Last year, by either accident or design Italy was a recurring topic when it came to my reading. In March I read James Carroll’s historical thriller Warburg in Rome following it up with Katherine Wilson’s Only in Naples: Lessons in Food and Famiglia from My Italian Mother-in-Law, Dianne Hales’s La Passione: How Italy Seduced the World and David Maranis’s Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World. Finally, as 2020 drew to a close I rounded it up with Italy: An Outsider’s Perspective, a post I did for Nonfiction November.
Whether or not this Mediterranean nation continues to be a focus of mine is anyone’s guess but one thing for certain. When it comes to my annual pursuit of the Jet Setter Prize for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I can now cross Italy off my list. Five years after spotting Andrea Molesini’s 2016 historical novel Not All Bastards Are from Vienna at the public library I recently secured a borrowable ebook version for my Kindle and gave it a try. After only a few pages I quickly realized I shouldn’t have waited half a decade. Not All Bastards Are from Vienna is an outstanding debut novel and should easily make my year-end list of favorite fiction.
Most Americans equate World War I solely with the Western Front: a largely static affair involving a network of opposing trenches, running hundreds of miles from the Swiss border to the North Sea in which each side tormented the other with relentless artillery barrages, machine gun fire and near suicidal infantry charges across no mans lands where conquered territory was measured in mere feet instead of miles. But even without counting Africa, East Asia/Pacific and the Middle East there were other fronts in the war. While Austro-Hungarians and their German allies battled the Russians in Eastern Europe they also fought the Italians for control of the Alpine region. As far as literature goes, while All Quiet on the Western Front depicted life on the Western Front and Doctor Zhivago the Eastern Front most, if not all American readers encounter this theater of conflict in fiction it’s through Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms. Of course, thanks to Molesini we have another fictional look at the Italian side of this conflict.
By the fall of 1917 the war is going poorly for the Italians. After the poorly equipped and ill prepared Italian army is routed by its northern adversaries the tiny village of Refrontolo finds itself behind enemy lines and at the mercy of the occupying Austro-Hungarians and Germans. It is here, Paolo, a 17 year old orphan lives with his relatives and servants on his family’s estate. Like so many young men and women during wartime he’s forced into growing up quickly. One of the estate’s senior staff, an undercover operative for the Italian military, recruits Paolo for a series of covert missions. Despite the risk involved like so many young people who’ve gone before he feels a sense of pride and purpose in knowing he’s part of a greater struggle much larger than anything he’s previously experienced.
The youngster of the estate, Paolo is surrounded by a somewhat eccentric cast of aunts, uncles and grandparents as well as hired staff all whom are older, even if by only by a few years. His youthful naivete makes him a convenient foil for them, including a wannabe novelist grandfather with a mechanical typewriter nicknamed Beelzebub and a grandmother who openly cavorts with an elderly dandy commonly referred to as her “third paramour.” The more mature members of this clan see the war raging around them as nothing more than the playing out of old conflicts from the 19th century. It’s believed Italy entered the war on the side of Britain due to the debt owed to the British for assisting Garibaldi and his fellow nationalists in unifying Italy. The Austrians on the other hand are viewed as trying to reconquer portions of Italy that were once Hapsburg lands. Even an Austro-Hungarian and German march on Rome with the express purpose of overthrowing the Italian monarchy and restoring the Papal States is consistent with his relatives’ historical narrative.
One family member however fearfully confides with young Paolo the current conflict is more than the continuation of 19th century power plays. It will destroy the established order, even those aspects deemed decent and civilized he’s told. Like a later day Casandra, her warnings go unappreciated and within a generation the twin plagues of fascism and communism will arise from the ashes of war-torn Europe.
This is a wonderful novel and easily one the best I’ve read this year. Please consider it highly recommended.