Slavery, clones and immortality: Venero Armanno’s Black Mountain | 2SER 107.3
But one slave, Sette (or number Seven) escapes and is saved by a mysterious and wealthy benefactor, Don Domenico, who raises him as his own son.
The boy roams across Italy to 1900s Paris in search of himself, where he meets a beautiful woman named Celeste. He begins to realise he is more than he thought. But how is the boy linked to Celeste and Don Domenico by the shadowy doctors and surgeons who are trying to overcome evolution and create their own immortal selves?
I spoke to author Venero Armanno about racism, growing up in Queensland, and the making of ourselves.
How did you come to write a story like this? It’s set in the past but the science is of the future – how do you come to blend post-war Italy with science fiction?
VENERO ARMANNO: I don’t think in straight lines. A lot of creative writers are like this: you get an idea in one area and an idea in another area and you make this link that somehow makes complete and utter sense to you, if not to anyone else on the planet!
Years ago when I was researching a book called The Volcano, I came acorss the story of the Sicilian sulphur mines and the boys that worked as slaves there.
And on the other hand, I had a health problem that meant I had to be quite sedetary for a while, and when I got better I wanted to be fit and healthy, and build up some muscles that wasted away. I got onto a really intense training program. While I was doing that I became interested in supplements – the natural stuff people go to supplement stores to buy: protein, kreatine, all the -ines, amino acids, just the legal stuff. And I discovered this entire world to support the building of muscles and fitness.
That led me to the darker side, which is HGH and the steroid supplements that people take on the sly, the illegal stuff. I was investigating that, and what research has been done in longevity. And I realised a lot of the longevity research and the supplements started 100 years ago, and humanity has been looking into this stuff for a long time.
So the little boys that worked in the sulfur fields as slaves, who started off at 5 year olds and often died before they were teenagers, that story set around the end of the 19th century, beginning of the 20th century - which was real - became linked in my mind to this idea of eugenics, and the idea that existed and flourished in that era that had to do with improving our genetic structure, making better people. Kind of the blonde, blue-eyed tall image that the Nazis took over.
It all came together in this one idea: if these boys were working as slaves in the sulfur fields, where did they come from and why were they there?
In reality, where did they come from?
The poverty in Sicily at that time was so bad, families kept producing children they couldn’t support. There became this undercurrent in certain very poor areas, where if a family couldn’t support their children, they would get rid of them. And some of them sold the boys into slavery – and it wasslavery; the families were paid by the owners of the mine. The boys went to work there to repay the debt, but the debt could never be repaid. And so they just worked in horrible conditions underground in sulphur mines until they died. Some did survive.
That’s not so different from things that are still happening in sweatshops and factories all over the world.
Absolutely. Humanity – our history is littered with this. It’s a part of human nature that we wished didn’t exist but it really does exist. But for me, because my family came from this area, I had no idea it [happened].
How much has Sicily influenced the way that you write? Certainly, the volcano is a looming presence in more than one of your books. How much of that has suffused the way you work?
I was born here in Australia - I’m not a migrant myself, I’m the child of migrants, so I grew up with these stories. And the stories being told to you as a little kid, without you having experienced it, start to achieve a mythic, fairytale quality.
Whn I was growing up, I heard these stories of the volcano, and the explosions and the lava – it sounded fantastic. It got my imagination going. When I was nine my parents decided to take us to Sicily to see where they came from, and we actually lived in the village where they grew up for six months. That was a huge experience, because it went from the known world of Brisbane in 1969, to this place where we were completely foreign, and I was completely foreign, and where the lives that people led - I couldn’t understand them.
Did you find it hard to reconcile the mythical Sicily your parents told you about with the reality?
It was a lot grittier than I thought! It’s one thing to tell you about living in a room with chickens and rabbits and quite another thing doing it, and waking up with chickens and rabbits in your bed. It’s one thing being told you’re living under a volcano – my parents’ town is called Piedemonte, which means feet of the mountain, so it’s at the foot of the volcano - but it’s another thing spending every single moment of your life in the town looking up and seeing an active volcano looming over you.
