Without supplementing their earnings by smuggling tobacco, the de Boers family cannot survive.
Soul of the Border by Matteo Righetto translated by Howard Curtis.
Soul of the Border is a novel that takes place in the late 19th century set in the Brenta tobacco-growing region of northwest Italy, an area near the Italian border with Austria. It is the story of the battle for survival of a peasant family consisting of Augusto and Agnese de Boer, a married couple, and their daughters, Jole and Antonia, and son Sergio.
The de Boers live on the side of a steep mountain and grow the highly prized tobacco for which the Brenta area is still famous today. Tobacco growing and harvesting is arduous and skilled manual work. Matteo Righetto’s evocation of the various stages of tobacco farming is fascinating. Unfortunately, the de Boers are grossly underpaid for their work by the hated ‘Tobacco Company’ which controls the tobacco industry in their region. The company’s inspectors supervise the work of the tobacco growers and try to prevent them from keeping any of the crop for themselves.
For the family of five, the summers are hot and full of hard labour, with the children doing their share. Conversely, the winters are very cold but not so busy. Food is often scarce. But in spite of their poverty the de Boers live full and satisfying lives close to nature. When a blackthorn shrub takes root in the roof of their house, Augusto decides to let it grow, because in spring it has beautiful flowers and each September it is laden with round purple sloes. ‘Augustus did not want his children to gather these fruits, since he considered them an offering to the birds in the wood ... a mark of fraternal solidarity.’
Without supplementing their earnings by smuggling tobacco, the de Boers cannot survive. So every year, Augusto makes a hazardous journey to Austria, outwitting the patrols of the Italian and Austrian border guards, until one year he fails to return home. It is then left to Jole, who is now 19 years old, to take over from her missing father. She does this accompanied by her horse, Samson, who is laden with supplies and hidden tobacco. Crossing the mountainous terrain and avoiding the border guards takes courage, skill and persistence. Selling the tobacco in Austria and completing the return journey is even more challenging.
Righetto is at his best is in his descriptions of the daily lives of Augusto and his family and in his evocation of their environment. Jole’s relationship with her horse is described with a deep and sensitive understanding of the bonds between animals and people.
Where this novel falls short is in the credibility of Jole’s smuggling trip. There are just too many coincidences and a few too many last-minute escapes from disaster. A reader willing to overlook these flaws might well enjoy Jole’s adventures. Perhaps it is unfair to criticise a well written novel such as this one for a plot which has a heroine who is the beneficiary of some remarkable coincidences. Any watcher of popular television series such as Father Brown or Midsomer Murders would be inured to a superfluity of them. And, of course, real life is not without coincidences. But for a novel that so accurately conveys the conditions and environment of a peasant family at the turn of the 19th century it is a pity that Righetto has painted Jole’s adventures with too heavy a brush.
3 stars ★★★
Soul of the Border
By Matteo Righetto
Translated by Howard Curtis
Text publication date: 29 October 2018
AU Price: $19.99
NZ Price: $24.00
Categories: Society & Culture, Fiction, Translated
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