Antonio Moresco - Living in an abandoned village in order to “disappear,” an unnamed man encounters a mysterious light across a deep ravine

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Antonio Moresco, Distant Light, Trans. by Richard Dixon, Archipelago Books, 2016.

A man lives in total solitude in an abandoned mountain village. But a mystery disturbs his isolation: each night at the same hour a distant light appears on the far side of the valley. What is it? Someone in another deserted village? A forgotten street lamp? An alien being? Finally the man is driven to discover its source. There he finds a young boy who also lives alone in a house in the midst of the forest. But who really is this child? The answer at the secret heart of this novel is both uncanny and profoundly touching. Antonio Moresco’s work is a moving meditation on life and the universe we inhabit. Moresco reflects on the solitude and pain of existence, but also on what man shares with all around him, living and dead.

Living in an abandoned village in order to “disappear,” an unnamed man encounters a mysterious light across a deep ravine.
Italian author Moresco, in his English language debut, creates a ghostly landscape imbued with a gentle creepiness, in which the man’s “ears buzz in the total absence of sound” and yet furniture creaks, badgers rustle, and swallows screech and crunch on insects. Every object is alive and restless. The man marvels at plants sapping life from other plants and spores yet to “invent” themselves. Trees bend under the weight of chestnuts and the Earth itself shakes. Dwelling on the nature of “vegetal torment,” its perpetual birth and rebirth, Moresco’s story is slow to begin and slow to end, preferring a meditative quality, heaping questions upon questions, occasionally a beat longer than necessary. The story picks up with the man’s investigation of the distant light. A stranger shoveling manure posits the light’s source is alien, saying his goats ascended into a luminous, egg-shaped UFO. Instead, the man discovers a small boy living by himself in the woods, apparently self-sufficiently, and begins to visit him every few days. Their hesitant, budding relationship uncovers the pain of loneliness, the ephemerality of life, their insignificance in the universe—and the necessity of human connection. The story grows eerier as the man learns of the boy’s night school, his frustration at being unable to read, his exercise books full of nonsensical text. Their mutual loneliness and the dreamlike quality of their world begin to suggest a kind of purgatory. Though the ending is appropriately inscrutable, it is somewhat disappointing in its tampered uncertainty. Despite this muteness, the imagery and language glow throughout.
An unsettling and strangely tender novel. - Kirkus Reviews

“I have come here to disappear,” begins Italian writer Moresco’s mysterious new book. And indeed, its hermit narrator seems to have come to the right place: a desolate and abandoned village in an unspecified forest where his only companion is a crippled dog, and his only conversation is with the swallows. But he may not be as alone as thinks he is; an inexplicable light in the wood leads him to pay a visit to a leading UFO expert in search of answers. But instead of extraterrestrial visitors, he finds a young boy called Putty, who also lives alone, seemingly unsupervised in the forest’s heart, fretting over homework from a school we never see. As Putty and the narrator begin an enigmatic friendship, more questions come to the fore, as the narrator’s house is frequently rattled by tremors that, combined with the apocalyptic weather conditions, seem to indicate the story might be set at a precipice between worlds. Finally, an investigation into Putty’s past alerts the narrator to just how far off the beaten track he has strayed. Despite its fable-like structure and brevity, Moresco has Kafka’s power to unnerve, and Walser’s genial strangeness. Something like a supernatural modernist story, Distant Light’s real territory is dreams, where readers may find the book’s imagery still lingering. - Publishers Weekly

The unnamed narrator of Antonio Moresco’s Distant Light is uncommonly attuned to the natural world. Fleeing from his past for reasons that are never fully explained, he settles in an abandoned village and embarks on a monastic existence. He spends his days wandering through the woods, carrying on one-sided conversations with badgers, wasps, and toads. After dinner, he sits outside and watches “the first stars come out.” Gazing across a valley one evening, he sees a light emerge from a seemingly uninhabited hillside. Certain that he’s the only person within miles, he resolves to find its source. 
Moresco’s fiction has won prizes in his native Italy and abroad. His most celebrated work is L’increato, a trilogy of long novels. In this ethereal novella, ably translated by Richard Dixon, Moresco demonstrates a talent for succinct scene-setting. It takes him just a few pages to sketch the contours of his main character’s circumscribed existence, and within this context, his humble quest comes to feel like an epic undertaking. 
After a comic detour involving a farmer who believes the light is from a UFO that abducted his goats, the protagonist discovers a neglected path leading to a stone hovel. The building, Moresco writes, is “little more than a ruin that had perhaps once been an animal stall.” Inside is a young boy. Polite but somber, the child is dressed like a preteen from another era and has a vaguely spooky mien. He’s an orphan, he tells the narrator, and he lives alone. The light is his; he leaves it on all night because he’s scared of the dark. Over a series of subsequent visits, the two develop a rapport based on their shared sense of isolation. The narrator, we learn, may be recovering from a romantic mishap: he wonders if animals also “have that short, cruel dream that has been called love.” If this detail is telling, those that emerge about the child’s past are nothing short of astonishing.   
At times, Distant Light reads like a straightforward fable, an elegant rumination on the mysteries of the soul. But there are a number of grave and surprising subplots in this story, each of which Moresco explores with great care. Brief but often quite moving, this enigmatic tale of solitude and companionship abounds with humanity. - Kevin Canfield

