Friday, June 24, 2016

Not All Bastards Are From Vienna by Andrea Molesini

Not All Bastards Are From Vienna by Andrea Molesini
Translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar and Patrick Creagh
Grove Press

I don't read much current fiction. The current releases I usually focus on are usually either nonfiction or recent translations of older books. I've been holding off posting on a few recent releases that I've read because I couldn't generate much enthusiasm in posting about them. To overcome that, I was going to post about all of them together, but as usual my comments and quotes made the post too long and unwieldy. Instead, I'll push on and start with this book...

First up is Not All Bastards are from Vienna by Andrea Molesini. Set in the autumn and winter of 1917, the aristocratic Spada household finds itself occupied by opposing armies. First the Germans, then the Austrians appropriate the villa and its grounds as they advance through northern Italy. Their villa in Renfrontolo, a small town north of Venice, becomes a way station for the Central Powers as they bog down in their offensive. Intrigues, mostly related to the war but also in romance, abound.

Molesini has created some engaging characters. At the center is Paolo, an orphaned 17-year old boy living with the extended family at the villa. Quiet and studious, Paolo is treated as a kid, both by his family and the (even more insultingly) by the invading armies. The women in the book are strong, forceful characters. Aunt Maria's steely demeanor is backed by her resolve to have things her way. “I don’t think I ever met anyone more conscious than she of her rank in society. She knew in her innermost being that privileges are paid for by responsibilities, and these were two things to be borne with grace.” Paolo's grandmother acts with a similar steadfastness, treating her husband dismissively most of the time. Compared to her husband's flights of fancy, she asserts, “Real life is my province.” The oddities of Giulia, a distant family member, are overlooked because of her beauty and social standing. “She wasn’t in a madhouse because she was a Candiani, and gentlefolk—at least in those days—did not end up inside. Indeed they were not even mad: simply eccentric.” The role of Renato, a "lame giant" from polio, ends up going well beyond his position as steward of the villa.

Paolo's grandfather steals the show. A wonderful character, he calls himself a Buddhist even though he knows next to nothing about Buddhism. He says he is writing a book (he named his typewriter Beelzebub), but no one believes him. A lover of Gibbon, he became exasperated if anyone contradicted the historian. His speech was full of sayings “from the dictionary of proverbs stored in his head.” His bravado, though, masks a humiliation at his deterioration due to age, especially when the family cook defends him from the Austrians. As usual with such characters, there is some substance behind the masks. A marvelous character.

The book has many of the themes you would expect from such a setting, to which I'll add a few fitting quotes.

  • Occupation, as it relates to the family and to the country: The occupiers make it clear they don't need permission to take what they want. Even so, they exhibit varying levels of courtesy and propriety to the (formerly) well-to-do family. Those further down the social ladder are ignored (at best) or, more likely, abused. 
    • “To be guests of the enemy in one’s own house is perhaps more embittering than the sorrows of exile.” 
    • “[W]e were guests in our own house, reduced to dependence on the goodwill of enemy officers.”
  • The change in social order and classes: the Spada family deals with the change in fortune that the war brings, but hints emerge that things were already changing and will never be the same. 
    • “The Hapsburgs know how to govern; or at least, they did. There are at least fifteen languages spoken within the empire, and it is only loyalty to the emperor that holds the lid on that stew pot. If the ruling house falls—and I tell you that it will—then the various nations grumbling in its belly today will all turn against one another and tear each other to pieces.” 
    • “No one really wanted this war, not the peoples concerned, nor the governments. It just emerged from the boiling pot of dynasties that are decrepit and worn out, but have no, alas, forgotten their old dreams of grandeur. And the spoon that stirred the pot was in the inept hands of diplomats who for generations had dealt only with ordinary matters: ships, railways, money.”  
    • “When this war is over, the world will belong to people him,” said my aunt. “Our earls, our dukes, our gentlemen, and all their vons…so many hulks drifting with the tide; they don’t have—they won’t have any strength left to throw into the battle.” 
    • The grandfather, who had earlier talked about the time of officers controlling things would be replaced with a time of sergeants (reminiscent of Hesiod's ages of man): “And after the time of the sergeants, you’ll see, then will come the time of the corporals of the day.” (Obviously it can be taken several ways, not least of which is a prediction of the rise of Hitler.)
  • The atrocities of war, such as looting, rape, indiscriminate destruction: despite the attempt to retain some sort of social and moral order, once the war starts all such standards get swept away on both sides. Related to the previous point, the insistence on military order by the officers finds its reflection in the Spadas' views on social order. I find it an interesting study on how characters react to these changes. 
    • “Hunger had triumphed over honour.” 
    • “Their gestures, their neatly pressed uniforms, were eloquent expressions of the desire to rescue at least a memory of the courteous old way of life from the hurricane of med and death that was sweeping away nations and families.” 
    • “War also is like a child. A child who every so often shows us what we’ve had before our eyes and never seen, because we’re too careless or cowardly.” 
    • “The fear of hunger was stronger in him than hunger itself.” 
    • “They [soldiers] were empty bodies, perfectly healthy but empty, the soul, incapable of maintaining its grip, long separated from the flesh.”
  • Paolo’s coming of age: maturing is never an easy task, and occurring during such tumultuous times makes it even harder. Writing about it can be even harder. Despite being seventeen, Paolo is still treated as a child by both his family and the enemy. Compounding the slights in being treated this way, he is miserable because of his desire for Giulia. The closest thing Paolo has to a father figure is the steward Renato, who he initially underestimates but comes to respect and envy. I find many approaches on the coming-of-age theme awkward and sometimes cringe inducing. Fortunately, Molesini avoids this for the most part, but I still found Paolo's development stilted...which may be the point.
There are some very good moments in the book, many of the characters intrigued me, and Molesini can deftly turn a phrase. Given all that, I'm not sure why my enthusiasm and recommendation for this book is lukewarm. I enjoyed reading it, but I wonder if all the praise showered on it set my expectations too high. So take my comments with a grain or two of salt (as you should on anything I comment on).
We weren’t at all comforted by the thought that the chickens were a gift. "Nothing comes free of charge, and a gift costs more than anything else": this was one of Grandpa’s axioms, and for years Grandma had insisted that there was a mathematical basis to that truth. I knew that if Grandpa and Grandma agreed on an axiom—something that happened only rarely—it became a law of the universe, neither more nor less certain than the law of gravity.

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