not all bastardsOur book today is the English-language translation of Andrea Molesini’s utterly remarkable debut novel Not All Bastards Are From Vienna. The book originally appeared in 2010 and is here translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar and Patrick Creagh, and although I chuckled about it when the Englished version appeared last year (how could I not chuckle, considering the ridiculous title?), I never actually got around to reading the book, despite the long list of plaudits it received when it was first published. Getting the pretty paperback in the mail from the good folks at Grove Press was a very welcome reminder.

The book’s main action takes place in the autumn of 1917 and concentrates on the Italian country villa of the wealthy and vaguely aristocratic Spada family – including endearingly eccentric grandfather Gugliemo, Donna Maria, the strong-willed leader of the family, enigmatic family servant Renato, and teenager Paolo, an orphan who’s living with his grandparents on the fateful night when a detachment of German soldiers arrives and peremptorily billets itself in and around the family’s great house. “If you think you are unable to fit us in,” the German captain calmly informs Aunt Maria, “you will be obliged to leave the house.”

The family doesn’t leave, of course; instead, under Maria’s steely guidance and with the various species of guile brought to the situation by each family member (and, increasingly, by the initially dazed village priest, Don Lorenzo), they dig in for a long campaign of tacit resistance to the barbarities of war represented by the this group of brutal looters and their stiff, perhaps slightly worthier captain. And in the course of that resistance – including the more formalized paramilitary kind that inevitably takes shape in the village – young Paolo comes of age as we read, gradually learning to parse his own capacity for heroism and gradually coarsening to the prices occupation exacts, the changes it works in every aspect of the world as he formerly knew it:

And then, I personally had learnt something from the war. My bed was now a lumpy mattress, prickly and noisy, the soles and uppers of my shoes were worn out, the few scraps of meat I got to eat were as tough as leather, I drank unsweetened coffee, and everything, absolutely everything, stank. The streets stank of rotting wood, sweat, men, mules, and dung, and there was the stench of clotted blood in bandages, of rotting flesh, of piss, of stagnant water. Even in the garden I smelt cigarettes an tar, diesel oil, burnt rubber and dust. Wartime dust was different from the dust I knew. It got right under your clothes, penetrated curtains and walls, pervaded fields and woods. Even in winter, with the roads half iced over, the columns of lorries and mules managed to raise dust.

And that’s what I found: despite its absurd, damning, Trimalchio in West Egg title, Not All Bastards Are From Vienna is a tremendously moving novel, full of memorable characters and scenes. Even half-way through the book, I was still periodically amazed to remember that it’s a debut – at no point does it read like one, particularly in the place that debuts usually wear like a scarlet “B” (for “Botched”), the ending, which here hurls the reader to a final, brutal page. I wish I’d been on the spot to sing its praises last year, but better late than never: if you see the paperback in your bookstore and find yourself in the mood for first-rate historical fiction, don’t hesitate.

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