There’s something I don’t quite trust about light. Maybe it’s the disconnect between the seemingly arbitrary speed at which it travels and the fundamental role that speed serves in physical laws; maybe it’s jealousy of how much stuff a photon gets to see as it whips around the universe at that speed. Or perhaps it’s just the fact that if you look right at it—meet it eye-to-eye, as it were—you’ll go blind.
In fiction, of course, light is even more shifty, even harder to pin down on the continuum of thematic meaning. It can rise up and do battle with The Dark, which always looms somewhere deep within a character’s (and reader’s) psyche. It can sterilize, rendering an environment with unsettling clarity that exposes even that which would be better off hidden. And it can beckon and call with tantalizing promises of revelation. Or, as is the case with Antonio Moresco’s new novel, Distant Light, it can do all of these at the same time.
Distant Light is an enigmatic book. It begins with an unnamed narrator declaring that he has moved to an abandoned house in an abandoned village in order to “disappear.” With no electricity and an almost total absence of modernity, our narrator wanders listlessly through decaying streets. He talks to the trees, to the bees, to a dog that briefly shadows him on his daily walk. None of them respond, of course, but he keeps at it anyway, relentlessly pestering them with far-reaching, conceptual questions about their existence. “‘How do you live like that?’” he asks a tree that appears to be slowly dying. “‘For humans it’s not possible: either they’re alive or they’re dead. Or so it seems at least…’” In another chapter, he watches a buzzing bee go about its business, and asks, “‘But what sort of life do you have? […] What happens, day and night, in your savage nests?’”
It is regarding questions like this—questions that probe at the very nature of life itself—that the narrator is insatiable, and his desire to understand his place within this strange environment is the core dynamic of the novel. Every element of the village is an opportunity to consider the purpose of continuing on. Like Hamlet in his famous soliloquy, this is a character who doubts the assertion that the benefits of life outweigh the slings and arrows it is forever hurling at us, and yet is desperate to be convinced:
All these lives that become entrapped with each other, this continual creation of colonies to occupy more and more portions of territory and to take it from others. Why? Why? To perpetuate our DNA?
The persistence of doubt—which is itself a curious mix of light and dark, of insight and blindness—slowly emerges as a kind of villain in Moresco’s novel. It has the upper hand on our hero for much of Distant Light, wearing him down and breaking his spirit. As it does, the questions he asks of his surroundings become more pathetic, more hopeless. Rather than doubtful curiosity, his musings betray only defeatism:
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 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?
This question of “Who knows?” is a refrain that recurs throughout the second half of the novel, when the metaphorical light he craves seems only to recede and never to approach.
Light, however, is not merely deployed metaphorically. The titular distant light is very real: Every night, the narrator lies in bed and gazes out his window at a single point of light that breaks the sweeping darkness of the river valley. As days turn to weeks, he becomes obsessed with it, and the question of who or what is the source, of why it is there at all, provides purpose and relief from the crushing nihilism that plagues his days.
The nice thing about these questions, as opposed to the ones he stubbornly demands of the bees and trees, is that it they can be answered. And so, with tepid resolution, he decides to trek across the valley and investigate the light source.
Though modest in length, Distant Light is a dense and thoughtful book that should be lingered over, rather than burned through. It dwells on esoteric questions, but also provides unsettling insight into the darkest depths of the human condition, as well as a uniquely complex rendering of its polarity. There are secrets to be uncovered here, it seems to whisper, if only you can pluck them from the shadows.
The bizarre nature of what Moresco’s narrator finds across the valley does little to alleviate my distrust of light. Yet it also reveals an unexpected gentleness seemingly at odds with both the violent explosion furnace at the heart of every star and the eternal metaphorical war between the hope’s quaint assurances and the blank nothingness of despair. To his credit, he meets this distant light eye-to-eye and doesn’t blink, let alone go blind. Perhaps it is through this act, of a disappearing man reaching out to touch the very thing from which he hides, that some of his questions might be answered.
Then again, who knows. - Cory Johnston

