One of the most famous post-war Italian films, Vittorio De Sica’s The bicycle thief, ends in desolation. Struggling to feed a family amid the post-war poverty of Rome, a man’s survival is threatened when his bicycle is stolen. Without it, he will lose his precious job. Without it, his family will starve.
After a series of anxious and unsuccessful searches, towards the film’s end, in desperation, he steals the bicycle of a fellow hard-pressed citizen. Chased by a crowd, he is soon caught, manhandled and humiliated in front of his young son. The camera then turns to his crushed son, tearfully holding his father’s battered hat. On seeing him, the hard-bitten bicycle owner relents and gruffly tells the mob to let the man go.
The film’s final shot shows only the father’s pained expression of defeat as he walks aimlessly, carried by the tide of pedestrians, his disconsolate boy by his side. Before the eyes of his son, he had violated a father’s basic responsibility of teaching his child right from wrong and had attempted to steal from another man. And even in that he had ignominiously failed.
Viewed by Italians among the destroyed buildings and collapsed order of 1948, this finale must have posed devastating questions. After such a war what example could Italians give to the next generation? What sense of worth could any of them, as parents, claim or hope to impart? After all the shoddy compromises and deprivations of the recent past, how could they give a more innocent future to their children and ensure that these sordid times would be forever erased?
And more immediately, how could they feed their family the next day?
Over the following decades Italy’s situation dramatically improved. The economic boom of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s brought extraordinary prosperity to much of the country. For almost two generations a welcome interlude effectively ended emigration, gave good employment and provided a welfare state that allowed most people to live a decent, if not a comfortable, life.
But in 2007, 60 years after the release of The bicycle thief, as we awaited the birth of our first child in a small medieval hillside town in Central Italy, it was palpable that challenging times were returning.
In a top-floor bedroom of the small hospital perched high in the hills of Italy’s Marche (Mar-kay) region, I languished on that summer afternoon with my wife, Barbara, awaiting the emergence of our first born who, perhaps attuned to the world outside, seemed in no hurry to appear.
As if in a nineteenth-century European drama, Franca, my mother-in-law, vainly tried to dispel the stifling heat with an elegant, almost out-of-place, silk fan. The birds chirped and trotted on the terracotta roof tiles outside while her daughter, seemingly untroubled, lay on the double bed lost in budding maternal thoughts.
The hospital was deserted that July Sunday as all but a skeleton staff seemed to have gone to the sea. As the minutes passed slowly, the expectant father and grandmother desultorily drifted in and out of talk. That hot afternoon possessed an amorphous quality as if something was poised to break through the crust of our unusual conversation.
By now I had known Franca for years. She had first met me as a 22-year old hardly out of boyhood and often treated me as if I were her fifth child. A curious, energetic and sociable woman, we often talked and she had a good sense of my interests. It seemed strange that she had therefore never before mentioned to me the war story of her long dead father, Bruno Calcagnile.
Later I would better appreciate how for an Italian woman of her generation (like The bicycle thief, she entered the world in 1948), she might think the story of no particular interest to anyone. Not being part of the here and now, it belonged only to the jumble of the past and the endlessly tedious tensions from the war.
With the impending birth, I asked about deceased family members on both her father’s and mother’s sides. It was between snatches of this conversation that she then told me about her father, Bruno; how he had been imprisoned in Germany during the war and on liberation had made his way back on a stolen bicycle to Italy and his awaiting family.
Suddenly recalling the post-war chaos recounted in books like Primo Levi’s The truce, I imagined what he must have undertaken in his emaciated condition to scavenge for food and survive on the long road home. But when I pressed her to elaborate on her one-sentence story, all she could say was: “I really don’t know any more. My father died when I was very young and my mother never really talked about the war.” But then she added something odd. “But there was talk that he had sided with the Fascists and for that reason they never gave him his proper war pension.”
Events later that day took me away from her intriguing tale. But with the birth of our first son (twin boys would follow two years later), my blood was irrevocably co-mingled with theirs. Now wholly initiated, as a life-long member, into the hallowed sanctum of an Italian family, Bruno’s history (and integral to it so much of Italy’s contentious memory of war) was tentatively mine to explore. Only later would I better understand the responsibility I had unknowingly assumed; it would now be down to me – with the enormous help of Franca and her sister, Anna – to unravel this unyielding story and to pass it on to the next generations.
I had first come to Ancona 15 years before that July birth and this book was over a decade in the making. Still, a quarter century on, I am more than ever aware how impossible Italy – or any part of it – is to truly understand. The obfuscation that followed the war and the wide-scale anaesthetising of culture and history in modern Italy were to make this undertaking extremely complex.
This troublesome period essentially extended over two decades, starting with the invasion of Abyssinia just after Bruno had completed his early military training in 1935, continuing throughout the war and immediate post-war periods until his early death in the mid 1950s. I could have found few better narratives through this tangled web than the story of Bruno and his German-speaking wife, Babí – and my new Italian family. At each point they seemed quite uncannily to mirror the huge canvas of those remarkable times.
Over the 11 years of writing this book the world would change profoundly as both memory of, and sensibility towards, the Second World War in many ways faded. The story’s unearthing would also not be simple; it would bring me to the former Austro-Hungarian Empire in Northern Italy, to a Jewish internment camp in the Marche, to quagmires in Albania, to Stalingrad, to a vile war in the Balkans, to a prison in East Prussia, to a forced labour factory near Leipzig, to an impoverished and troubled post-war Ancona, and finally to an almost ridiculously tragic road accident in 1956.
But more than anything it was to give me an unexpected appreciation of the generosity of my new Italian family, of the character of their native city of Ancona and of the memories and tensions which seem to be always simmering just below the genteel surface of everyday life in this extraordinary country.