by Lisa Peet
It’s been said that all great literature comes from one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. Take them both together, throw in some worldwide conflict, and chances are you have a war novel on your hands. As evidenced by well-known war stories from Homer onward, the journey part of the narrative is reliably satisfying and dramatic. But a stranger coming to town—especially when that stranger is alluringly familiar—has menace and intrigue all its own.
“The Great War is a ghost that continues to haunt us,” wrote Andrea Molesini in a recent essay for Literary Hub. Molesini—writer of children’s books, poet, translator (of Ezra Pound, Charles Simic, and Derek Walcott among others) and essayist—teaches comparative literature at the University of Padua and lives in Venice. At 55 he published his first novel, Non tutti i bastardi sono di Vienna (released from Grove Atlantic in February as Not All Bastards Are from Vienna), and the impact of that ghost on his countrymen is clear: inspired by the diary his great aunt kept during the final days of World War I, Not All Bastards Are From Vienna went on to win the Campiello Literary Prize for fiction in 2010, the 2011 Comisso Award, the Latisana Award, and the City of Cuneo First Novel Prize. Molesini’s novel offers up the other side of the well-worn battle story—the tension of a quiet occupation, in which the veneer of civility remains in place, like a shattered mirror whose shards of glass need only a tap to come cascading down.
The arriving stranger in Not All Bastards materializes out of the night: first as a monocle glinting in the light of a raised lantern, then resolving into a man—a German general—on horseback. The bearer of the lantern runs to fetch her mistress, and from that moment the Spada family’s fortunes begin to shift and crumble, as their villa in a small town north of Venice is occupied first by the billeting German Army and then by the Austrians. It is autumn 1917, just after the Battle of Caporetto. Austro-Hungarian forces have broken through the Italian front line. The Germans are moving toward the front and, they believe, their inevitable victory, taking what they need from civilians in their path—in this case, the Spadas’ ancestral estate in the rural town of Refrontolo.
The Villa Spada offers up an ensemble cast in the best Commedia dell’Arte tradition: masters, servants, and lovers. The novel’s narrator, 17-year-old Paolo Spada, lives with his eccentric grandparents and aunt. Grandpa Guglielmo is the family patriarch, but it’s Paolo’s Grandma Nancy who is the muscle of the Spada household—a formidable woman whose power may or may not stem from a regular enema regimen:
Her bathroom was a poem: bedecked with beige, ochre, black and flesh-coloured enema bags. There were two or three of them on every arm of the enamelled clothes hanger…. The bags were rounded, pear or pumpkin or melon-shaped, and made of oilcloth. Reflected in the white tiles, the opaque rubber tubes looked like the tentacles of sea creatures with hooked beasts.
(The bags are also, as it turns out, the perfect place to hide the family valuables.)
Paolo’s Aunt, Donna Maria, was orphaned in the same accident that had taken his parents a few years earlier. A dignified beauty, she loves horses and the church—most likely in that order. There are three servants at the Villa: Teresa, who cooks (and administers Grandma’s enemas); her daughter, the pretty and sullen Loretta; and the steward, Renato, Paolo’s one role model of masculinity in their eccentric compound. “He was my favorite, and knew how to do everything, how to fish in the river with harpoon and knife, and also how to pluck a chicken ready for Teresa’s stewpot.”
Last, there is the lovely and mysterious Giulia, neither a servant nor relative, who lives on her own, nearby—a redhead six years older than Paolo, and the object of all his longing. Not All Bastards is as much a coming of age story as a war ballad; the boy grapples simultaneously with wartime privations and hormones, bravery and bluster. Paolo loves Giulia, and he loves his family, and though he tries his best to be a warrior, it’s his innate sweetness that consistently wins out.
