Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal
On the cover of Cristina Comencini’s new novel When the Night is a black and white photograph of craggy, snow-dusted mountains. Above the peaks are dark clouds, and below is thick fog. There could not be a better image to represent the suspenseful love story, which has the undertone of a dark fairy-tale, reminiscent of the work of Maria Luisa Bombal. Everything is vague; Comencini refers to the town, the city, the beach, the lodge, but nothing has a proper name – except her characters, who are as distant, strong, and icy as the mountains on the cover.
Cristini Comencini found American acclaim in 2005 when her film Don’t Tell (based on her first novel La Besta nel Cuore) was nominated for an Oscar. When the Night, the Italian writer-director’s second novel, is set in the Dolomites of the Italian Alps, where Manfred Sane works as a mountain guide, taking tourists on hikes from the town up to the lodge where he was born and raised, now run by his brother. Manfred’s wife Luna has recently abandoned him, taking their two children along with her, and after meeting Manfred, it’s no surprise why. He is as cold, tough, and brutal as the mountains, and stubborn as he is gruff. He still carries anger for his mother, who left their family with an American tourist, so that Manfred and his two brothers were raised by their harsh, independent father, who Manfred has come to resemble, bitter as the coffee they drink in alpine Italy. His mother’s abandonment leaves Manfred with a “grudge against women.” His brothers tell him they’re not surprised Luna left him, and are even glad, for if she didn’t, Manfred would have driven her crazy with his callousness. He says he’s happier without her; he admits he only wanted her body, not her.
Marina is a young mother who takes a mountain vacation from her book-keeping job in the city, renting an apartment from Manfred above his own home. She brings her two year old son, the bane of her existence, but leaves her husband behind. Marina never wanted to be a mother and doesn’t believe she can continue being one. She feels “rivers of incandescent rage,” for her son, for her husband, for her life. She wants to work, to dance, to drink and flirt with men; she wants to get away from the family life in which she feels trapped.
Marina refers to Manfred as “the bumpkin,” and says he stinks of “dirt and onions.” She wears make-up and dances alone at the lodge, and Manfred thinks she is a whorish fool. He likes tall, blonde women with large breasts, and she is small and dark, a city gypsy in a town of blue-eyed, fair-haired Lederhosen-wearing mountain people. They want nothing to do with each other. Yet a series of accidents intertwine their lives and engage them into a battle of will, and they struggle to dominate the other, as well as their own desire. Like the mountains, both Marina and Manfred are shrouded in mystery. Why did Luna leave Manfred? Why is Marina taking a vacation without her husband?
When the Night is written in first person narration, alternating between Manfred and Marina’s perspectives, first by chapters, and then paragraph to paragraph. This technique creates an undercurrent of suspense, as if the love-story was a thriller, and indeed, there is an element of volatile danger beneath the thin veneer of sanity of these characters. Manfred and Marina are both dormant volcanoes, ready to explode with violence. The only problem with the novel is that this first person narrative becomes inevitably clumsy at times, for example when Manfred falls while hiking: “A thud. What just fell? A rock moves, my foot slides, carrying the rest of my body with it.”
Otherwise, When the Night is a page-turning achievement of storytelling, because it is very difficult to write a contemporary love story without being corny. Comencini knows that love more often ends in hatred, rather than happily ever after. Reflecting this reality, Comencini’s writing is as clean, spare, and intimidating as the novel’s alpine setting. Her terse conversations and taciturn characters reveal weakness and desperation while trying to show strength and independence. Their hearts are closed, because they never found the right person who could open them. Until they meet each other.
Translated by Marina Harss
Other Press, April 2012