In May and September 1976, two earthquakes ripped through north-eastern Italy, causing severe damage to the landscape and its population. About a thousand people died under the rubble, tens of thousands were left without shelter, and many ended up leaving their homes in Friuli forever.
The displacement of material as a result of the earthquakes was enormous. New terrain was formed that reflects the force of the catastrophe and captures the fundamentals of natural history. But it is far more difficult to find expression for the human trauma, the experience of an abruptly shattered existence.

Those are the opening sentences on the reverse cover of “Rombo” by Esther Kinsky, translated by Caroline Schmidt, which was issued by Fitzcarraldo Editions on 5th October; and if that doesn’t hook you into wanting to read it, I don’t know what would!

The final cover in its nice blue fiction livery

Kinsky is an author who’s featured on the Ramblings before, when I reviewed her book “Grove” back in 2020; also released by Fitzcarraldo, that book was rooted in landscape and also an exploration of personal grief. “Rombo”, by contrast, examines a more general suffering, although once again landscape is to the fore. Kinsky takes seven characters who live through the earthquakes and gives them a voice, as they relate their stories, delve into their past, and contemplate the long-term effect the quakes had on them. This gives the book an almost documentary feel, and as Kinsky intersperses their narratives with observations on the mountains, nature and general landscape of the area in which they live, these add to the non-fiction feeling.

However, the book is no dry relating of facts; although Kinsky writes in some ways from a distance, her prose is beautiful and evocative. Like the subject matter of “Grove”, this is a bleak work dealing with trauma and loss; yet despite that melancholy, the book conjures vivid land and characters and ends up being quite unforgettable. The valley, full of little villages affected by the earthquakes, seems lost in the past, set in its ways with farmers and goatherds; so it’s a shock when the narrative suddely moves forward, with motorbikes, and trips to modern hotels by the seaside. The quakes are a pivotal event in the lives of both villagers and villages, and you sense that a certain way of life is driven to its natural end by the effects of the earth’s violence.

What is memory? It comes and goes as it pleases. It disappears and intrudes, and we can’t do anything about it… yes, what is memory? We ourselves are memory.

Central to the story is memory, and the part it playes in our lives; all of the characters, as they look back on their past and the dramatic occurrences through which they lived, recall things differently. They may filter out parts of their memories; time will blur certain events; although running through each individual narrative is the understanding that the earthquakes changed their lives forever. And those lives are intertwined so that we get the chance to see each character through the eyes of the others – which is often a powerful reminder about how subjective our view of ourselves is, and that we never really know who others view us!

“Rombo” is an intriguing book in that it reads like non-fiction yet it is billed as a novel; and as my ARC had a plain white cover, I approached it with an open mind and felt it could very much be taken as either form of writing. But of course I’ve often found that Fitzcarraldo books tend to blur the line between fact and fiction, and what matters is the writing and the story, both of which are singular and memorable here. As I said, it’s a work which is much about the nature and the landscape of the region as the effect of the earthquakes, and the portrait she paints of both is vivid and haunting.

This rumbling inflicted a wound on all who live through this earthquake. A scar has remained that will never go away. For some of us it is small and hidden, while for others it is out in the open, like a white raised lip from my hand slipped while hacking wood.

As for the title? Well, rombo means roar, or rumble, or thunder, and it’s here applied to the noise heard just before an earthquake. That sort of noise strikes a chill into the hearts of the villagers after the first tremor and indeed some seem to be permanently affected by it; a kind of PTSD, which is understandable.

My ARC with white cover blurring the lines….

Kinsky has written five novels including this one, three of which are published by Fitzcarraldo, and its clear that she’s a distintive and lyrical author. The narrative in “Rombo” cleverly builds up a picture of a lost world and its people, the trauma they suffered and the long term effects; and it reminds us that nature can never be tamed and we are all subject to its vagaries. A powerful and striking read, and highly recommended.