The Germans throw Villa Spada into chaos immediately, filling the courtyard with horses, trucks, and motorcycles, pitching tents and building bonfires, and brutally looting what they can from the villa’s peasant tenants—only slightly more politely appropriating the Spada family’s goods. (Grandma manages to double-cross them, hiding the costume jewelry where it will be easily found and stowing the true valuables in her enema bags.) They put their feet up on the furniture and dig latrine trenches beside the family cemetery’s headstones.
The Spadas make do. Paolo moves into the attic loft, sharing a straw mattress with his grandfather. They eat in their grand dining room only when invited, which turns out to be often: The German officers break out good bottles of wine taken from the Spada cellars, and Teresa cooks—swearing in the local dialect under her breath—while Loretta serves. There is something of a camping-trip spirit in their accommodations, a sporty manifestation of noblesse oblige, and they assure each other that the Germans will be gone soon.
The illusion of civility is destroyed soon enough, though. Soldiers kidnap and rape several village girls, and although the girls are rescued, the lighthearted nature of the game has changed. Grandma calls a family meeting to explain the new rules of conduct:
Between these people and us I want there to be a barrier of tight lips and sour looks. After what has happened we cannot behave ourselves otherwise. We will put at their disposal whatever they would take in any case, which means to say everything—except our dignity. And this we will defend by maintaining a scornful silence.
Any remaining villagers, she adds, “cannot and must not attempt foolish actions like today’s. To get oneself hanged is downright foolish.”
What hasn’t changed, though, is the elder Spadas’ entrenched faith in social class. Rural Italy in 1917 was still a semi-feudal society, and lines were drawn accordingly. The soldiers may be unwashed, ragged, pillaging louts, but the officers—first the elegant German Captain Korpium and then, when the Germans are replaced by Austrians, the smooth-talking Baron von Feilitzsch—are gentry. They, too, believe in decorum. They keep their men in line; they treat their horses well.
By now, the reader is beginning to see what the characters, for all their discussion of the situation, can’t: Despite the education, the drawing-room manners, and a hundred years of history that define the occupying officers’ place in their unshakable social structure, in reality the Spadas and their servants are the true wartime allies—an overturned order that discomfits everyone. When Teresa intercedes between Grandpa and a threatening Austrian sergeant, the old man is as distressed as he is relieved: “’Defended by a cook… a servant…’ He sighed, as if to get a load off his chest. ‘That woman Teresa is worth more than me, she’s got more guts than me, she’s of more use to the world than I am.”
Because even as the world around them is rocked by turbulence, everyone—occupiers and occupied, servants and masters—is less afraid of the disorder they know than the uncertainty of what might take its place. “Do you know what is good about war?” Captain Korpium asks Donna Maria one evening while they dine together:
That it makes things simple. It puts the good men on this side, the bad men on that. You know you have to kill that man: your uniform tells you so. You know you have to give orders to this man and you owe obedience to that one. You only have to glance at his insignia.
Only the cook’s daughter Loretta seems to find some solace in the leveling of the playing field. “We were eating leftovers, as she had often had to do, and our sheets were a little less white than usual—for even lye was hard to get—and now we too were not our own masters.”
Donna Maria is drawn to both officers—first the imposing German, Captain Korpium, and then, when the Germans are replaced by Austrians, the smooth-talking Baron von Feilitzsch. As an educated and aristocratic single woman of a certain age, with no other eligible men in sight, her attraction is only natural—or is it? Her time spent strolling with the officers, we discover, may not merely be self-indulgent.
For the Spadas are subverting the order a bit more aggressively than simply throwing sour looks at the enemy behind their backs. While the officers sit at their dining table and drink wine from their cellars, the family—and Renato, who turns out to be a resistance agent—are gathering intelligence and transmitting it to the British planes that fly overhead every day. Grandma has developed a complex code involving the order of window shutters left open and closed, and of clothing hanging on the line—for after all, what is a more aristocratic wartime effort than spying? It allows one to be patriotic and still appear polite to the guests.
