The Eight Mountains by Paolo Cognetti tells the story of two life long friends, Pietro and Bruno. Their lives are very different but, along with Pietro’s father, they share a love of the mountains. But when Pietro gets debilitating altitude sickness, the only time the three of them climb together, his father doesn’t recognise the symptoms until Pietro is dangerously ill.
It is then that Pietro sees the affinity between his friend and his father, an ease that is stems in part from their shared ability to enjoy the mountains, and in part simply because theirs is a relationship unfettered by family obligations. Later, it is through Bruno that Pietro gains a greater insight into the man his father once was.
The years go by, in a predictable pattern, Pietro returns to Milan and school for the winter. Bruno stays in the mountains.
I think that from his vantage point in the fields he must have kept an eye out for our return, since he would come to find us within an hour of our arrival, shouting—Berio!—from the courtyard. This was the nickname with which he baptised me.— Come on, he would say, not bothering with any kind of greeting, or with saying anything else for that matter, as if we had last seen each other just the day before. And it was true: the intervening months were cancelled in an instant, and our friendship seemed to be lived in a single uninterrupted summer. (P61)
And then Pietro stops going to the mountains, altogether. He returns many years later, after his father’s death. The two old friends have changed but their friendship endures.
The Eight Mountains is a book about friendship, and about families, about striving and failing and striving again. It’s a coming of age story. It’s a story about the love of the mountains, about pitting yourself against them, and learning to work with them. It’s about about the urge to explore. And it’s about discovering your limitations. It’s also about love and loss, and the woundedness that comes with losing.
The mountains are ever present. I could smell the sharp cold of the snow, feel the exuberance of throwing yourself into that fresh snow, feel the lift of my heart at the imagined sight of those mountains each summer, feel the camaraderie that comes from being with an old friend in the mountains.
This is a book filled with reflection, with the sort of poignant, even nostalgic philosophising that those familiar with nights in tramping huts here in New Zealand or in mountain refuges in Europe will recognise.
The Eight Mountains by Paolo Cognetti, trans Simon Carnell and Erica Serge (2016) Harvill Secker
Opening Sentence: My father had his own way of going to the mountains: scarcely inclined to meditation, full of obstinacy and arrogance.
Winner English Pen Award
Winner Premio Strega, Italy
Winner Prix Medicis estranger France
Paolo Cognetti was born in Milan. He divides his time between the city and his cabin in the Italian Alps. This is his first novel to be translated into English.
Categories: On Books