Translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon
(Brooklyn, NY: Archipelago Books, 2016)
There’s something I don’t quite trust about light. Maybe it’s the disconnect between the seemingly arbitrary speed at which it travels and the fundamental role that speed serves in physical laws; maybe it’s jealousy of how much stuff a photon gets to see as it whips around the universe at that speed. Or perhaps it’s just the fact that if you look right at it—meet it eye-to-eye, as it were—you’ll go blind.
In fiction, of course, light is even more shifty, even harder to pin down on the continuum of thematic meaning. It can rise up and do battle with The Dark, which always looms somewhere deep within a character’s (and reader’s) psyche. It can sterilize, rendering an environment with unsettling clarity that exposes even that which would be better off hidden. And it can beckon and call with tantalizing promises of revelation. Or, as is the case with Antonio Moresco’s new novel, Distant Light, it can do all of these at the same time.
Distant Light is an enigmatic book. It begins with an unnamed narrator declaring that he has moved to an abandoned house in an abandoned village in order to “disappear.” With no electricity and an almost total absence of modernity, our narrator wanders listlessly through decaying streets. He talks to the trees, to the bees, to a dog that briefly shadows him on his daily walk. None of them respond, of course, but he keeps at it anyway, relentlessly pestering them with far-reaching, conceptual questions about their existence. “‘How do you live like that?’” he asks a tree that appears to be slowly dying. “‘For humans it’s not possible: either they’re alive or they’re dead. Or so it seems at least…’” In another chapter, he watches a buzzing bee go about its business, and asks, “‘But what sort of life do you have? […] What happens, day and night, in your savage nests?’”
It is regarding questions like this—questions that probe at the very nature of life itself—that the narrator is insatiable, and his desire to understand his place within this strange environment is the core dynamic of the novel. Every element of the village is an opportunity to consider the purpose of continuing on. Like Hamlet in his famous soliloquy, this is a character who doubts the assertion that the benefits of life outweigh the slings and arrows it is forever hurling at us, and yet is desperate to be convinced:
All these lives that become entrapped with each other, this continual creation of colonies to occupy more and more portions of territory and to take it from others. Why? Why? To perpetuate our DNA?
The persistence of doubt—which is itself a curious mix of light and dark, of insight and blindness—slowly emerges as a kind of villain in Moresco’s novel. It has the upper hand on our hero for much of Distant Light, wearing him down and breaking his spirit. As it does, the questions he asks of his surroundings become more pathetic, more hopeless. Rather than doubtful curiosity, his musings betray only defeatism:
Who knows if the matter the universe is made of, at least the little we’re able to perceive in the sea of dark matter and energy, isn’t inside another infinitely larger matter, and the dark matter and energy aren’t also inside an infinitely larger darkness? Who knows if the curvature of space and time, if there is curvature, if there is space, if there is time, aren’t also themselves inside a larger curvature, a larger space, a larger time, that comes first, that hasn’t yet come? Who knows why things have ended up like this, in this world?
This question of “Who knows?” is a refrain that recurs throughout the second half of the novel, when the metaphorical light he craves seems only to recede and never to approach.
Light, however, is not merely deployed metaphorically. The titular distant light is very real: Every night, the narrator lies in bed and gazes out his window at a single point of light that breaks the sweeping darkness of the river valley. As days turn to weeks, he becomes obsessed with it, and the question of who or what is the source, of why it is there at all, provides purpose and relief from the crushing nihilism that plagues his days.
The nice thing about these questions, as opposed to the ones he stubbornly demands of the bees and trees, is that it they can be answered. And so, with tepid resolution, he decides to trek across the valley and investigate the light source.
Though modest in length, Distant Light is a dense and thoughtful book that should be lingered over, rather than burned through. It dwells on esoteric questions, but also provides unsettling insight into the darkest depths of the human condition, as well as a uniquely complex rendering of its polarity. There are secrets to be uncovered here, it seems to whisper, if only you can pluck them from the shadows.
The bizarre nature of what Moresco’s narrator finds across the valley does little to alleviate my distrust of light. Yet it also reveals an unexpected gentleness seemingly at odds with both the violent explosion furnace at the heart of every star and the eternal metaphorical war between the hope’s quaint assurances and the blank nothingness of despair. To his credit, he meets this distant light eye-to-eye and doesn’t blink, let alone go blind. Perhaps it is through this act, of a disappearing man reaching out to touch the very thing from which he hides, that some of his questions might be answered.
Then again, who knows.
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Cory Johnston is the Books Editor of The Literary Review.