My most vivid memory is of looking up and always seeing the fire in the mouth of the volcano. The glow that tinged the blue sky red. You see stuff like that and it just can’t help but effect you.
What was it like for you, being a kid at that very impressionable age, and having those dual cultures? You’ve talked elsewhere about high school being such an alienating time for you, and this question of identity is really the main thread of the book, with Sette running and being reborn, and trying to find his roots and figure out where he fits in. Is that somethng you yourself had struggled with?
Yeah. It’s the eternal question, the one constant we all understand – why are we here, who are we – they’re questions with no answers.
When I was growing up, even though I was born here, there was really small group of Sicilians that turned the neighbourhood I lived in into a little Sicily. It really was an us-and-them type situation, where the Sicilians were one community and the Australians were a different community. And they didn’t blend very well at the start. It changed – over decades everything became fine and really quite lovely, but at the start, at school, there was a lot of unacceptance on both sides.
I really don’t want to say it was just the Australians picking on us, because it was a bit of both. And because my family were particularly Sicilian and really quite traditional in their beliefs, I copped a lot of it. Most of my primary school and into secondary school was a time of a lot of tension, a lot of frustration, anger, violence.
At one particular school I went to, every single day I was abused five, six, seven times a day, in the worst possible way. At that stage, Brisbane just hadn’t made the step towards accepting ethnic communities. It’s a bit hard to talk about, but I remember times when I’d be standing at the bus stop, a nine-year-old kid, and people would come up nd spit at me. Or call me– you know, these are adults that would come up to me and call me rude names.
What does that kind of experience do to a kid of that age? Because you have a character like Sette who’s really driven. He’s got a fire in his belly – and I can’t imagine it’s that great a leap from the schoolyard to the sulphur pits – he’s really got this drive to get out of that and to make something else of his life, and he just perseveres.
Yeah, I was a bit terrified when I was a kid. I was terrified that if I didn’t work really hard, I’d be stuck in this never-ending rut. But there were plenty of children of migrants that didn’t experience these problems. I was like a magnet for it. Some of the other guys, they were so good at playing cricket, so good at football, they were just so cool, none of this ever happened to them. If I mention it to them now, they go, ‘what are you talking about?’ They don’t even remember it.
Don Domenico in your book, he’s the wealthy benefactor who rescues this boy and adopts him and turns him into a gentleman, and he says the need to escape drives all people. Do you think that’s true?
Yeah, I do. I think it’s either the need to escape or at least the need to make yourself into the image of the person you need to be. And that’s Don Domenico’s message. Because without the need to escape, you actually do nothing. You stay where you are and you be very placid, sort of like a contented cow. You stay in your paddock,chew your grass, and I hate that. I hate that mentality. I like people who fight and resist. And unfortunately we tend to be at our best when we have something to fight against. Most writers have had a long history fighting against a lot of stuff, like people in general.
Who are the writers that inspired you? There’s really something quite Dickensian about the sulphur mines, and there’s something of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in these scientists that are trying to engineer their immortal souls.
I hadn’t really thought of it in those terms. I haven’t read Dickens since high school and first and second year uni. Frankenstein, though, is all about science and what we do with science, applications of science, so possibly. But I don’t think of it in science fiction or speculative fiction terms. Yes, there’s a sci-fi conceit that the work in eugenics produced a certain strand of research that produced the kinds of things that happened in Black Mountain.
But for me, what I’m really dealing with is exactly what you’re talking about: the making of yourself. We all, somewhere along the way, have this idea that if we try hard or do this or do that, we can make ourselves into the image of what we really want to be.
I wanted to be a writer because I wanted to get away from the banality of the world I was living in, the mundane. I wanted to do something better.
An edited version of this interview was first broadcast by 2SER 107.3′s weekly book program, Final Draft.