If you blink, you could miss it. But if you’re careful, you will see that I have been given a walk-on part in this remarkable book. Or better perhaps, a sit-in part. I’m in a Dublin pub, together with the author, jumping to conclusions. I have the unfortunate tendency to do that. Worse still, the conclusions I like to jump to are usually the wrong ones, as in this case…Being judgemental means letting your prejudices run away with you, not opening your eyes to the world, not accepting people for what they are, in the unshakeable belief that you know best.
For our good luck that is not an accusation one could ever level against Paul Martin. He has a well tuned moral compass, but he never allows it to get the better of his curiosity, his generosity of spirit and his openness of mind. He wants to unlock the past, not to lock it up. And in the process he writes a cracking story.
At heart the story is a love story. Paul’s love of Italy and his abiding affection for his wife’s Italian family shine through on every page. The book is a homage to them and it is quite clear that his affection is reciprocated in full. And why would it not be? What is there not to love about a son-in-law who labours for years in his spare time to give a voice to individuals whom History had rather silenced and Time consigned to oblivion? In doing so Paul has also succeeded in penning lively portraits of unforgettable characters, with all their strengths — their exceptional fortitude and endurance — and their weaknesses.
As Paul himself acknowledges, the voice he has given them may not appeal to everyone, especially in Italy, where views on Fascism and the Resistance are often held dogmatically…
For sure, talking about Italy’s Fascist past is not an easy task, especially when it risks intruding into family secrets. But Paul does so with great sensitivity and a good dose of self-deprecating humour, in the tradition of the great Italian poet Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533). In his Orlando Furioso (Orlando Gone Mad), Ariosto tells entertaining stories of damsels in distress and knights in shining armour… but at the same time he includes himself in the poem, as a mischievous narrator who continually challenges the readers to wonder whether what they are being told is true and what its import is. Paul does the same and with the same effect…So even as it tells the captivating story of Paul’s Italian family during the Second World War, the book depicts his own encounter with history. It is a dialogue with history and the truth.
It would be nice to think that it is also a cautionary tale for our times, but our times, I fear, have no desire to be cautious. The truth is whatever we choose it to be — we’d rather lock it up than unlock it — and our favoured method of communication is harangue and insult. But if it cannot be a cautionary tale, it can at least be an invitation to discover (more of) Italy. The Alto Adige/Südtirol region in the north, from where Babi, the story’s long-suffering protagonist hails, is picture-postcard perfect in its beauty and one can well imagine how heart-rending it must have been to have to leave it — though admittedly in those days it experienced none of the affluence it enjoys today. Ancona, where she settled in due course with her heroic husband Bruno and their children, has so far simply been a drive-through kind of place for me, a ferry terminal on my way to Greece. But now it will most definitely be a go-to place.
And all of this is most definitely a conclusion I have not jumped to! So, dear reader, enjoy the book as much as I did and be as moved by it as I was. Buona lettura!
Associate Professor of Italian Studies (emeritus),
University College Dublin
Cavaliere dell’Ordine della Stella d’Italia
Dublin, February 2019