Anatomy of a Sound: On Esther Kinsky’s “Rombo”

By Aditya Narayan SharmaFebruary 17, 2024

Anatomy of a Sound: On Esther Kinsky’s “Rombo”

Rombo by Esther Kinsky

AN EARTHQUAKE COMES with little warning, and with no sign of the calamity it will wreak. Sometimes the upheaval in the restive ground goes on for several minutes, as with the 2011 quake that triggered the devastating tsunami in Japan, but most are over not long after they begin. The earthquake in Turkey and Syria last February that killed more than 48,000 people lasted 80 seconds; the May 1976 quake in northeastern Italy, the focus of Esther Kinsky’s recent novel Rombo (2022), went on for less than half a minute. The instant when the earth ruptures is shocking in its brevity, and abject in its chaos:

The air is full of sounds, from the distant thunder of the mountain faces to the trees groaning in the gardens and the wood bursting in the roofs, the shattering glass and the angry, dry rumble of stone. Human voices in a shrill state of agitation, taken to shelter, searching for neighbours, screaming from below the wreckage, clutching rubble, rolling, calling, sobbing, a wail in the dark.

The whirling series of images and the short, sharp phrasing conjure a sense of breathlessness and destruction. The silence of the ruined world to come is an abstraction; nothing but the noise of the quake exists in the moment. Simple stone houses and churches are flattened. The familiar landscape becomes a twisted reflection of itself, and life begins to approach the surreal. The BBC reported that 60 diners were trapped under the rubble of a restaurant; that cemetery workers were running out of coffins; that inmates tried to escape the prison in the devastated town of Gemona, only to be thwarted by guards who opened fire with machine guns. Disruption is instant, immediate; it cleaves the world into a quotidian before and a grotesque after.

The 1976 earthquake killed almost a thousand people and razed entire villages, devastating an area centered on Friuli, a green and mountainous place of about a million people, pressed up against Central Europe, blanketed by the Limestone Alps. I remember visiting with my family as a teen in 2010 and being awed by the staggering beauty of the vast springtime valleys, the candy cane stripes of plastic netting reinforcing the roadside against rockfall, and the orange-and-white jeeps of the Protezione Civile, the disaster management agency. This sense of precariousness and caution was a legacy of that disaster 35 years before, a story that lies at the center of Rombo, named for the sound said to precede an earthquake. “Everyone committed this sound to memory under various names,” writes Kinsky, in Caroline Schmidt’s translation. “Humming, whirring, roaring, murmuring, thundering, clattering, whooshing, rushing, rumbling, whistling, droning, blaring. And so on.” 

Kinsky, a poet, translator, and novelist, has long been preoccupied with landscapes and the lives they enfold. Her previous book, Grove: A Field Novel (2018; English translation, 2020), follows a recently bereaved, unnamed female narrator’s trip to the hills near Rome, recounting the community she finds there and the powerful presence of the looming landscape that surrounds her, seeming to offer comfort in its unfamiliarity. In River (2014; English translation, 2018), a similarly unnamed narrator moves to an eastern suburb of London, accumulating objects and memories while wandering by the banks of the River Lea and the marshlands that remain despite the city’s ever-expanding urban girdle. In both novels, the contemporaneous narrative is interspersed with remembrances of past travels, other places at other times, examining how the narrator has changed and the effects that these shifting landscapes have had on her. 

Rombo is at once similar to and very different from Kinsky’s earlier works. It retains a deep attachment to the importance of landscape, self, and memory, and pieces together a narrative spread across time and place, but also lends itself to an established tradition in European literature—novelized history writing, a fictionalized biography, presented as testimony, and seeking to refract history into the minutiae of daily life. Kinsky’s Rombo differs in drawing together disparate recollections of a community into a collage, each person affected by something so overwhelming, and yet so individual, that no two could possibly have had the same experience. The narrative is broken into short segments, most of which are told as recollections by seven valley residents who were children at the time of the quake, guided by Kinsky’s authorial voice. 

