Gladiators, Partisans and Eco-Warriors Blended Together in a Tantalising Truffle-Infused Literary Elixir

  • Book: Istria Gold
  • Location: Croatia
  • Author: Mike Downey

Review Author: BOBMCLEOD



Istria Gold is an epic and ambitious work that’s also a multifaceted tale of love, art, courage, combat and, fundamentally, greed. What the book does, in an engaging and entertaining way is to bring to life a story men and women in different ages and their relationship to the precious element that is represented by the Istrian truffle and the struggle to possess it the contemporary period and throughout the course of history. The author manages to skillfully describe the obsession that combines an intoxicating mix of human greed and the essence of the melanosporum’s magical powers.

The book is a richly interwoven work, and a great achievement for a debut novelist, which opens with the ignominious dismissal of a young undercover ‘environmentalist’ cop from the Metropolitan Police in London and his subsequent return to the land of his fathers in Istria. Unwittingly he takes with him his father’s legacy – the lost secret of the truffle forest deep in the valley of the Mirna. The mystery that unfolds is one that has been passed down through the centuries, significant and stunning in itself, and the key to the existence of an untold source of wealth deep in the rich earth of Istria. Like Proust’s madeleine, the truffle demonstrates that memory never has so much force as when transmitted through the flavour of a comestible consumed for pleasure.

It’s a book that makes you feel hungry, thirsty and full of the lust for life.

As the young ex-cop Marco Mihailic, his feisty eco-warrior ex-girlfriend Emina and his best buddy from school the maverick and charismatic booze-artist Zeljko (whose experiments in ancient olive oil making techniques are about to make him either very rich or very poor indeed)
explore the ancient province of Istria whilst uncovering Grandfather Nino’s shady truffle dealings – their search serves as backdrop for all three compelling stories.

There is the tale of the young Istrian lad who in 1941 heads for the hills to fight with the Partisans, culminating in a series of battles and the attempted assassination in Trieste of Serbian nationalist leader Dimitrije Ljotic, which leads to an account of the subsequent discovery — and
cover-up — of the notorious foibe massacres. And then there is also the moving story of the young free woman and Roman dog handler Lucia – and her canine family, who along with the ex-gladiators Severus and Nascia discovered the Istria truffle and had it first brought to Rome.
The pioneers who created the culinary culture around the aromatic mushroom, known locally as the tartuffo.

I guess Istria Gold touches on a variety of things about the subject: about the ecosystem, about family, about capitalism, and it’s also about dogs. Dogs whose greed for high value treats who just want to run around and dig for truffles. Greed’s role in economics and moral philosophy has been dynamic through the centuries. Examining attitudes about greed and self-interest from fictional figures across two millenia, we reflect on how society’s view of greed has changed over the years, and what greed meant for the ancients and what it means for modern, developed economies.

What Downey has managed to achieve is an ambitious piece – essentially merging three novels into a significant journey into a part of the world I had no knowledge of until I read this. I think everyone who reads this book will want to go there. Istria Gold is jam-packed with vivid, historically accurate details and imaginative re-creations of life in Roman Istria, the Partisan war of Liberation, and the contemporary world of the 21st century eco-warrior blending together a complex plot and richly diverse characters into a seamless narrative of romance, tragedy, and heroism from past to present.

What’s not to like?

The Istrian Tourist Board should buy shed-loads and distribute them lavishly to visitors to their wonderful paradise of a Peninsula.

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