Review: Distant Light by Antonio Moresco, translated by Richard Dixon

by frederika randall

Distant Light is a brief, austere novel, or better, novella, by an Italian writer best known for a monumental trilogy written over 20 years and counting more than 3,000 pages, L’increato (The Uncreated, meaning roughly “the divine”).  Meanwhile this small, vivid tale, the author writes in his preface to the Italian edition, began as an episode in volume three of the trilogy, but then took on a life of its own: a “little moon that broke away from the yet-to-coalesce mass of my new novel”. “Had I dropped dead the day after writing it, this would have been my last will and testament,” he says. Not that it’s his most meaningful or significant work, he thinks, but because it is “so keenly private and secret.”

Although the voice of the novel is as clear and unambiguous as those words in the author’s preface, there is nevertheless much that is secretive and enigmatic about Distant Light. The story is told by an unnamed man living alone in an abandoned village that is gradually succumbing to brush and vines, wasps and bumblebees, bats and swallows, mice and voles, badgers, stray dogs and other non-human species. The landscape is something like that glimpsed in photos of Chernobyl taken thirty years after the accident, or like the planet depicted in Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, where an unexpected variety of plants and animals flourish when homo sapiens suddenly disappears from the Anthropocene. Human beings are absent but the earth is teeming, crawling, with life.

As unreal as Moresco’s ghost village might appear, it is neither an entirely imaginary nor artificial setting. There really are swathes of Italy, places shaken to their foundations by earthquakes or small villages near hard-to-farm land on the slopes of the Apennines abandoned when the farmers moved to the cities to work in the factories after World War II. Some of these places have been reclaimed by investors and foreigners buying second houses, but many still stand empty. Memento mori to hikers in the hills--Antonio Moresco is himself a great walker and once hiked with a group from Mantova to Strasbourg to deliver a petition to the European Parliament--these ruins are natural Gothic settings, and it is surprising how few novelists and filmmakers have taken advantage of the fact.

Moresco, born in Mantova in 1947, is not only a prolific novelist and dramatist but the author of numerous works of reportage and opinion. As a young man he studied in a seminary, then became a far left militant, experiences treated in L’increato and other works. His style and subject matter were so eccentric that for many years he went unpublished, but in 1993, Clandestinità, a collection of stories, appeared and subsequently many more books, and today his fiction, despite a reputation for being “difficult,” is published by Italy’s largest trade and commercial house, Mondadori, and he is considered one of Italy’s most original and accomplished writers.

“Sometimes,” the narrator of Distant Light tells us in his plain, precise way,

I stop and I talk to animals, insects, trees, all the mighty vegetation that springs up everywhere as far as the skyline. To wasps that drop angrily onto the gaping cracks in the figs rotting on the trees, thrusting their rostrate heads into the crevices full of putrefying seeds and juice. Going up close, perhaps too close, so that one day I was stung on the hand by a wasp. I felt its barbed sting penetrating the tender flesh between one finger and the next.

“But why are you always so angry” I ask. “Why do you drop headfirst into the pulp of unpicked fruit that’s rotting on the trees in this deserted unearthly place? So that sometimes, when I split one open to eat it, I find one of you inside, and you fly off in a rage, covered all over with dead liquids and the juices in which you were wallowing. Where do you live, where do you go to sleep? What happens, day and night, in your savage nests?”

But they never answer.

To toads, when I catch sight of one motionless, filthy, half-submerged beneath a veil of earth, with its fat body entirely covered with larvae, in a spot where there must once have been a vegetable plot, since there are still tangles of growth that produce unrecognizable vegetables.

“But what sort of life do you have?” I ask them. “Buried in the earth with your stores of fat larvae that you gorge down there in the dark. Your bodies like a soft leathery bag bursting at the seams, closed off by the earth and the darkness.”

But they never answer.

The quiet, conversational voice of the narrator, the finely observed natural surroundings, and the slow, unruffled pace of the tale all belie any Gothic coloring, and yet there is always some uncanny or suggestive detail: eerie traces of a bygone human past, the wasp that stings a tender piece of flesh, another time a stray Rottweiler that silently trails the narrator down the road. Even the plants are not passive. In the woods “a savage undergrowth” tries to engulf and smother larger species. A half-dead chestnut tree sprouting fresh shoots makes the man wonder why a human being, unlike a tree, cannot be both alive and dead.

    At night he sees “a little light” far across the hills, and wonders how this can be when the place is uninhabited. Apart from the grave lights marking the tombs in the cemetery, most everything is dark here. One day he struggles across the valley and makes a surprising  discovery.  The light comes from the window of a house, the house is inhabited; a boy, his head shaved, wearing short pants, is all alone inside washing his laundry in a tub.  

    He returns to see the boy again and again, sits and watches him as he does his school work, or meticulously lays the table with an ironed cloth and prepares dinner, then washes the dishes. The child confides that when he is afraid of noises outside and fears large, dangerous animals, he bangs two saucepan lids together to scare them away. In time, the man understands that this child he likes to visit is no longer alive. One day he sees that the boy is preparing a place for him next door to his own house.

