Few books so ably illustrate the nomadic possibilities of literature as Vénus Khoury-Ghata’s The Postman of Abruzzo, a novella about an Albanian community living in the mountains of southern Italy, written by a French-Lebanese author and published by an English-language press based in Kolkata. This is publishing without borders.

Khoury-Ghata’s protagonist, Laure, is a Parisian widow looking to negotiate the tricky terrain of the past. A decade after the death of her husband Luc, a celebrated geneticist, she travels to the remote village of Malaterra in the foothills of Abruzzo, where he had spent long periods studying its close-knit Albanian population. Her odyssey is an attempt to understand a partner who was profoundly distant, both in life and death. What does it say of their marriage that he was happiest when pricking the thumbs of strangers?

Laure arrives at a place steeped in poverty and superstition. Albanians had settled here a century earlier, having fled the Ottomans and Soviet communism, and retained a heightened version of their country’s customs. Eccentricity and inbreeding followed. Everyone possesses the blood group O-negative and the ancient arts of gossip and feuding have been finely tuned.

The villagers are never less than intriguing. They include Mourad, the baker “who proposes marriage to every woman who enters his shop”, and Ismael, the Muslim bookseller who despises his neighbours because “they read coffee grounds and palms rather than the treasures displayed in his window”. It is the postman Yussuf, however, who is Laure’s guide to the mores of this hinterland between the peaks and the valley.

Yussuf’s most dramatic revelation is that Helena, an elderly local, has been waiting, gun in hand, for some 30 years to kill the man who raped her daughter. And, he explains, the perpetrator is set to return to Malaterra. Laure also discovers that the villagers remember a very different Luc from the figure who sat quietly considering his papers in their marital home.

Born in Bsharri in Lebanon, Khoury-Ghata has lived in France for half a century and is a popular novelist and poet in her adoptive country (she was named a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in 2000). The poet’s sensibility is clearly evident in this novel, with its arresting collection of glancing moments — the streak of a red car in the countryside, the glint of a mirror leaning on a ruined wall — a lyrical and pictorial style that is aided by Teresa Lavender Fagan’s elegant translation from the French.

The prose oscillates between the fantastical and the gritty, a fluctuation that at best is dreamlike but can occasionally confuse. Khoury-Ghata has succeeded in capturing an irrevocably odd atmosphere; Malaterra is more Twin Peaks than Italian idyll. Even its mayor acknowledges that he doesn’t have “the strength to put right side up that which has always been upside down.”

While this is a story shaped by departures and the gnawing pain of exile, the novel’s central, winning irony is that it plays out in a place where nobody leaves, an environment as closed as a stitched-up pocket.

The Postman of Abruzzo by Vénus Khoury-Ghata, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan, Seagull Books £16.99, 144 pages

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