Elsa Morante, La Storia (1974; translated as History in 1977)

September 1st, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

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.

Ludmila Ulitskaya, Daniel Stein, Interpreter (2006; English translation 2011)

September 1st, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

4.  January 1946, Wroclaw 


Dear Avigdor,

Did you know I managed to find Dieter back in August last year?  He is alive, but stuck in a monastery!  When I heard he had become a monk I could not believe it.  We were in Akiva together, we were Zionists, we were going to go to Israel, and suddenly this!  A monk!  After the war there are not that many of us still around.  He is one of the lucky few, and all just to become a monk?  When someone said he was in Kraków I went straight there.  I was sure, and I still haven’t changed my mind completely, he must have been tricked.  To tell the truth, I took a pistol along just in case.  I captured a good Walther a while back. (p. 36)

Russian writer Ludmila Ulitskaya’s 2006 novel, translated ably by Arch Tait in 2011 as Daniel Stein, Interpreter, is not a true novel in the sense of a unified narrative.  Instead, it is an epistolary narrative, told through dozens of real and fictitious letters that narrate the life and beliefs of an extraordinary man, Oswald Rufeisen, the model for the titular Daniel Stein.  In these various letters, excerpts of speeches and even brochures, the broad parameters of his life and his conversion from Judaism to becoming a controversial Barefoot Carmelite monk living in Israel after the Holocaust are established.  It is a challenging work, one that can excite and frustrate even the most curious and cautious readers.

Daniel Stein, Interpreter is divided into five parts, yet these are not as much chronological divisions as they are thematic ones.  In them, real and fictitious characters based on actual people narrate in their letters to others (which in turn engender other conversations with still other readers, until each section concludes with a letter written by the author herself) their experiences in the past war, the Holocaust, their issues and crises of faith, and, sometimes in passing, their memories of this Jewish boy, Dieter/Daniel, who became a monk and who tried to re-create the Jewish Christianity of St. James of Jerusalem.  It is a fascinating tale, but one that requires quite a bit of parsing as to determine what is being said and what is being withheld.

Daniel’s character is one of the few things that are established solidly.  He is a smart, sensitive soul, yet one who manages to act as a mediator between intransigent groups.  He manages to survive the Holocaust by convincing the local Gestapo leaders that he is a Pole who is fluent in German and Yiddish and he uses this position of trust to shield over 300 refugees who have fled from their local ghetto to the surrounding forest, where they somehow manage to survive.  This ability to communicate across linguistic, cultural, and religious divides serves him well later in life, as he tries to reconcile the various branches of Christianity with Judaic practices.  For this, he becomes a thorn in the side of both the State of Israel, who granted him residency but refused to recognize him as a Jew, and the Catholic Church, whose leadership questioned in the 1980s if this monk preaching a return to Jewish Christianity should be muzzled.  Daniel’s efforts, quixotic as they may seem, are shown to have had a tremendous influence on the lives of several, including those who only came to know of him through the written and oral testimonies of others.

However, the other narrative threads, especially those related to how people choose their faiths or non-beliefs in moments of crisis, are more difficult to follow, as they are often not developed further.  There were several, at least three, sub-narratives that in their own right could have made for intriguing, if not outstanding, novels.  Yet here there are so many disparate elements suborned into the greater narrative of one man’s transforming faith and ability to interpret the various languages of desire spoken by his congregants.  It would have been nice to have seen more of this, as there are spaces of several letters where Daniel largely disappears into the background without much in the way of payoff later.

Yet despite these flaws, Daniel Stein, Interpreter is a powerfully constructed epistolary novel that largely works.  Although some character/letter sets are more poignant than others, for the majority of them, the effects that this largely historical convert/monk had on their lives are palpable.  The result is a story that promises to reveal new facets upon a re-read and is one well-worth visiting regardless of one’s creed or belief system.

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