The disasters Kinsky writes about go beyond simply disrupting daily life, or wrecking familiar places, or traumatizing people and communities. Something on the scale of the Friuli earthquake, a vast tragedy centered on a small and sparsely-populated area, derails a shared sense of reality. After the crisis, the residents of the valley scrutinize their memories, focusing on small things, trying to hew a personal history out of a generalized tragedy. An earthquake cannot be explained away by sanitized scientific language, Kinsky asserts. “Beautiful words that you can hold in your hand like small foreign petrified life forms: Hypocentre. Surface rupture.” Those abstract notions are manifested in vividly tangible moments: a herd of goats, trembling as their shed collapses around them; a garish, lit-up Virgin Mother statue, slipped into a pocket for comfort as the ground begins to shatter; a wine jug bursting on the floor and slicing open the hand of a drunk man who tries to save it. Several narrators detect a disturbance in a world beyond the natural, recalling the howling wind and the strange animal behavior they saw in the moments leading up to the quake, and the lengthy storms that followed. 

This recourse to explanations beyond the natural is inescapable, perhaps, in the face of such enormous disruption of the normal and the known. For Gigi, the village goatherd, an earthquake is “as if something enormous were moving in a dream. Or as if a giant were uneasy in its sleep. And waking up, it creates a new order of things in the world.” For Anselmo, a schoolboy who had left the valley for Germany only to return with his father, catching live vipers in his spare time, disaster came while he was in a room full of rehearsing musicians; as they tuned up, “a deep drone started, and a rumbling and a trembling and a grinding coursed through everything.” For Olga, the young chorister daughter of similarly returned Italian émigrés, the dreadful moment of the quake was defined by a slamming window, and an icy wind invading the kitchen in which she was drying dishes. Gigi was struck more by the moments leading up to the quake: “When I finished milking, both goats wanted to stand behind the pushcart. They stood there, incredibly still. It was already turning dark. The milk smelled bitter.” One woman, Mara, remembers rescuing her mother from their shuddering house: “Had the elderflower bloomed, on the slope leading down to the river? The gaunt lilac bush in front of our house? And where did I seat my mother? I must have put on a dress, after all. I don’t know any more.” 

The narrators falter; they “can’t remember” things as often as they can “never forget” them. Paradoxically, it is the caveats and distortion brought about by time and trauma that give Rombo its cogency and clarity; that hesitancy makes the fictionalized oral testimony feel real. The exact details of the earthquake’s many chaotic moments remain out of focus, but Kinsky’s sharp descriptions and attention to dialogue let us clearly see Mara, Anselmo, and the rest of them, as if they are speaking into an oral historian’s microphone decades after the quake, searching for details in memories rendered hazy by the long years and the unhappiness of that distant summer. Put at a distance of several decades, the past is an inherently unstable place, based as it is on perception and bias and shaky recollection—a distortion heightened by the catastrophic events. By telling us what each person saw and felt, or what they remember seeing and feeling, or what they think they might have seen and felt, Kinsky dispenses with attempts at writing a pure objective history. “If one laid them out,” she writes, “all these evoked images would stretch from here, the cemetery with a view to the north, all the way to the harshly hatched line of Monte Musi, purple-blue in the distance.” 

Annie Ernaux opened The Years (2008), her vividly detailed novelistic memoir of 20th-century French life, by warning that, despite our best efforts to remember, “[a]ll the images will disappear.” In her cinematic focus on tiny, electrifying details, Kinsky appears to be seized with the same worry, instilled with a similar determination to preserve the memory of the earthquake year from descending into oblivion as its survivors age and forget. The valley’s inhabitants, of course, live with the effects of the sights they witnessed, whether lying awake at night tasting invisible dust in their mouths, or wondering what would happen if an earthquake were to strike them in their new home, far from the mountains, in a city apartment.

During the rebuilding process, as Kinsky describes, the government evacuates the town’s children, moving them south to Udine or to the seaside. “None of the children who went to school down there wanted to stay in the valley afterwards,” says Lina, whose sister followed her out of the countryside, getting a job making cardboard boxes at a factory. An aftershock later the same year causes even more to depart. “As soon as the roads were clear buses came to pick people up and take them to faraway places. And many never returned,” recounts Mara. Olga takes a job in Mestre, in Venice. Many stay in the cities where they were evacuated to, returning only for carnival. Gigi’s fate is unclear; his stories are included among the testimonies, and although some say he and his goat herd plunged to their deaths in a mountain crevasse, “no one was there to bear witness, and recluses who avoid people can be gone a long time before anyone notices their absence.” Anselmo becomes a “short man with white hair and bad teeth,” maintaining the town cemetery for the council. As many leave the valley as stay; the earthquake hastened what was already a rapidly growing pipeline of departures, as if the dislodged rock carried away the townspeople, too, as it slid down the emerald meadows on the mountainside. 

