It is an obsession for the modern world to think of nature as a “beautiful place” – a place that needs protection because it is so beautiful, so relaxing, and recently somewhat important to the survival of the species. But the sometimes shameful idea that human living environments are under control and can even be held by patriarchy is a misunderstanding. On the other hand, the desire to engage with nature makes sense, since the history of mankind has long been a struggle against the threats of floods, volcanic eruptions, storms and wild animals. On the other hand, although this desire for mastery of nature can be felt everywhere, it is by no means fulfilled. Things are not that simple.
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It’s not even the dark times, it’s 1976 that Esther Kinsky brought the bright present with “Rombo”. On May 6 this year, Friuli in northeastern Italy was hit by an earthquake measuring 10 on the Richter scale. Other aftershocks occurred in September, some of them just as strong. They only destroyed what was previously only partially destroyed or has already been reconstructed. Almost a thousand people lost their lives, forty thousand were made homeless, animals perished, homes and churches were reduced to rubble.
Kinsky’s book is not an attempt to understand or even process events. It’s about giving them a space, a space full of images, smells, and sounds. One of the sounds is that rumbling, which in Italian is called “rumbo” and announces a jerk. “Rombo” is a novel about the repressed fragility of life, an experience that makes 2022 in many ways different.
[Esther Kinsky: Rombo. Roman. Suhrkamp Verlag, Berlin 2022. 268 Seiten, 24 €]
Kinski calls seven women and men from the wild Tagliamento River valley as witnesses to Hell, and they come from the villages of Gemona and Venzoni in the border triangle of Italy, Slovenia, and Austria. They tell about the signs of disaster, about the changing lighting conditions, the sounds of birds and the behavior of the carbon eel, which requires an explanation. Again and again, the view rises to Mount Kanin, a two-and-a-half-meter-high mountain that rises above Tagliamento. They talk about the earthquake itself, the attempt to save people and animals, and the arrival of Albini. About the nights he spent in the car after the houses collapsed – who owned a car.
Above all, they talk about attempts to remember: about the tremor and how it was before it changed everything – before the narration itself changed the memory. The fact that thinking about remembering is connected to natural events, and that nature becomes a “memory instrument”, does not happen every day, even in German-speaking literature rich in memory techniques.
Nature is more than nature
But with Kinsky, this “nature” is far from being an isolated area outside of humankind. It is a biological – geological – social terrain. It’s at the same time the carbon eel range, the geological “rift” terrain where the African and Eurasian tectonic plates collide – and the terrain where distancing is a social practice. For a long time now, it was men who pushed north into action.
Kinsky tells all this. Human and bird calls, historical information on earthquake geology or photo descriptions are part of this site as are local myths, legends, fairy tales, and epics. The distinction between fact and fiction lies beyond this form of literature. It is far from a description of nature, but it tells us about everything that lives: animals, plants, people, and yes, mountains, because limestone in karst is “a rock formed from living things.”
Delicate and wonderful prose
It remains to be seen whether all disparate parts of the text are aesthetically necessary and whether their order is always strict. What is certain is that Kinsky’s prose, which is subtle and sublime, creates a wonderful portrait of people in the network of relationships in their surroundings. And against the background of climatic events of recent years, it suddenly became clear that people are by no means on the “safe side” – because this side does not exist.
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