Book Reviews

First Words
A Childhood in Fascist Italy -
Rosetta Loy

Translated From the Italian by Gregory Conti
Metropolitan. 186 pp. $22

Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley.

Reprinted from The Washington Post with the permission of the author.

Diary of a Young Girl

This slender book is offered as a memoir, but it comes closer to being what William Styron called his own "The Confessions of Nat Turner": a "meditation on history." Though it includes recollections of the author's girlhood in Rome before and during the Second World War, it is chiefly concerned with the treatment of Jews in Italy during that dreadful period and with what she regards as the complicity in this of the country's intellectual community and the Roman Catholic Church.

Rosetta Loy, who was born in 1931, is described by her publisher as "one of Italy's leading novelists," who has "written seven novels and been honored with every major Italian literary award." Her work "has been translated into 10 languages," but only once, apparently, into English; of her previous books, only "The Dust Roads of Monferrato" has been published in this country in translation (by Knopf, in 1991), and it can be found now only in secondhand book stores.

This may be explained by the aversion that American readers generally seem to harbor toward European fiction--an inexplicable oddity when one considers the huge popularity enjoyed in this country by translations from Russian of Boris Pasternak and from Spanish of several Latin American authors, most notably Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Whatever the reason, Loy is an almost entirely unknown commodity in the United States; this, on the evidence of "First Words," is a pity.

Loy's personal memories of the large subject with which she wrestles in this book are understandably limited.

In 1937, when the "neglected issue of 'race' " burst into the Italian press, she was only 5 years old. The Jewish population of Italy was small--some 48,000 in a total population of 44 million--and for the most part thoroughly assimilated. A Jewish woman was kind to young Rosetta and a Jewish boy played nearby, but they were merely neighbors, somewhat distinguished from others by their religious observances but otherwise just normal, regular people.

The crackdown on Italy's Jews began as a gesture from Mussolini to Hitler, toward whom Il Duce was craven in all respects. To curry favor with the Nazis and their powerful armed forces, Mussolini became "the pupil who outdoes the teacher," and by 1938 he had orchestrated an antis-Semitic campaign "all over the national press, not only the openly anti-Semitic papers . . . but the large-circulation moderate papers as well." Jews were attacked repeatedly and virulently, and "although the majority of Italians don't respond to the new racist line with the level of enthusiasm that Mussolini might expect, the intellectuals fail to demonstrate even a shadow of the staunch opposition that more than a few people are hoping they will mount," a complacency no doubt connected with Mussolini's decision "to increase--up to three times their previous level--government subsidies to intellectuals."

The cowardice of the intelligentsia was not at first echoed by the Vatican. Pope Pius XI, in a speech delivered in 1938, "asks himself 'why in the world Italy, so unhappily, felt the need to imitate Germany' and goes on to affirm that 'there is only one human race,' stressing that racism is foreign to Italian tradition." But with his death the next year and the ascension of Pius XII, all that changed. The new pope had long showed sympathy for Nazi Germany, and under his leadership the Vatican not merely was silent as the Final Solution went into effect but expressed, in private, its sympathy for German policies that led to unspeakable atrocities.

In Italy the persecution of the Jews did not become truly murderous until the early 1940s, when Mussolini became a German puppet and the SS began knocking on Italian doors. Rosetta Loy, still a young girl living in a Catholic family that retained a measure of its prewar prosperity, was comparatively untouched by what was happening around her; but looking back on the sudden and mysterious disappearances of her Jewish neighbors and friends, she is swept by grief and guilt:

"There is a black border around those guiltless days of ours. If the Levis didn't defend themselves and were unable to imagine the inconceivable, surely it is not least because they considered themselves, like all other Romans, beneficiaries of certain guarantees. For too long they had shared with us happy days and sad, fears, cowardice, hopes. Going up and down the same stairs, drinking the same tea, stirring the spoon in the cup, they had spoken the same language, in the lexical sense but also in the emotional sense, for far too long to think of themselves as other. How to imagine the monstrous sense of isolation they must have felt in the grip of the SS and their orders, which, within twenty minutes, eliminated them from the human race?"

To the little girl that Rosetta Loy was then, there was "no impulse to scream, to do something for that boy with the cheerful face who used to ring their bell, his leather ball tucked tightly under his arm." This book is her protest. It comes many years after the fact, but that in no way diminishes its passion or its quiet power.

2000 The Washington Post Company

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
All rights reserved.