shack in Grana and she and Pietro could stay there, while he went up the mountains. He reluctantly agreed. It was in Grana that Pietro met Bruno Guglielmina. Bruno was not only the youngest in the village, he was the last boy left, with no prospect of any others being born. The village had had a population of a hundred but was now down to fourteen. Bruno’s father spent most of the year away, while his mother was there the whole time.
Bruno was meant to go to school but did not. Instead, at least while Pietro was there during the summer, the two boys played together, with Bruno the more daring. However, when Bruno had to go the Alpine pastures to look after the animals, Pietro started climbing with his father.
If someone comes up this high, it’s because down below they won’t leave them in peace.”
“And who is bothering them there, down below?”
“Landlords. Armies. Priests. Shop stewards. It depends.”
Eventually, their mountain climbing gets more daring with Bruno sometimes joining them. Though Pietro started to get altitude sickness, he overcame it. When his father returned to work, Pietro started climbing with Bruno. Pietro’s mother tries to help Bruno, even suggesting he come to Milan with them to study. Pietro was opposed to the idea, knowing Bruno would not fit in if he came to Milan. More particularly, Bruno’s father, who was hardly ever there, objected most strongly.
But Pietro is growing up and becoming, like his father, difficult and something of a loner. He stops going mountain climbing with his father and rarely sees Bruno. Bruno sometimes joins Pietro’s father while Pietro prefers being with other people of his age. He goes to university, gets a girlfriend and moves to Turin. Then he learns that his father has had a heart attack and died. To both his surprise and to the surprise of his mother, his father has left him some land in Grana. He also finds a map of the various trails that his father made.
Back in Grana, he meets Bruno again and they start climbing. Pietro is out of shape but, gradually, he gets fit again. More to the point, he seems more in tune with himself, as a result. They find the land his father had left him, a small area with a ruined house. Pietro has no money but Bruno offers to help him build a lodging there, partially in thanks because Pietro’s father had helped Bruno when Bruno fell out with his own father.
Meanwhile, Pietro is rediscovering the mountain climbing bug and following in his father’s footsteps. It is the custom in that area to leave comments in a specially provided box near the summit and Pietro tracks his father’s path by finding the boxes with his father’s comments. However, he also wants to travel elsewhere in the world.
It is in Asia that he learns of the eight mountains of Buddhist tradition. He is now a documentary film maker (as is Cognetti himself), making films in the Himalayas and helping the children there, but all the while thinking of Bruno. Meanwhile, Bruno has finished the house and is working in setting up his own agricultural cooperative, living with Pietro’s former girlfriend, Lara.
There are several things that make this book so worthwhile. Firstly, of course, it is the mountains. Pietro, his father and Bruno (as well as Cognetti himself) all have a great love of mountains and this shows through very strongly in this book. From the beauty of the mountain landscape to the challenges of climbing a peak, particularly one rarely climbed by others, Cognetti shows us the attraction of mountains and what makes then so very special.
However, the relationships in this book are also important. Pietro clearly looks up to his father and admires him, from a young age. It is from him that he gets the mountain bug. Of course,as any good teenager, he goes through a rebellious phase and distances himself from his father but, when his father dies at a relatively young age, he clearly misses him and there is no doubt that at least part of his return to the mountains is to reconnect with his father.
Pietro’s relationship to Bruno is also key to this book. Pietro looks up to Bruno from the moment they meet but, as with his father, Pietro has his rebellious phase with Bruno but returns to the living Bruno, as he returns to his dead father. Bruno is faithful to his tradition.
“So what were you born to do?”
“To be a man of the mountains.”
It is Bruno, perhaps more than his father, who explains the mountains to Pietro and shows him the mountain way of life.
This book had considerable success in Italy. It won the prestigious Strega Prize and has been translated into several languages including, unusually, into English. It deserves to do well in English. Maybe it will make us all want to climb mountains.
First published 2016 by Einaudi
First English translation by Atria Books in 2018
Translated by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell