Review: Memory Of The Abyss

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May 16, 2012 by markstani

Memory Of The Abyss by Marcello Fois (pub. MacLehose Press) is a fictionalised account of the life of Samuele Stocchino, one of Sardinia’s most notorious bandits. Such is Stocchino’s legendary status that a bare factual biography would probably be as impossible as it would be inappropriate. While remaining loosely loyal to Stocchino’s real-life story, Fois makes no apologies for diverting into fiction: ‘What you have read’, he admits candidly in his afterword, ‘is not the truth’.
Stocchino was born at the dawn of the twentieth century on an island as yet largely untamed and untouched by outside influences: it had only been incorporated into the Kingdom of Italy less than half a century previously.
When Stocchino’s nemesis, Saverio, sails to the island to hunt him down, he sights ‘a motionless black whale covered in seaweed.. the muddy shell of a monstrous turtle.’ Surrounded by ‘gelatinous seas’, the island hunkers under a heavy sun which is ‘greenish… like the colour of fresh-pressed olive oil’, and where the air is so heavy even the birds are stilled.
Aged sixteen, and craving more than the island can provide, Stocchino enrols as a colonial soldier and is sent to the front, where he is decorated for his bravery on the unforgiving battlefields, and returns home some years later as a hero.
But soon Stocchino’s love for a local girl leads him into a bitter feud with Manai, the richest and most influential man in the village.
It escalates quickly, with Stocchino taking to the unchartered wooded hills and emerging infrequently to post warnings of death to all those who associate with Manai, or seek his employ tilling his fields.
His livelihood thus ruined, Manai is a broken man until he puts on the black shirt of the rising fascist movement, whom, led by Mussolini, cannot abide the idea that Sardinia should continue in its state of lawless autonomy; nor that its people should be terrorized into loyalty to a war hero turned bandit. Inadvertently, the fascist pursuit of Stocchino serves to enhance his legend: there are people who will testify that he is touched by immortality, having supposedly already died twice, first as a child falling into an unscaleable abyss, and secondly when news of his ‘death’ filtered back to the village from the trenches.
Stocchino repeatedly defies news of his demise by stealing out in the dead of night to spill the blood of those whom he perceives have wronged him stretching back to his youth: one entire family is wiped out over a distant slight over the patriarch’s refusal to grant him and his father water on their way back from a wedding.
Fois and his translator Patrick Creagh have created a thickly descriptive, deeply poetic and resolutely old-fashioned novel, and it’s also excellent to see the author employ the beutiful but sadly increasingly rare style of italicised summations at the start of each chapter. The book begins:

On the night of the killing, the full moon, fat and sweaty, had been squatting for hours on the crest of the mountains. A few wisps of cloud resembled unruly hair falling over its brow.Thus it hung, the moon, drinking from a horizon as jagged as the edge of an eggshell broken in two, indolent almost as death itself, as though in its first sleep.

It’s a fascinating novel, all the better for deeply embedding intself in the unique culture and history of its region, and it really comes into its own in the final third, when Stocchino lives a bloodthirsty fugitive existence, and for all his slaughtering ways, you still find yourself secretly cheering him on from the sidelines.

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