An Italian rabbi survives the fall of the Fascist government in 1943, the German occupation, the Allied invasion and the brief chaos that ensued, losing his wife, his family and his flock en route. He tells a nun,” There’s a saying in Hebrew . . . No matter how dark the tapestry God weaves for us, there’s always a thread of grace”.
Mary Doria Russell’s new historical novel unpicks this thread of grace from a very sombre tapestry. If follows a group of European Jews, fleeing persecution in the north to the relative haven of Mussolini’s Italy over the Maritime Alps . Arriving in the deep and impoverished mountain valleys to the west of Piedmont , they encounter truly warm charity from the contadini who risk persecution and reprisal themselves from the occupying Germans. Joining the local Jewish community of Sant’Andrea, who are fleeing the coastal bombing and SS expatriations, and the mountain partigiani, they create mayhem for the Germans who are fighting a rearguard action against the advancing Allies.
The novel explores the individual struggles for survival and the price that faith extracts from a wide variety of people. There is the rabbi who insists on tending to his diminishing, harried flock in Sant’Andrea; the Jewish Italian war hero of the 1936 Abyssinia campaign who is a sort of scarlet pimpernel to both Jews and partisans; the Catholic priest more interested in caring for his oppressed parish than carving out a safe life for himself; the SS doctor who deserts to the partisans; and the 14 year-old Belgian refugee who falls in love with her Italian soldier rescuer. All have to make individual sacrifices without compromising their religious or humanitarian faiths. Some pay the ultimate price, some survive – but only just – and some live way beyond the war, but no-one is unscathed.
Russell manipulates a wide range of characters, of almost Dickensian proportions, with varied degrees of success. She has researched her stories well, with hundreds of hours of interviews and reading. Some characters are powerful, three-dimensional and vibrant. It is mostly the women who emerge thus: the Jewish mothers and Italian peasants who care for their menfolk or take arms themselves in whatever way they can.
The men, however, fare less well. Some are mere ciphers, like the German officers or the British paratrooper who is dropped behind enemy lines towards the end of the war. Some, though, are more troublesome. Two in particular cause real difficulties. A Waffen SS doctor, sickened by the 91,867 souls he has sent to their deaths at Auschwitz, defects and claims sanctuary with the partisans, with whom he works for the next 18 months before donning a uniform again. A protean Italian Jewish war hero hob-nobs with the Nazi hierarchy whilst aiding the partisans and running rescue missions, blowing up jails and stealing staff cars. After 2 years of successful counterfeit, he embraces suicide rather than be hanged as a collaborator in the aftermath of war. Truth may well be stranger than fiction, but these two stretch the bounds of all credibility.
Russell focusses on animating all these characters over this turbulent period of history. A helpful list of the various people involved is provided in an implicit nod that some may experience difficulty in discriminating. This human focus, however, does come at the expense of a background. The narrative is primarily carried by dialogue – some of which can be a little forced – and pure plot. The pace is varied and often exciting but the major casualty of this conflict is the description. All too often place is evoked without any appeal to the senses. The sights, sounds and smells of the coast or the mountains do not get a look in. Take, for example, the refugees’ flight through the Alps . The only scenery is the slabs of rock up which the fleeing horde have to struggle. Compare Russell’s lack of convincing detail with another Italian odyssey, that of Primo Levi as he journeyed back through the aftermath of a war-torn Europe in The Truce. Levi’s seminal work is replete with telling and convincing local detail. It suggests that the research for the novel has been too desk-bound: more field-work might not have gone amiss!
Russell’s characters are the Jews of northern Europe , their German persecutors and the local Italians, of whatever religious faith. The text is liberally sprinkled with dialect phrases, which certainly add authenticity. But underneath, many of these characters can sound the same. Europeans simply do not use words like “happenstance” in any language, or “gunnysack”, “flatware”, “longshoremen” or “diapers”. The construction “gotten” has no European equivalent. The effect is jarring. Likewise, a 14 year-old Belgian girl in 1943, surely would not recall American film stars of the early 1930s, after 4 years of war! Too many of these people talk in a mid-Atlantic drawl.
Russell’s story, nevertheless, is a gripping one, even if at times it lapses into melodrama. Its real heroes are the Italian peasants who gave so much, at such great risks to themselves. That much, at least, of the story is true. It is their individual threads – of grace, courage, charity and compassion – that are eventually woven into this rich and powerful tapestry. It is the moral story of ordinary people doing extraordinary things, in the belief that there is a higher calling than mere self-interest, regardless of any superficial differences.