'Before we begin to eat, Herman pours out glasses of prosecco and I give a little speech. I say that I hope everyone will like the book if it is eventually translated into Italian and that being here in the valley has made me think that time past and time present and time future is like a vast landscape and we are walking through it on a tracery of thin paths. To my surprise everyone says, yes, it's true, and they burst out clapping.'
Having met Penelope Lively on that memoir writing course it was my delight to discover that the other tutor was Julia Blackburn, there with husband Herman Makkink, and Thin Paths the book, in its infancy, that Julia described during her tutorials in France in that September of 2008. I loved The Three of Us , and Julia had also sat in the dovegreyreader asks...armchair so I had been really looking forward to this one.
It is now the summer of 2010, the book is complete and the guests are gathered on the terrace of Julia and Herman's home high in the mountains of Liguria . Armando and Ida, Adriana and her daughter Eliana and the baby along with the ghosts of Arturo and Old Tunin and La Muta and me too ...well it felt like it, in spirit at least, having travelled those thin paths of memory alongside them. All the people that I have come to know during the six months I have been reading Thin Paths - Journeys in and Around an Italian Village.
I have been watching too much Strictly (Come Dancing) of late, where the 'journey' word has become the cliche that makes even Claudia Winkleman groan, and so I heaved out the enormous Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary just to see if I could find another word... peregrination (1548)... fizgig (1594) ... scoterlope (1583)... scamander (1864) perhaps. I wanted something to describe my own travels with this book because now I have turned the final page I do feel as if I am at the end of...a.... a..... well it will have to stay as a journey. You might remember that wonderful literary 'journey' we took to Italy on here back in June, so many wonderful reading suggestions from you all and I have travelled little further than this single book, but it has been a complete and very fulfilling trip in itself.
Journey books are just the best value, those books that you pick up whenever you feel like it and wander through a few more pages of landscape and people who become so familiar. With no rush to finish, a book like this becomes a treasure, and in fact time and space seems to be written into these pages to linger and ponder, to walk slowly.
Thin Paths is a collection of personal and community memories about life in the Italian mountains, each piece just a few pages long, the text interspersed with black and white photos (and my thanks to Julia for these colour ones, this the view from the terrace of their mountain home)
Thin Paths travels to the heart of a remote community. A supportive community and not only with regard to present-day troubles but also the tribulations of the past, because this is about recollections of the life of the partisans fighting the Germans and Mussolini in these mountains during the Second World War. How a community copes with conflict, treachery, betrayal, illness, death, starvation (you will never ignore a chestnut again) and poverty... but don't be alarmed because this isn't misery. Julia has a calm and measured inflection to her narrative voice which can convey such details with huge respect and sensitivity for the people, the landscape, their traditions and ultimately huge respect for what they choose not to say, so no over-dramatising; it's unnecessary, the impact is sufficiently profound in its simplicity blending with the whole seamlessly to create a really beautiful and moving book.
Celebration and mourning reflect life and sit side by side, along with humour and a real love of the landscape and the people, whilst giving a real insight into life under occupation. Lives and homes infiltrated by soldiers with all the indignity and concealed resentment as they take your best rooms, your food, your warmth plundering the lives, the minds and the pride of those you love. Yet there is that sense of an indomitable spirit of survival despite the often futile attempts at retaliation, the merciless punishments and the overwhelming sense of helplessness... and as Julia gains their confidence and learns their language (from scratch) her neighbours confide their deepest memories, the pain long-buried in the way that those who have suffered during war so often do for their own sanity.
I often liken it to a suitcase full of crumpled washing, one that can become a heavier burden the more years you carry it around. To open the lid and look inside becomes even more frightening, because what if you couldn't get it all back in again...then what. But I sense a relief amongst those Julia has talked to, a lightening of that burden shared with someone who will listen, and who in turn will share it with many many more who will do likewise. And for Armando who writes his stories each night only to burn them the next morning, there is still that sense of a powerful release.
There is a gentleness and enchantment to Julia's writing. I find it magical to read, poetic and meaningful, carefully chosen words to create something very exact. Julia observes nature like no other, the only person I have ever met who can willingly pick up a slug, stroke it and love it,
and so her observations about the natural world that surrounds her mountain home are pitch perfect ... as is the tent, because Julia and Herman walk the terrain and camp out frequently.
Nature weaves a wonderfully timeless thread throughout Thin Paths, somehow grounding everything that has happened in people's lives with an unchanging permanence.
And then there are moments that made me want to stop and think about the implications of something that may have been told at a slant.
There is a moment with a cake, cooked for Adriana by the wife of a German man who lives locally. Whilst Julia looks on Adriana protests that she doesn't like it,
'and she makes a sweeping gesture with her hand over the cake as if she hopes it might disappear...'
As the conversation draws to a close and Julia tries some of the cake...
'Adriana watches me eating it to see if it tastes as good as it looks.'
And the chapter ends...and I know so much from what has not been said, and from what hasn't happened, about whether Adriana will ever be able to forgive the German atrocities she witnessed as a child in these occupied mountains.
Adriana will be unfailingly polite and accept their cake, but she doesn't have to eat it.
The far-reaching impact of Adriana's childhood fear is plain to see, and the fact that Julia has dedicated the book to her surely a testament to one woman's courage and tenacity.
Within Thin Paths, but not overtly so, Julia and Herman also walk the narrow path of illness following Herman's diagnosis with throat cancer, but this is lightly done with a fortitude and humour that surely belies the fear and anxiety, and as you can see Herman is in fine form, (read more about Herman Makkink here)
But like every aspect of this book there is perspective and containment in the words of illness, all of which makes the reading even more powerful...the 'what is not said' echoed and reverberated again and again as I read.
On reflection neither am I surprised that Edmund de Waal chose Thin Paths as his Book of 2011 because its trail through 'the present moment of the long ago past' chimes wonderfully with The Hare With Amber Eyes, the book I read in a similar journeying way for the first six months of this year.
What a grace-filled year of reading I have had from these two books alone.