Reviewed by Stiliana Milkova
“I have come here to disappear, in this desolate and abandoned village where I’m the sole inhabitant” reads the enigmatic opening line of Antonio Moresco’s novel Distant Light, translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon. Distant Light is a beguiling tale narrated by a man who lives alone in the mountains with nature as his only companion. Every night, at the same hour, he sees a tiny little light glimmering in the distance, somewhere on the other side of a steep gorge. The man gradually unravels the mystery of the little light and, in a breathtaking plot twist, becomes part of that mystery. And this short novel turns into a modern fairy tale of sorts which can be read as a profound philosophical meditation on life and death.
We learn nothing about Moresco’s unnamed narrator: he never reveals his identity or the reason why he has settled in the deserted village. We do learn, however, much about his environment. The novel is told in the present tense, with the narrator observing meticulously every detail of his surroundings, immersed in a universe in perennial metamorphosis. We follow him on his daily walks and mundane routines – the practices of a simple, stripped-down existence enriched through numerous encounters. He converses with animals, birds, insects, trees, roots, flowers, “with all the mighty vegetation that springs up everywhere as far as the skyline” (27). And nature looks back, through the staring white-ringed eyes of two badgers, or through the eyes of a large black dog which follows the narrator home over a long distance. Both narrator and reader gasp with surprise when the dog comes near, and we realize that its four legs have been broken.
The dog stands as a harbinger of the narrator’s literal and symbolic crossing over to the other side of the gorge to track down the source of the inexplicable light. He treks through shrubs and brambles as he climbs toward the ridge, crosses a timber bridge, negotiates an overgrown narrow path, and then abruptly reaches his destination: a small stone house in the middle of the woods, a setting straight out of a fairy tale. Inside he finds a little boy with a shaved head, broken tooth, and wearing shorts. The boy lives alone, and every night he leaves the light on because he is afraid of the dark. The narrator and the child gradually become friends – they “tame” each other, to put it in the words of the Little Prince from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s eponymous tale.
In Distant Light the adult and the child can be seen as doubles, or as complementary halves, or as mirror images. Adult and child are intertwined in many ways beyond the symmetry of their specular lives on facing mountain ridges. Their friendship develops at the pace of seasons, growing more intense and more enigmatic. One night the narrator follows the child on his nocturnal journey, and we are introduced to another, unexpected, invisible realm within our midst, a realm essential to Moresco’s literary imaginary. But to say more is to reveal the great mystery at the heart of this text. And it is a mystery to be savored and pondered.
Distant Light was my first encounter with Moresco’s metaphysical universe. When I first read the novel in Italian, I was spellbound. The text displays an environmental consciousness of nature’s intimate intertwining of life and death. Everything the narrator observes manifests the eternal interdependence of life and death, good and evil, light and darkness – a cycle vividly embodied, for example, by a half-dead chestnut tree the narrator sees on his walks; or by his beloved lilies ravaged by a thunder storm; or the deadly undergrowth thriving in the forest. But then Moresco displaces the burgeoning union of life and death onto the two main characters who take us on a fraught journey through the world of the living and its inextricable opposite – the world of the dead.
That everything is part of a cosmic cycle, that distance denotes closeness or darkness triggers light, is evident in Moresco’s literary philosophy. The novel employs a vast lexicon of all things nature (different insects, flowers, birds, animals, plants, trees) filtered through the narrator’s intense rhetorical questioning of all creation – from the immeasurable distance of the cosmos to roots and underground burrows. “Why all this wretched and desperate cruelty that disfigures everything,” asks the narrator. “Where can I go where I won’t have to see any more of this slaughter, this blind and relentless torsion they call life?” (17). And we wonder if he’s referring to nature or to larger, more pernicious crises of our own doing.
In the same way that the narrator’s focused queries can be understood in a broader context, the text blends sweeping views of cosmic space (the narrator encounters a man who tracks the alien sightings in the area) with the microscopic examination of fireflies, leaves, raindrops. The English translator is thus faced with the challenge of rendering a perpetually transfigured natural world, brimming with all forms of life, described in detail and pondered at length by a philosophically inclined narrator who talks to animals and birds more eloquently than he does to people. The Italian is at once rooted in the earth, in the dirt which breeds life, and in a realm beyond the material, the realm of the spiritually curious and the ontologically perceptive.
Dixon’s translation works wonders in English, while preserving the text’s own magic. For example, I was struck by a paragraph on the first page which captures the imagery and tone of the original:
The sky is crossed by the last swallows that fly here and there like arrows. They swoop past my head, plunging headfirst into massive spheres of insects suspended between sky and earth. I feel the gust of their wings on my temples. Before me I see distinctly the black body of a larger and fleshier insect as it disappears into the mouth of a swallow that was chasing it with beak wide open, screeching. Such is the silence that I can even hear the clang of its body in continued suffering being crunched and dismembered inside the body of the other animal as it swoops up rapturous into the sky. (7)
Life and death, rapture and agony, sky and earth, screeching and silence – all experienced and delivered through the narrator’s sharp eye and environmental sensibility, in Dixon’s morbidly evocative language. The paragraph swarms with the vibrant, devouring cruelty of life. It resounds with nature’s unwavering rhythm of creation and annihilation.
Throughout the novel, the swallows migrate and return. They are the narrator’s companions and interlocutors, the markers of time but also of the novel’s belonging to a long-standing Western tradition of fairy tales about love and death, happiness and suffering. Rereading Distant Light in English, I recall the swallow who befriends a statue in Oscar Wilde’s fairy tale “The Happy Prince.” I also think of The Little Prince, in which the child must die (physically, on our planet) in order to return to his own planet and to his beloved rose. But both the prince and his friend the narrator are linked by the invisible bonds of love and friendship. The stars are always laughing for the narrator of The Little Prince because he imagines the little boy laughing on his planet. Death, then, is a return home, a distant light, a child laughing. Moresco’s narrator and the little boy can be read within the literary context of such tales whereby death is not so much an end as a metamorphosis, a new point of view. Indeed, the narrator undergoes a metamorphosis in the last scene of the novel, and he and the little boy journey on together.
Moresco, who turned 70 last year, is one of Italy’s most original voices, revered by his fellow writers and respected by literary critics. He is the prolific author of novels, collections of essays, plays, short stories, and fairy tales. After Distant Light came out in Italy in 2013 (its Italian title is La lucina), it was followed in 2014 by another short novel Fiaba d’amore (Fairy Tale about Love), which narrates the love story of a beautiful girl and a homeless man, set among the living and among the dead. Another recent book by Moresco, Fiabe (Fairy Tales, 2017), collects and reimagines fairy tales from different literary traditions, many of them revolving around dead or dying children. In the introduction, Moresco explains the premise of this book, a premise which I think underlies Distant Light as well: fairy tales were invented “by adults who have killed the child in themselves […] by dead children who have risen from within the adults who killed them”[i].
[i] Moresco. Fiabe. Milan: SEM, 2017. My translation.
Moresco, Antonio. Distant Light. Tr. Richard Dixon. Brooklyn, NY: Archipelago Books, 2016.