When History: A Novel (Italian: La Storia), by Italian Author Elsa Morante, was published in 1974, it received a wave of nasty criticism. The most scathing criticism of all came from the Italian poet and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini. Pasolini’s ruthless rant ridiculed the accents of the young boys in the story as inauthentic and accused Elsa Morante of almost criminal intent in her portrayal of the animals—two dogs and a cat.
Pasolini’s main criticism appeared to have been spawned by the story itself—he felt it was too far out of sync with the surging wave of optimism espoused by the political left. Of the many critics who swarmed like stinging wasps, attacking Morante’s work, Pasolini’s diatribe stung her the most. He and Morante had been close friends and creative colleagues among Italy’s literary elite for years. After his public attack on her work, the two never spoke again.
Despite the controversy, La Storia became a best-seller, selling over 600,000 copies in Italy alone. Regardless of what the critics said, word on the street heralded this book for its poignant storytelling that was powerfully executed by a brilliant writer.
Unlike World War II stories told from a German, British or American point-of-view, Italy is the epicenter of La Storia. This novel’s name is ambiguous; it can either be called “History” or “Story,” depending not only on the literal Italian translation to English, but also on the subtlety of the word’s true meaning. It is precisely this ambiguity that is at the root of its brilliance. Each of the novel’s eight sections begins with a succinct narration of events and trends that were taking place in real time all over the world—history in the making.
As the story of Ida Ramundo unfolds, La Storia weaves a heart-wrenching spell. A young woman of Rome, Ida Ramundo is partly Jewish, and struggling for her life. Her father’s non-Jewish bloodline gives her the Italian ethnic cloak to hide from being herded from the Roman Ghetto into the Auschwitz train from the Tiburtina Station and into the throes of the death camp.
Ida is widowed; she struggles to raise her teen son Nino by teaching at a local school. Soon all hell breaks loose. Ida is raped by Gunther, a German soldier who never learns he has sired a son before he is soon killed in combat on the front lines in Africa. Ida hides her pregnancy with the same tenacity that she hides her Jewishness and gives birth to Useppe. A musical sprite of a boy, his laughter and curiosity radiate with pure joy in this war-ravaged city. Useppe grows slowly, painstakingly so, with the impish charm of Charles Dickens’ Tiny Tim. Useppe skips through his day-to-day life like a normal little boy, never knowing that the air strikes, mass starvation, and death looming all around him are not normal at all.
During a time in Italy’s history when many left-wing intellectuals regarded communism to be the new holy grail, Morante’s La Storia depicted sympathetic characters whose lives were destroyed by the atrocities committed against ordinary people. Morante must have realized that all political ideologies that incite hatred are ruses used by men who want to attain power and will ruthlessly destroy anyone or anything that stands in their way of getting it.
One character in La Storia, Davide Segre, at first goes by the name of Carlo Vivaldi to hide the fact that he is Jewish. He comes to the realization that all ideologues are the same. Whether it be fascism, communism, anarchism, or even in the 21st Century what we have come to know as trumpism, all of these ideologies are weaponized by corrupt men who are intent on taking control by subjugating the masses with the cruel opium of their messianic and evil notions about humanity. In the end, it is always men of power, greed and corruption who rise to the top on the backs of the working people who mistakenly thought they were being saved.
La Storia was never a story that was rendered through a fanatical ideological lens. It is a story where the characters jump out at you and draw you into their world. Many minor characters come and go, each one adding another dimension in the human capacity to create great beauty and joy in the midst of great sadness and tragedy. You will never forget the many facets of light sweeping through the trees and streets of Rome, or the joy two young brothers share with one another upon their discovery of the dog Blitz, a mutt who has street smarts greater than any ghetto kid. As the little boy Useppe wanders through the streets of Rome, fluffy white Bella, a Maremma Shepherd, protects him with ferocious love as strong as death. And we feel Useppe’s child-like confusion when the cat Rossella gives birth to a single kitten but is too malnourished to feed it.
Although the book chronicles the history of the first half of the twentieth century, its laser-like focus hones-in on the years leading up to World War II, from 1941, throughout the duration of the war, and immediately after, to 1947. Morante’s keen eye and powerful prose spare no detail. Writers in the 21st century might find her style to be dense, but it is never florid or sentimental. Morante rarely wastes a word on the superfluous and sets a fine example of the way writers ought to write. Too many books by 21st Century authors pull out all of stops by removing their richly textured language as if these words have been censored and edited by publishing executives who want to package books and sell them like opioids to the masses.
La Storia is powerful because of its many layers that defy language—the nuances in what can be gained or lost in translation. Who among us has had misgivings reading the work of Emile Zola, Leo Tolstoy or Gabriel Garcia Marquez because its original language is not English? You can be reassured that in this case, Elsa Morante worked obsessively closely with La Storia’s translator, William Weaver, often entailing daily phone conversations where they discussed the most picayune precision of language. The very essence of this story as seen through the eyes of great characters cannot possibly have gotten lost in translation.
One facet of this story is subtle and not easily perceptible. We see the woman Ida Ramundo age before our eyes, as she endures one blow after another, always picking herself up and pressing on so she can take care of her sons. Ida is as virtuous and as holy as the Virgin Mary, trying to conceal her Jewishness and her pregnancy the way Mary never had to because she was preordained to be the mother of God. Some historical accounts of Mary, mother of Jesus of Nazareth, suggest she was raped by a Roman soldier named Panther (Panthera or Pantera), the same way Ida was raped by a German soldier named Gunther. Without a husband named Joseph or a guardian angel to protect her, if Ida ever felt abandoned by God, she never said so, but we know that she has been. We feel her pain when she joins a queue, standing in line for hours, to wait for rations of milk or flour, only to arrive at the top of the line to find the food supply has run out just as she got there.
