The OF Blog: Leatherbound Book Review: Elsa Morante, History

Monday, September 01, 2014

Leatherbound Book Review: Elsa Morante, History

It is known that such a feeling gnaws at its victims with the ferocity of a tireless rodent, and often compensates them with dreams.  Mussolini and Hitler, in their way, were two dreamers; but here is where their inherent difference lies.  The dream-vision of the Italian Duce (corresponding to his physical desire for life) was a histrionic festival, where among banners and triumphs, he, a scheming vassal, would play the part of certain beatified ancient vassals (Caesars, Augustuses, and so on...) before a living crowd humbled to the rank of puppets.  Whereas the other (tainted by a monotonous, vicious necrophilia and horrid terrors) was the half-conscious minion of a still formless dream.  In it, every living creature (including himself) was the object of torment, to be degraded even to putrefaction.  And at the end – in the Grand Finale – all the peoples of the earth (including the Germans) would rot in unseemly piles of corpses.

We know that our dream factory often has its foundations in debris of our waking hours or our past.  But in the case of Mussolini, the product was fairly obvious in its superficiality; whereas in the case of Hitler, it was a teeming of infections, clustered around who knows what roots of his disturbed memory.  Searching his biography, that of an envious little philistine, one could unearth some of these roots without much difficulty...But this is enough for now.  Perhaps the Fascist Mussolini didn't realize at the time of the Ethiopian venture, supported by Hitler the Nazi (and then followed immediately by another common venture in Spain), that he had irrevocably yoked his own carnival chariot to the other's funeral hearse.  One of the first effects of his servitude was that the national slogan, Romanity, of his own coinage, had to be replaced with a foreign one, of another's coinage:  race.  And so it was that in the first months of 1938, in Italy too, the newspapers, the local clubs, the radio, began the preparatory campaign against the Jews. (pp. 39-40)

La Storia, the original Italian title for Elsa Morante's 1974 work, can mean two things.  It can be "The Story," the singular narration of a tale, or it can be "The History," which in English connotes something different, something supposedly "more true" than just mere story.  Regrettably, this ambiguity is lost in English translation, yet within this "history" of Rome during the 1940s is buried the "story" of a woman, Ida, and her two sons, Nino and Useppe.

History is a sprawling novel, covering largely the 1941-1947 wartime and immediate post-war years in Rome.  Morante opens each year section with a chronology of that particular year's notable events.  The litany of death and suffering, of hatreds acted out and little moments of generosity snuffed out, is, as she wrote in the preface to the 1977 Franklin Library "First Edition," 'A scandal that has lasted for ten thousand years.'  This "scandal" is key to understanding the novel and how expertly Morante weaves in the universal with the tragic family history that forms the core of this novel.

Ida, a widowed teacher who is left to care for her two young sons, including one (Useppe) who suffers from epilepsy.  Soon we learn that Useppe is the product of rape and that it was a German soldier who performed the rape.  Through much of the novel, Ida struggles to deal with the consequences of these two violent acts, the death of her husband and her continual reminder of her rape when she cares for her son.  Morante presents Ida's struggles with some sympathy, but her focus is more on the symbolic connections between Ida and her sons' lives and Italy's socio-political condition during these years.

As seen in the passage quoted above, Morante often utilizes vivid, dreamlike images to establish atmosphere.  The Italy that Ida experiences is one that is starting to awake from a terrible, horrific dream of violence and hatred spawned by Mussolini's shackling his Fascist wagon to the back of Hitler's crazy train.  Throughout the novel, death and madness lurk behind a lot of the scenes, including Useppe's struggles to survive his bouts of grand mal seizures.  As the war progresses and Mussolini's government collapses in 1943, the privations Ida and others suffer grows.  We are witnesses to their search for shelter after a bombing, their near-continual hunger and the changes this causes in their relations with others and the world.  It is a somber tale, yet it is effective because of how integrated it is with the other "scandals" of the war.  Tens of thousands of years later, after all, we humans still try to hope against hope, even as we repeat all of our old mistakes of avarice and distrust.

Morante's story, however, falters a bit toward the end, as we shift away from Ida and more toward her two sons and another character, who like Ida, managed to hide his Jewish ancestry during the last years of German occupation of Rome.  While Morante tries to explore the effects of racism through these new PoVs, there isn't as strong of a connection between the personal and the historical as there was with Ida's struggles.  Ultimately, however, History manages to regain much of its lost momentum and while the conclusion is far from what one would call "happy," it is still a profound one that leaves the reader pondering this momentary wake in the crashing historical wave.

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