Saturday, August 27, 2011

History by Elsa Morante

This is a huge (over 700 pages), magnificent novel set in Italy immediately before, during and immediately after the Second World War. When I picked it up I thought it might be hard going but it isn't. Admittedly there are scenes of great hardship and suffering and some sections are difficult to read. However mostly it is driven by the irrepresible optimism and liveliness of the central character Useppe, who is born near the beginning of the book and is still a child by the end of the book. His widowed mother Ida is a teacher, she is very timid and ignorant of world events. I wasn't convinced by Ida as a character, feeling that a teacher would have been unusual to have been quite so scared of the world, but teaching is possibly one of the few professions a woman in 1940s Italy could have had, and her ignorance was central to the book's effect. The book explores Italian history of the period very well but its focus is definitely on the lives of ordinary people who are living their lives, often in ignorance about much of the politics that was going on behind the scenes.

Ida and Useppe are bombed out of their original home, find a space in a crowded shelter then move through a succession of rooms. Useppe makes friends wherever he goes, though it is often difficult for him to find people to make friends with and his friends often disappear from his life without warning (which ultimately wears him down). He also finds two dogs, a cat, some rabbits and some canaries at various points along the way. Each of these animals is beautifully portrayed. Bella the dog is the most engaging fictional dog I've ever read about, she is a real friend for Useppe and a fully drawn character.

Useppe is also very much in tune with nature. There are several wonderful scenes where he visits favourite places to sit in trees and listen to the birds. He lives his life to the full and enjoys everything there is to enjoy around him.

Meanwhile history marches on, passing us all by, in our small lives, whether we choose to hide away from the world or embrace it.

History by Elsa Morante, translated from Italian by William Weaver

published in Italy in 1972, first published in the UK 2001 by Penguin

For Italy in Books

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