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Review: Not All Bastards Are From Vienna, by Andrea Molesini
Grove/Atlantic, 2015. 348 pp. $26
Translated from the Italian by Anthony Shugaar and Patrick Creagh

If there’s such a thing as a thoroughly engaging novel about war–one that deals squarely with death, cruelty, injustice, and stupidity–this is it. It’s also easy to see why. Molesini’s characters live and die displaying forcefulness, ingenuity, weakness, strength, and, in many instances, mordant wit that keeps them sane. They feel at once larger than life yet wholly plausible and human, the ineffable secret of great fiction.

Some of the 250,000 Italian soldiers who surrendered at Caporetto in 1917 (Courtesy Digital Library of Slovenia via Wikimedia Commons).

Some of the 265,000 Italian soldiers who surrendered at Caporetto in 1917. The figure was so high in part because many detested their commanding general, Luigi Cadorna (Courtesy Digital Library of Slovenia via Wikimedia Commons; public domain).

The story takes place in Refrontolo, thirty miles north of Venice, following the disastrous Italian defeat at Caporetto in late 1917, which permits Germans, then Austrians, to occupy the town and commandeer the villa belonging to the Spada family. The key figures are Grandma Nancy and Aunt Maria, genteel women sure of their place in the world, equally certain that it’s above the invaders’. If the matriarchs bow to the power of the men who plunder their home and burn its furniture to keep warm, it’s because the soldiers have weapons. However, as grandma starchily informs the Austrian commandant, that doesn’t mean they have authority.

Consequently, how the Spada family, its retainers, and the local priest, Don Lorenzo, treat their unwelcome guests (and one another) turns a typical wartime tale into a novel rich with explorations of evil, social class, love, youth, religion, and patriotism. Narrating this wide-ranging story is Paolo, the seventeen-year-old grandson/nephew of the matriarchs. His parents having died at sea, he’s an orphan, but he’s anything but moping. He doesn’t miss them, having never received any love or even closeness, and his relatives do their best to make up for it.

Paolo spends much time with his Grandpa Guglielmo, an armchair philosopher who always has something pithy to say (“war and loot are the only faithful married couple”), and who encourages his grandson’s keen interest in his surroundings. In fact, it’s interest, rather than engagement, that describes Paolo at the start, for he seems detached. He observes everything but often keeps his emotional distance, and I wonder why; maybe it’s the parents who never gave him warmth. Even in his pursuit of Giulia, a woman eight years his senior who turns many heads, Paolo seems more lustful than anything else.

However, among other things, the novel is his coming-of-age story, for as the war tightens its grip on Refrontolo and the Spada villa, he comes out of himself. He becomes closer to his grandfather, whom he tries to understand; gets involved in resistance activities; and begins to see the people around him in more complex ways. He’s also the receptive ear for his elders’ wisdom, as when his aunt–who’s trapped in her hopeless attraction for the Austrian commandant–says:

The vanquished cannot forgive the victors . . . even if no one ever knows who really wins and who loses, because what’s at stake, what’s really at stake, the things that no one ever talks about, are unknown. Life goes on . . . but you lose pieces of yourself along the way, every day.

There’s so much life to this book, even as it describes the ugliest things humans do to one another. The characters just won’t be denied. Everyone has his or her angles and corners, and no figure is too minor to pass by without a distinctive detail, as with the innkeeper whose hair, accent, and complexion bring him to life, even for the sentence or two in which he appears. No scene is too brief to go without proper attention to ambience, scenery, or impact, yet the narrative flies by rapidly. In lesser hands, this novel could be twice its length, but, as with the resourcefulness his characters must show, Molesini gets a long way on very little.

Two aspects of Not All Bastards Are from Vienna bother me. If Paolo is indeed meant to be withdrawn and self-contained in the beginning, and we’re meant to understand that his cold upbringing caused that, he changes rather quickly. It’s a pleasure to watch him mature, but I’m not sure I buy it. Secondly, the end feels a little contrived, but it’s not unjust, and I suppose few readers will mind.

A marvelous book.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.