Of Myths and Men

Venero Armanno's new novel is a Sicilian-Australian epic

By Murray Waldren
FOR THE BEST PART OF 20 YEARS, Venero Armanno has been single-mindedly pursuing literature. For the first decade, he wrote a novel a year, all unpublished. The Brisbane-born son of Venero ArmannoSicilian migrants did not let that deter him: the 10-year toil was, he's said, "my training ground. I never studied literature, never really studied English. Writing was something I had to discover for myself (and) I had to write a million words before anybody published one."

When they did, they didn't stop. Neither did he. And his continuing industry has created its own publishing industry: five novels, two children's books, a short story collection and a play, all well received. He's also become a literary man of the world, with novels published in the US and Europe, regular European speaking tours and several international writer-in-residencies.

Which is probably to be expected of someone whose CV also includes study stints at the University of Queensland, QUT, the Australian Film, Television and Radio School and New York's Tisch School of the Arts. As well, he was a ten-year veteran of the computer industry (all the while writing at night) before becoming a cultural apparatchik and arts networker of considerable clout in his hometown. Beyond the academic, he also had the curious distinction (for a writer) of receiving a mid-1990s Who magazine rating as one of the 25 Most Beautiful People in the World.

Now comes novel Number 6. And it's a biggie in every sense: big in concept, big in size, big in achievement. Subtitled "A Sicilian novel of emotion, passion and fire", The Volcano (Knopf, 683pp, $45) was a multi-year drama in three acts for its author. Curtain up was in a six-hour screenplay he wrote in 1993, which suggested a theme and setting to him.

Four years later while in Paris on a literary residency, he followed up the previous 12 months' research by writing some 200,000 words in a lava of creativity. Mid-flow he interrupted transmission to dash off another novel, Firehead (now being turned into a movie, from an Armanno film script, by the producers of Strictly Ballroom and Looking for Alibrandi).

In 1999 he returned to his Volcano manuscript, adding another 200,000 words of raw material before spending a year redrafting and cutting, a ruthless paring back that slimmed his tome to a mere 680-odd pages. It was, he says, his most difficult project in terms of research and historical accuracy but the most exhilarating in "telling the story - I'm almost sorry I finished it."

His sustained research adds serious authenticity to a wide-ranging narrative.For the novel, Armanno studied Italian politics, Sicilian history, the pagan, Greek and Roman mythologies that influenced it, and more modern legends like that of Salvatore Giuliano, the island's war-time "bandit king". He also investigated European immigration to Australia, the development of Brisbane, its criminal milieu in the 1950s and the allied "romances and tragedies It was endlessly fascinating, material for ten books".

The one he has written, however, is a singular feat. Integral to its intimacy is the author's personal understanding, which adds meaning without straying into the overstated or cloying. Amid its aching realities and cultural confusions, The Volcano has the energy of a crime thriller, leavened by deft hunour and the sadnesses, small satisfactions and large yearnings of every immigrant story.

When Armanno was growing up, there was little social integration with the local kangarooni. Within his tribal community, however, storytelling was elemental - every weekend relatives and friends would assemble to drink and eat lashings of traditional treats. And everyone, he says, would talk about the old days. These stories resonated with him, as the tellers' "lost home" regrets clashed with their joy and pride "at having 'made it' over here. It was so poignant."

And a lesson well learned. For story is as important to The Volcano as the communal sense of otherness was inherent to his youth. And is to the novel. Armanno first visited Sicily in 1969, and his deepest awareness beyond the foreground distractions of "poverty, superstition, chickens and rabbits crawling and sleeping under your bed and glorious cooking", was the dominant presence of Mt Etna. It was there, he says, "smoking silently in the day, and at night from every street you could see the fiery glow in the mouth of cratere centrale - that fire which can never be put out."

Among the most active volcanoes in Europe (which it proved again within the past few weeks), Etna has always been a capricious, louring presence. Its eruptions have devastated villages, towns and landscapes, its associated earthquakes have killed countless thousands. Such lethality has made the volcano a rich source of myth: the king of the underworld, Hades, reportedly lived within it and the central crater's fires were said to be Vulcan's forge. Because the mountain and it myths are so central to Sicilian consciousness, they are similarly central to this tale. As is an intricate weave of fiction and fact.

Much of the book's narrative (and psychological ramifications) stems from a bridal kidnapping, an act experienced by Armanno's maternal grandmother at 17 when she was forced to marry her abductor because of the shame of defilement. He was killed soon after in World War I, and she subsequently married Armanno's grandfather. There's a twist in the tale: the grandfather was among the men hired to assist in the kidnapping. The grandmother was philosophical about that - it was, she said, "just a job he was employed to do".

All of the above - myth, grand drama, capricious nature and peasant wisdom - weave through The Volcano. It has pace, colour, light and sensitivity. Armanno's eye for Australia, and Australiana, is as astute as his evocation of the Sicilian psyche is acute. And in Emilio Aquila he has created a character who should reverberate strongly in our literary memory.

The Volcano coverIn the sunrise of an already clammy-as-death Brisbane morning, the one-time, long, long, long-forgotten 'Devil of Sicily' started to twist and turn in his typically troubled sleep. Here in the narrow bed of his groundsman's little stone cottage, sleeping alone, old man Emilio Aquila. Once considered by some to be a hero, now kicking his feet this way and that way just like a little bambino with wind. Or was he dreaming of running from a crimson-faced devil who chased him with a fiery tongue and an emasculating black prick of thorns? Hands that were only slightly less tough and torn than they'd been when he was a young man clasped and clenched, shook and clasped again. Were they going around this devil's scrawny throat as if trying to shake the life out of some enemy's ghost? His twitching hands might well have been, for the cottage Emilio shared with a pair of budgerigars and one fat black female Labrador named Lucy, Big Lucy, was crowded with such ghosts, the bad ones and the good ones, the ones he feared and the ones he missed; so was his smashed-apart heart.

This article was first published in The Weekend Australian, 6/10/2001

Copyright 2001 Murray Waldren

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