    In this liminal world where the narrator finds himself, life is strong and vital--but not human life. The cells of plants…

continue to struggle away desperately, continue silently reproducing and duplicating themselves, and they will carry on like this even when humans are no longer here, when they have disappeared from the face of this little planet lost in the galaxies, there will be just this whole torment of cells that struggle away and reproduce, for as long as some light still arrives from our little star. They will carry on relentlessly breaking and pulling apart the walls between whose stones their roots are clinging, the floors, the ceilings, they will burst out through the gaps in the broken windows, they will smash the few panes of glass still intact with their irresistible soft vegetal pressure, sending out ahead their tender waving pedicels into space in search of a place to land, they will smash and bring down roofs, they will overrun the paths, lanes, roads, emerging with their miniscule shoots looking up to space for the first time…

I spent the whole day getting ready. But first I tidied the house. I washed the floors, made the bed, threw away the ashes from the fireplace. I washed the plates, cleaned the top of the cooker, inside the oven, the door handles, the panes of glass in the few windows. I also washed myself and put on clean clothes.

Before going up to bed, I banged the saucepan lids for a long time to scare away any animals.   

The dedicated way the narrator (and the boy) do their household chores and pay patient attention to small details helps undercut any grand metaphysical designs or creepy otherworldly atmosphere in the novel. And yet the world of Distant Light is not of this earth, nor is it a place where humans can thrive, we are made to understand. The writer Valerio Evangelisti, like Moresco a far-left militant for a time, and today known for best-selling fantasy novels such as those about a cruel Dominican Inquisitor of the Middle Ages, has suggested there are paradoxical likenesses between fantasy literature and that of  Moresco, both hard to classify by current literary standards. “Antonio has a quality—unique in our domestic literature—derived from Leopardi yet similar to the fantasy genre’s comparable vision so disdained by critics. His story line is always turning cosmic…Moresco’s prose is the antithesis of minimalism.”  Yet as in Leopardi, l’infinito, the infinite, is not so much an overarching perpetuity as something sensed beyond the hedgerow. Moresco’s insistence on silences and his fascination with the point where the prosaic suddenly meets the otherworldly, are themes that run through his fiction.

Translator Richard Dixon has done an excellent job of reproducing the simplicity and colloquial quality of Moresco’s prose. He’s unafraid to use verb contractions and stays neatly clear of cognates, leaving the text free of those Latinate words that so often sound too elevated or abstract in English translations from Italian. The strange, vaguely metaphysical import of the story is offset by the simplicity and clarity of the register, and he never betrays that.  

If there is one small misstep in the translation, it is perhaps the book’s title, Distant Light. The Italian title La lucina is one of those diminutives so easy to create in Italian, meaning “a little light” or “a small light.”  It sounds deliberately small and insignificant, whereas “distant light” is more weighty and literary. Another problem Dixon had to face was that the text is mostly written in the present tense, a choice more common in Italian fiction than it is in English. Translators will often substitute a simple English past for the Italian narrative present, which can sound gushy when translated in English present. Here, there is a logic for the use of the present beyond simple immediacy, for the story, apart from what’s antecedent to the unfolding narrative, takes place in a sort of eternal present, beyond life.  

At times, though, the present tense gives birth to expressions that an English author wouldn’t write. Mangio qualcosa, says the narrator. “I have something to eat” sounds awkward, vague. And why use the present perfect to open the story (I have come here to disappear, in this desolate and abandoned village where I am the sole inhabitant) when the Italian sets the action firmly in the past (Sono venuto qua per sparire, “I came here to disappear”).

In Moresco’s dark universe with its gleams and pinpricks of light, the simplest questions have a way of deflating human pretensions. His are not esoteric philosophical problems but the sort that come to all of us (perhaps even to other species, one can almost imagine) when looking up at the night sky.

Who knows if the sky has another sky above it? I ask myself as I sit looking out from the precipice. The sky that I can see from here at least, from this gorge, above this group of houses and abandoned ruins. Who knows if the light itself isn’t inside another light? And what kind of light is it, if it’s a light you can’t see? Even if you can’t see the light, what else can you see? Who knows if the matter the universe is made of, at least the little we’re able to perceive in the sea of dark matter and energy, isn’t inside another infinitely larger matter, and the dark matter and energy aren’t also inside an infinitely larger darkness? Who knows if the curvature of space and time, if there is a curvature, if there is space, if there is time, aren’t also themselves inside a larger curvature, a larger space, a larger time, that comes first, that hasn’t yet come? Who knows why things have ended up like this, in this world? Could it be like this everywhere, if there is an everywhere, in this maelstrom of little lights that pierce the darkness in this cold night and in the deepest obscurity?

Born in Pittsburgh, Frederika Randall has lived in Italy for 30 years. Translations include fiction by Luigi Meneghello, Helena Janeczek, Ottavio Cappellani and Igiaba Scego; Ippolito Nievo’s Confessions of an Italian, and three books by historian Sergio Luzzatto. Guido Morselli’s The Communist comes out in 2017 from New York Review Books.