When Julia Blackburn and her Dutch husband Herman move into an old village house perched on a cliff high above the Italian Ligurian Riviera they become part of a dwindling community in a landscape of forests and deserted villages with roofless ruins almost swallowed up by the riotous undergrowth.
Seven hundred peasants once occupied this mountainous terrain, scraping a pitiful living; shepherds, chestnut farmers, cheese-makers — mezzadri, ‘half-people’, handing over half of everything, down to their last kilo of olives, to the padrone who was virtually their feudal lord; also sharing, when required, their women. They got by on a diet mainly of chestnuts — eaten raw, boiled, roasted, ground into flour, supplemented by an occasional thrush or dormouse.
Thin Paths is subtitled ‘Journeys in and around an Italian Mountain Village’, but as always with Blackburn, things are not straightforward, and its chapters trace other, more fugitive inner journeys. As she puts it in her epigraph, with a nod to Eliot and Proust, ‘It’s as if time past, time present and time future is stretched out around us like a vast landscape and we are walking through it on a tracery of thin paths.’
In The Emperor’s Last Island Blackburn followed Napoleon to St Helena, exploring not only the place and its imperial prisoner’s last years but her own obsession. With Daisy Bates in the Desert her identification with her ambiguous subject became so strong that Daisy and Julia fused, leaving the reader not always sure whose inner turmoil was under scrutiny. In Liguria Blackburn catches the last survivors, some in their nineties, in time to hear echoes of a culture that is already a part of the past. At first speaking only a few words of Italian, struggling with the local dialect, she begins a notebook, writing down the names of neighbours, hearing their stories, increasingly drawn into their lives, being changed by them.
Slowly, she begins to experience ‘a delicate and tenuous sense of belonging’. Friendship supplants curiosity. She hears of long-ago courtships and marriages, stoicism, hardship, a stubborn attachment to place, traditions now lost. In winter, walking to school, children each carried a log for the classroom fire. An old man recalls his mother trudging through the forest with a basket on her head, a pack on her back, a goat tied to her wrist, busily knitting socks while she walked. Today he has a solar panel on his roof. Where once there was an open fire for cooking, a table of chestnut wood, water from the stream, there are now mobile phones and electricity; the village shop is air-conditioned.
The old life died in 1940 when Italy entered the war. Blackburn hears of conflicting loyalties, horrific violence, the villagers caught between the Fascists and the partisans, boys shot in reprisal, houses burnt down. She is given ‘war diaries’, scribbled on pages torn from a notebook.
This is a story that deals not only with loss, but with rediscovery: Blackburn and Herman met when she was 18 and he was 29, but had led separate lives for ‘almost a generation’ until he showed her the ruined house he had bought and restored. Brought together, they settle, acquire new skills: grow olives, make oil. Blackburn learns to live with scorpions in the bedroom, ‘shiny, pincer-fronted, arrow-tailed’, and helps an injured bat. A beetle as big as her hand lands on her pillow and is coaxed back outside. Golden-eyed toads and salamanders bask in the water-tank. All become precious to her.
As the couple explore the forest, hacking their way through overgrown paths, encountering wild boar, getting lost, finding wild strawberries, Blackburn’s evocative, supple prose gives us vivid glimpses of the almost perpendicular landscape and its rough beauty. Her black and white photographs punctuate the pages, putting faces to Adriana, Arturo, Nella and Nanda.
When Herman is diagnosed with cancer of the throat, his intensive treatment in Amsterdam, their fears and his slow recovery are not dwelt on here; the two make laughing but practical arrangements, buy a double plot, ‘a matrimonial bed, as it were’, in the village cemetery.
There are touching, cryptic journal notes: ‘Six years since I first set foot in this house, my heart to his heart.’ Brief family references: ‘28 Dec. The children have been and gone.’ Twelve years pass; Herman’s curls are grey, and she notes ruefully that her body has ‘softened’. Their faces are lined. ‘I would like to write about love and old age and travel and the fact of death,’ Blackburn says. She has succeeded.