The New York Times, reporting on the quake, described the region as “prosperous, well-kept, and beautiful […] with a small but healthy industry and a traditionally hard-working population.” Kinsky’s characters portray a very different side of life in the area: as with so many isolated corners of Europe, the valley’s young have largely deserted it, driven away by “the hardship, the narrowness, the poverty and lack of prospects,” even before the earthquake. “Everyone wants to go to Germany, to Switzerland, to the wealthy countries,” says one narrator. Friuli’s geography, at the convergence of Italy, Slovenia, and Austria, imposes an austere cosmopolitanism on the valley’s inhabitants. Some of those who leave return in triumph, lording their wealth over their former neighbors; others, in disgrace. Many never come back at all. The elderly parents of those who leave still live in their old homes, “mad,” “no longer right in the head,” members of a generation who watched their town empty out before their eyes. 

We can hardly blame those who leave. Young people struggle for work; the only assets are those that can be dug out, cut down, or slaughtered. The villagers survive by chopping wood, raising goats or chickens, and selling the oil shale, mined from the limestone that presses against the contours of the valley. The miners who extract it, permanently bearing on their pale skins the stains of the raw bitumen, become “bergfertig, as they said, mountain spent, sick from years of working inside the mountain, where one’s sense of day and night and light and dark is lost.” 

Alongside the disappearance of the younger generations, hints of the ultimate slow-moving disaster, a steadily degrading climate, appear throughout the narrators’ jumbled memories. One remembers the water levels of his childhood river being much higher; another thinks of a lost villager, discovered only by the vultures circling her corpse, “because back then we still had vultures.” An earthquake is not the only force that dislocates the home and destroys the familiar, reshaping the landscape and the lives of those who inhabit it. 

The hollowing-out of the community—the emigration, deprivation, and environmental degradation—began long before the destruction of May 1976. Rather than one brief rupture of the ground, an aggregated series of moments that passed undetected and without disruption together caused slow and permanent harm, not immediately obvious, like earthquake ruins and the crumpled corpses they beget, but insidious and lasting, like a silent town of ancient, unhappy residents, slowly losing their sense of place in the world.

Is disaster any less dreadful and destructive for being protracted, stretching across years and generations rather than seconds or minutes? Rombo seems to offer an implicit answer: the rubble that once covered the valley has been swept away, reduced to an errant mossy boulder or two by the side of the highway, lying where it lay since being dislodged by the heaving ground; the isolation and decline that slowly engulfed the mountainside village of her story has only grown. But an earthquake is far from the only force that dislocates the home and destroys the familiar, reshaping the landscape and the lives of those who inhabit it. The historian Andy Horowitz made the point elegantly in his renowned work on Hurricane Katrina:

Calling something a disaster implies that there is a regular course of things, and that the moment in question was an exception. It suggests that the event was prompted by an exogenous force, that it was extraordinary (rather than ordinary), acute (rather than chronic), local (rather than diffuse), unpredictable (rather than expected), and revolutionary (rather than evolutionary).  

For those driven from the valley by the forces that roil life there, whether tectonic plates or the lack of job prospects, the distinction between daily life and disaster rapidly fades. 

But then, distinctions are illusory in the landscape too; as Kinsky notes, the limestone and snow on the mountaintops are difficult to distinguish from a distance, creating a rocky, whitish canvas, “grooved, ribbed—false snow with a brief memory.” The earthquake is not the only force that reshaped that form-shifting landscape and those who inhabited it; it was merely the most obvious, one expression among the many that eroded and deadened life in the valley, blurring the boundaries between singular catastrophe and quotidian decline. 

Part of disaster—whether natural or unnatural, abrupt or ongoing—is coming to terms with the quietly calamitous realization that there may be no “regular course of things,” that the senselessness of the world obscures insidious processes that damage people and places quietly and permanently, leaving survivors to deal with the aftermath of a universe torn asunder. In collating this polyphonic account of landscape and language, Kinsky illustrates the difficult navigation of that senseless new order, in a land as inconstant as limestone, where the jagged mountains rise up and up on all sides.

LARB Contributor

Aditya Narayan Sharma writes about books and politics. His work has appeared in The Times Literary SupplementThe EconomistThe Indian Express, and elsewhere.


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