Six of this year’s shortlisted works of fiction were translated from other languages, including Distant Light, which was translated from Italian to English by Richard Dixon. It is a slim work of just over 150 pages, promoting the when-is-a-novella-not-a-novella question, which also arises with a couple of other books on the shortlist.
Moresco plunges the reader headlong into the mountainous terrain of what is northern Italy, teeming with vegetation, forests, gorges, roaring rivers and roads to nowhere. While the narrator sits and moves quietly, his inner state is not so settled and shares much with the ever-shifting natural world about him.
This man we first meet sitting on a chair outside of the mountain cottage where he now lives, surveying what nature has put in front of him. The metal legs of the chair he sits on are ever sinking deeper into the earth. This may be a metaphor. We do not know the man’s name at first meeting or later; or where he has come from, though we know he has come from somewhere else. We do not know from where, or why, though we know there is a reason.
He is a man full of knowledge and curiosity about the natural world around him; a man who is quick to question but slow to judge.
We do not know where it is that we now find him, other than the area is mountainous and full of ravines, gorges and abandoned villages. We do not know how long he has been here, what he has left but can maybe glean something from remarks he makes later about love, while mulling the lot of cattle: “Can their life be as unhappy as ours? And do pain and evil also bring some distraction for them, at least for a few moments, from unhappiness? Do they too have the short, cruel dream that has been called love?”
There are few signposts – literal or metaphorical – to help us place this man, region, or story. He has no name, the abandoned village he has chosen as home has no name, nor does the slightly inhabited one nearby where he goes to get provisions from an unnamed woman, with unnamed customers and hangers-on.
We learn the name of just one character, Putty, in this short book, and it turns out that is not a name but a nickname, and this character too remains unnamed and unknown, and from where we know not.
Pasta is a staple, which could put us in Antonio Moresco’s Italy; but by the same token there is rice on the menu, which is prepared and eaten in much the same way. There is no mention of wine, or cheese, or focaccia. No olives or gingham table clothes on wooden tables in the shade of gnarled thousand-year-old trees.
But there is talk of other people coming from other countries settling in some of the abandoned houses, which again draws our eye not just to Italy but to its northern reaches, where it is indeed mountainous and steep and remote. And in winter it snows and snows heavily. Though here there are no brightly-clad parties of skiers decorating or littering the slopes.
The distant light of the title may or may not represent life or death, hope or despair, the beginning of something or the end. It may represent a life beyond human experience, or the fate of a man looking into, or out of, a different kind of abyss.
Even the dark and seemingly menacing dog he meets fails to satisfy our need to know this man, at least symbolically. The Rottweiler turns out not fierce but wounded, as badly or worse than the man, who fails to help it. Later, at a point where it seems the dog may after all be revealed to have a larger role to play, it turns out not to be so. No ties are bound. The dog too has no name, no place, no owner, no carer. Yet there might have been a connection between this dark and dangerous being and what is found at the distant light. Or so it seems.
It is not clear how long this man has lived in this place; or whether the distant light signals a progression or a retraction – if it keeps the man from settling or helps him reach some place of rest.
There is a twist, which takes us quite suddenly to the end of this story and in so doing avoids the risk of the narrative stepping into one of its own deep and bottomless crevices to disappear forever leaving a welter of unanswerable questions about the nature of the universal and the fate of the insular.
Translated from Italian to English by Richard Dixon