Ida witnesses the rounding up of the Jews from the Roman Ghetto, where they were herded into cattle cars and led away to the gas chamber. According to Elsa Morante, of the 1,056 passengers on the Rome – Auschwitz train from the Tiburtina Station, there were 15 survivors. Of the 15 survivors only one was a woman. After the allied liberation of the death camps, each of the survivors were given a second-class railway ticket to return home to Rome. Upon their arrival in Italy they were each given a small cake of soap, and for the men, a packet of razor blades.
Elsa Morante writes, “Even those who were once tall seemed little and walked hunched over, with a long and mechanical tread, like puppets. In the place of their cheeks were two holes; many of them had hardly any teeth left and, on their shaved, emaciated heads, a feathery down had just begun to grow, like a baby’s. Their ears stuck out, and their hollow eyes, black or brown, didn’t seem to reflect the images of their present surroundings, but some host of haunting figures, like a magic lantern of constantly changing absurd forms…Because of their ridiculously scant weight and their strange appearance, people looked at them as they were jests of nature.”
They were easily recognized. On the streets of Rome, people called out, “That’s a Jew.”
La Storia begs the question: Must history always repeat itself? Yes, of course. Can humans evolve to the point where this could never happen again? No. No matter what, human beings are condemned to repeat their crimes against humanity because in the aftermath no one listens to the survivors or learns enough from them to not make the same mistake again. Men of great ambition with a lust for power have no problem trampling on the hallowed ground of the dead.
As Morante noted, upon their return to Rome, the death camp survivors weren’t exactly shunned, but no one cared much about what had happened to them. “Soon they learned that nobody wanted to listen to their stories: some people’s minds wandered at the start, others interrupted them promptly with an excuse, and others actually stepped away from them, snickering, as if to say: ‘Brother, I feel sorry for you, but I have other things to do right now.’”
Toward the end of this story, the young Jewish man Davide Segre drunkenly announces in a bar, “I’m a Jew.” No one cares and no one pays him much mind. It’s only two years after the concentration camps were liberated, but already it was as if it had not happened. The men in the bar shrug as if to say, So what? You were hunted yesterday but you are hunted no more. Life is normal again. For Davide Segre, it will never be normal again, a haunting realization that destroys his life.
Read La Storia slowly, ten pages at a sitting, until you reach the last quarter of the book. By then you will be so filled with angst and concern for the well-being of the characters that you will be drawn into the story’s momentum as it reaches the pacing of a page-turner. You will want to kill Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, and all of their cronies again and again for all of the pain and suffering that they caused to so many innocent people—the dead and the dying who never knew what had hit them or why.
The literary world is not always kind to any writer who bucks the prevailing trend. In 1974 La Storia was deemed to be so controversial among Italian intellectuals that for a time, the book was banned in Franco’s Spain. The intellectual zeitgeist had not yet arrived at the conclusion that all ideologies that ascribe to demonizing one social class at the expense of another, even communism, are hard-wired for failure. There was still faith and credence in the idea that communism was a pragmatic solution to the world’s income inequality. Intellectuals like Pier Paolo Pasolini could not look past the leitmotif of ideology to see the beauty of the characters whose lives are fully-fleshed-out in La Storia, which is indeed both history and a story—pure tragedy.
Pier Paolo Pasolini later met his own tragic end. He was bludgeoned to death at a beach close to Ostia. His murder was at first thought to be at the hands of seventeen-year-old Giuseppe (Pino) Pelosi, but later it was thought Pasolini might have been conspiratorially murdered by several men from southern Italy who had described Pasolini as “a dirty communist.”
Beginning with the fall of the Berlin Wall in East Germany to the new market economies emerging in Vietnam and Cuba, communism has faded in the 21st Century. La Storia’s Ida Ramundo did not live long enough to see the decline of communism. Although Ida escapes being carted off to Auschwitz, every step of the way she encounters her own private holocaust. Fortunately, she did not have to bear witness to the rise of a new form of fascism in the Twenty-first Century. Through her own suffering, a suffering as great as the biblical Job, she comes to the realization that throughout all human history, corrupt power mongers have always used hateful ideologies to destroy the lives of good, kind, ordinary people, like you and me, all of us.
The world is not always kind to authors who tell the truth. Eventually new life rises from the charred embers of the dead. A great book is found again, sometimes accidentally, and suddenly discovered as if it is new. The characters live on to talk about their suffering, regardless if anyone wants to listen long enough to learn how to stop the carnage from ever happening again. In the end, this profound beauty of a book has endured and will continue to stand the test of time. Maybe one day, someone will listen.
About Patricia Vaccarino
Patricia Vaccarino has written award-winning film scripts, press materials, content, books, essays and articles. She is currently writing a collection of essays NOTES FROM THE WORKING-CLASS. She has written two works of fiction about Yonkers: YONKERS Yonkers! A story of race and redemption and its sequel The Heart of Yonkers (release date April 2020). Book Three in the Yonkers series is in development. In addition, she frequently writes about libraries, and has written a monograph about the circumstances that led to the razing of the Yonkers Carnegie Library in 1982. She has an audience of 40,000+ followers on social media. She divides her time between homes in downtown Seattle and the north coast of Oregon.