‘When you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.’ Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)
As you can probably guess from the title, Death’s Dark Abyss is not the book to read if you need a) cheering up, or b) an affirmation of the inherent goodness of mankind. Rather, it is the story of two men linked by a terrible crime. Raffaello Beggiato robs a jeweller’s with an accomplice; in trying to escape, he takes hostage a woman and her young son, both of whom he murders. He is captured, tried and sent to prison for life.
Fifteen years later Beggiato is still there, but now suffering from terminal cancer – and attempting to have his sentence quashed because of his poor health. Beggiato has dreams of meeting up with his partner – who has kept the proceeds of the robbery safe – and escaping to Brazil to live out his final months in luxury.
Beggiato’s physical incarceration is mirrored by the mental imprisonment of Silvan Contin, husband and father of the murdered woman and boy. Contin’s life has effectively come to a halt – he gave up a successful job, and now lives alone, his anger for the man who killed his family isolating him from the rest of the world. Brooding over photographs taken at the autopsies of his wife Clara, and son Enrico (revealing them to the reader in one of the novel’s most chilling moments), Contin is shaken from his stupor by a letter from Beggiato’s solicitor, asking him to support his client’s release from prison. It is at this point that Contin begins to see how he might take his own revenge for the evil acts done to him and his family.
The novel is told in the first person, moving between the viewpoints of Contin and Beggiato in short chapters (the book is only 152 pages in my edition). What this shows with startling clarity is how each man justifies his actions, however brutal or violent they may be. One review on the cover admires Carlotto’s ability as a writer ‘to pull off the crime tale narrated by a bad guy – not a crook with a heart of gold but somebody who does bad stuff for bad reasons.‘ What particularly surprised me about Death’s Dark Abyss is the fact that this description could apply to both Beggiato and Contin.
Contin is utterly flattened by his grief, and in trying to make amends for his loss does some horrific things. His single-minded pursuit of justice – as he sees it – is done at the expense of any thought for the consequences. He is a man who has already had everything he holds dear taken from him, and who literally has nothing left to lose. This makes an interesting contrast to Beggiato who, despite his terminal condition, retains some hope for the future and, if nothing else, a comfortable death in a foreign climate. The climax, when it comes, is significant in that it demonstrates a selflessness and generosity which comes from an unexpected quarter.
Death’s Dark Abyss is a grim, violent, sometimes sordid book. It’s one that you can hardly say you enjoy, but I was certainly impressed by its power. Whilst not for everyone, it’s an impressive picture of how one callous act can throw lives into a vertiginous, dark spiral.