Paolo Cognetti is an Italian writer who won the most prestigious Italian literary award (Premio Strega) in 2017 as well as a French prize for books in translation for his book, The Eight Mountains, translated in 39 languages. The English translation is set to be released in March with Atria Books (Simon & Schuster) in the US and with Harvill Secker (Random House) in the United Kingdom.
The Dutch translation of his book was released last summer and is currently topping the charts. Border Kitchen, an initiative from the same organisation behind Crossing Border festival, invited him to the Hague on the 12th of January. Some 300 people spent their Friday night listening to what he had to say, especially about mountains, the topic of his book.
Afterwards we caught up with him and asked him a few questions.
1) In your book, you mentioned that Himalaya is the mother of all mountains and that once you have been there the rest feels incomplete. Are you planning a book about your experience there? Is the idea that you will be writing more about different mountains in different parts of the world, because of your nomadic nature?
Yes, you got it right! I am actually writing a book about a journey to Himalaya. I am not sure I have a nomadic soul. In reality I really like the feeling of being home and for this, rather than travelling here and there in the world, I prefer to return to the same places until I know them well. It has been like that for many years with New York and since some time it is like that with Nepal. I like to think I have a home there.
2) At the book presentation in The Hague, you mentioned you are building a sort of retreat in the mountains for people to come and stay and also a festival. Can you tell us a little bit more about it?
It is an old stable of around 12 by 5 metres that I have bought with the earnings from The Eight Mountains, quite close to the chalet where I live in the mountains. In the next two years, if everything goes well, it will be transformed into a hostel with a lounge, a communal kitchen and 12 beds. But it is not my intention to work in tourism, I would like it to be a cultural centre first: a place to host school groups and artists, and to organise concerts and exhibitions. I would also host souls in pain that every now and then happen to be in the mountains.
3) Do you have some advice for those approaching the mountains (for trekking for instance) for the first time?
Go with someone that is is able to tell you about the places. For me it is not so much important to get to the top, but to observe the woods, the creeks, the pastures, the villages of the shepherds. To understand what you are crossing you need a local from the mountains that opens its doors. And then go back by yourself. The mountains are totally different if you walk with someone or if you walk alone. The first time it can a bit of a scary place, but afterwards it becomes a place that welcomes you, and you feel closest to it when you are there alone.
4) You just turned 40 and one can say that you have an adventurous life. Do you think that being childless and not in a long-term relationship is still a taboo today? In what way?
I think that not being in a stable relationship is not a taboo for anyone, but choosing not to have kids is. When I tell people, “I don’t want to have kids, I want to do other things in life,” I often see reactions of shock, as if we either had a biological, civil, or religious duty to reproduce. I do not feel this duty. I am also an environmentalist that is quite sensitive to overpopulation. I think that there are too many people on earth and I do not need to contribute one or two more individuals. I see, in the lives of my friends, that a kid entails a sort of retirement to private life, in which your obvious main thought is to grow your kids: in short, time is precious and I want to use it differently. Not just for myself, but for other people, by organising a festival, building a hut, helping a humanitarian organisation in Nepal. For this reason I reject the accusation of being selfish normally targeted to those who chose not to have kids.
Photo: Mountain hut near Zermatt, Switzerland, June 2014. Beppe Simone CC BY-SA 4.0