Every evening an unnamed man, the only inhabitant of an abandoned village, sits in front of his house on a metal chair. As the chair’s legs sink ever deeper into the dirt, darkness engulfs the world. “Only at night in the moonlight, can you really understand what the trees are, these columns of wood and froth that stretch out toward the empty space of the sky.”
The man seems to have a normal, if unusually located, life: He eats pasta, washes clothes, fixes the valve on his toilet, and has a charming encounter with a pair of badgers. But one night, as he stares into the dark across a gorge to the far ridge, a pinprick of light appears. Is someone there? What does it mean?
So begins Distant Light by the Italian author Antonio Moresco. It’s the first of his novels to be translated into English.
The man’s apparently idyllic existence is broken when he encounters a huge drooling Rottweiler deep in the forest. Frightened, his house half an hour away, he turns back. The dog follows, relentless and silent except for rasping breath. But when the man notices that the dog’s legs have been smashed, compassion joins his fear.
Although he reaches home safely, this incident darkens the man’s perception of his surroundings. Previously, his observations have been bucolic — “this immense dark and forgotten space full of avalanches of stars” — but now he begins to experience nature as an unfathomable, uncaring force with menacing swarms of birds and insects; even the surrounding plants have ferocious roots. After a tremendous earthquake, he imagines himself crushed by his house, “dying alone, in that sarcophagus of debris, far from everything, unseen, forgotten, unable to move…”
This novel, written in language that encourages the reader to slow down, is an anomaly in an age of fast-paced stories. Akin to Anais Nin’s sensual explorations in A Spy in the House of Love, Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, which limns depression, and Woolf’s attempts to capture the incandescence of existence, Moresco’s story delves into life and death, and the spaces that occur between the two.
Surprisingly, the man has an automobile. When he drives to a neighboring town to ask about the persistent light, the villagers laugh at the idea of someone living in such wilderness and send him to an Albanian who talks about extraterrestrials, telling a strange story about his goats and a pod of light.
The man remains unsatisfied, and every night after “the plant world becomes invisible and black like a great nocturnal sponge,” the light comes on. He must know what it means.
Finally he crosses the perilous ravine and discovers a bramble-covered path. Hesitating “at the unknown world he was about to enter,” he follows the trail to a little stone house owned by a boy who also lives alone, feeding himself, washing his own sheets, and doing homework for school. Now questions multiply. The boy’s schoolmates call him Putty and he says he’s failing. He also says that he’s dead. The state of death doesn’t seem to matter to either of them. The more the man learns about Putty — following him to his night school, talking to the janitor about the other dead children — the more the mystery deepens.
Unpublished until he was in his 40s, Moresco is now well known in Italy, principally for a mammoth trilogy, The Uncreated (Gli increati). One of his stories, “The Pigs” ("I Maiali"), is online, though Distant Light is his only novel available in English. The translator, Richard Dixon, has said that “Moresco’s language has a stark beauty and urgency...the original Italian is disarmingly simple, but that simplicity was perhaps what I found hardest to maintain.” Dixon succeeded well; his rendering avoids the awkwardness which can occur when concepts and rhythms are forced into a foreign vocabulary.
Distant Light is not a book that will appeal to everyone. It demands patience and attention, and the direction of the story isn’t always clear. Moresco’s magic is that he is able, through words, to bring the reader to the ineffable. Anyone willing to absorb the language will find many hints about what lies beneath the surface, and thus be prepared for the last chapter, when the tenor of the writing changes and the mystery is revealed.
The final unveiling is completely satisfying, even though it is likely that each reader will have a different, personal understanding of the events. Most will put down the book haunted by its beauty and full of lingering questions about the progression of life toward death and our place in the world around us. - Terri Lewis

This is a short yet powerful book that raises many more questions about the mental state of the main character than it answers.  We are led to understand from the beginning that the narrator is living alone in the mountains in what is now an abandoned village.  The only time he has interaction with other human beings is when he drives his car down the mountain to another small village.  He seems to do this only when he needs food or supplies.
The narrator spends quite a bit of time interacting with nature and even talking to the swallows, the fireflies and the trees that surround him.  Since he lives in complete solitude without an trace of another human around, he is captivated by a light he sees in the distance at the same time every night.  He spends a lot of time speculating what the light could be and it takes him a while to work up the courage to investigate the light.
I won’t fully give away what he finds when he investigates that light, but I will say that it brings him into contact with another person.  His interaction with this person makes us question the narrator’s mental state and what circumstances have brought him to live alone on that isolated mountain.  There is one sentence, which one could easily miss, in which he does say that at one point he was in the military but now chooses to live in complete solitude.  We are left to speculate if was his experience as a soldier that forced him to reject all human contact.
The book has an eerie and mysterious feeling to it, especially when the narrator figures out what is causing that light in the distance.  I would go so far as to even categorize the book as magical realism.  The narrator seems calm as he is relating his matter-of-fact existence among the foliage and animals on the mountain.  But there is an underlying uneasiness about him the punctuates the story and keeps us turning the pages to finds out what happens to this strange narrator.
This is a very quick read, one that can be finished over the course of an afternoon. I would love to hear what others think about this story since there is quite a bit of symbolism in this book that would make excellent topics for discussion. -

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?
- Frederika Randall

more reviews:
Shelf Awareness
Nathaniel Popkin Cleaver Magazine
John Lloyd The Book Bag
M. Mary The Birdcage Blog
Julian Gallo Desvario


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