Paolo is elated when Renato includes him in the intrigue; first posting him in a cupboard to eavesdrop, and eventually having him accompany the steward and Giulia—another agent, we discover—on missions to reconnoiter with a downed English pilot. Between Renato’s manly approval and Giulia beginning to return his advances, Paolo is swept up in the twin thrills of love and war, only slightly dampened when Renato confesses that he first brought the boy along on the nighttime expeditions only as insurance in case of capture:
“No one likes to shoot the children of the gentry,” Renato admits, adding, “If these Germans win the war, as they think they are going to, they will have to govern this territory with the complicity of some…. And who do you think they will try but the people who govern it already?”
As resentments build, the boundaries between occupiers and occupied blur further—and more dangerously. Even as his involvement in Renato’s nighttime missions becomes more radical, at home Paolo finds himself drawn to the baron’s civility. “He told me about life in Hungary, where he and his wife had been for several years, and about Vienna, where his heart lay…. He spoke to me of that world of courteous smiles, of unspoken feelings, of neat flower beds and blue drawing rooms, the leisurely world in which he had grown up.”
As the Italian Army rallies at the front, what social order is left at the Villa begins to fray. When Brian, their English pilot ally, is shot down and wounded, Renato kills two soldiers in the raid to rescue him. The Austrians discover Brian in Paolo and Grandpa’s attic loft, and suddenly what was all about derring-do and intrigue has become a war crime—a hanging offense for Renato, Paolo, and Grandpa. Von Feilitzsch sits down to an elaborate roast chicken dinner with the family, and makes an announcement as coffee is served: “’Ladies and gentlemen,’ said the baron, patting his lips with his napkin and setting down his demitasse, ‘I’ve invited you together to inform you that you’re all under arrest.”
It is up to the reader to discover what fate befalls Paolo and his family. The outcome, though, is secondary to the chill of watching the Spada family confuse the parities of class and comportment with good will, to their great peril. Even Paolo’s cynical grandpa has mistaken etiquette for amity: “I know it doesn’t take much for them to hang Italians, and in war there’s no sending for a lawyer. But our baron is a devotee of good manners, and good manners can be counted on.”
In the end, Donna Maria’s growing closeness with the baron has no currency. “You see, Madame,” he explains when she comes to beg him for clemency for her father and nephew, “I believe that subjects are like children… They want a firm hand on the reins, a hand that never falters.” He goes on:
What is it you say in Italian… the doctor’s pity lets the wound become infected… right? If the prince gives the impression that he doesn’t know what’s best for his soldiers, for his realm, then the magic of the royal throne flickers out and everything collapses.
This is wartime, though, and everything collapses no matter what. In late 1918 the Italian Army would surge and defeat the Austrians; a truce would be signed after enormous losses on both sides. In Refrontolo, the Spada family would suffer its own losses—of property, of loved ones, and—along with the rest of Europe—a way of life that would never return to what it had been. As he faces the Austrian firing squad, watched by his family’s tenants, Paolo realizes that
The baron spoke my language and those peasants didn’t, he gripped his fork and lifted his glass the way I did, and those peasants didn’t…. And just then, if those miserable poverty-stricken men could have laid their hands on their pitchforks, they’d have cut the baron’s throat, not ours, even if the resentment they nurtured for us was far more justified.
The author pulls no punches here. Paolo is the new generation, the future of Italy, unfettered by the assumptions of an archaic—and largely useless—social order. It’s not only those who stride out into battle who get the chance to prove themselves. Those who stay, who outlast the destabilizing strangers, are the ones who get the chance to recreate what’s left. Sometimes, Molesini wishes us to see, the hazards of occupation are redeemed by the opportunity for rebirth.
Lisa Peet is associate news editor at Library Journal, proprietor of the literary blog Like Fire, and a card-carrying bloomer herself.
General Erich von Falkenhayn photo credit By Albert Meyer – postcard first edited about 1913, Public Domain
Biplane photo credit: UA Archives – Upper Arlington Public Library (Repository: UA Historical Society)
Click here to read Lisa Peet’s previous features