Elsa Morante: La Storia – History (1974) Literature and War Readalong August 2011

History was written nearly 3 decades after Morante spent a year hiding from the Germans in remote farming villages in the mountains south of Rome. There she witnessed the full impact of the war and first formed the ambition to write an account of what history does when it reaches the realm of ordinary people struggling for life and bread.

La Storia aka History is the last WWII centered book of this readalong. It’s also the most ambitious, starting before the war and ending just a few years after. It describes in minute details how the schoolteacher Ida Mancuso, her two sons and the people to whom they are connected are affected by the war. La Storia looks in great detail into the impact of war on civilians. In telling this ordinary woman’s daily life we see how precariously civilians live during a war. The constant bombing, the fear, the loss of the houses or apartments, of friends and the jobs, the lack of food and clothes, rape and brutality, fear of being transpotred to a camp, all this together is part of everyday life. What civilians endure is no less harrowing than what happens on the battlefields.

Summarizing this vast canvas of a novel that is driven forward by ebullient storytelling would be quite a challenge, that is why I decided to highlight a few points.

History starts in 19** and ends …. 19**, but the core chapters focus on the years from 1941 to 1947. Before each chapter we find detailed accounts of all the important historical facts of those years. Reading this overpowered me and that was probably the aim. One horrible event follows after another and each and every single country participated in one awful event or the other. It’s a mad circle, a maelstrom that sweeps along everything and everyone and whose impact shapes, distorts and changes the life of normal people who are unable to escape this crazy frenzy.

Following the accounts of History’s furious rage, we read about the simple, childlike Ida, whose mother was Jewish. This fact fills her with constant anxiety all through the novel and even pushes her to do crazy and dangerous things. Ida is a widowed schoolteacher, the older of her boys, Nino, is a foolhardy opportunist, while the other one, Useppe, is the child she conceived when she was raped by a German soldier at the beginning of the war. In the early chapters of the novel Ida lives in modest circumstances but she has an apartment and enough food. When the war breaks out and finally comes to Rome, their house is bombed and she must flee to the countryside where she and Useppe, the little one, live in one room together with numerous other people.

Ida’s older son Nino first joins the fascist forces, later changes over to the partisans and finally becomes a criminal after the war. His “career” seems somewhat typical and I found that in creating a character like this Morante managed to capture a lot that is wrong in Italy. Opportunism and corruption are everywhere.

Focusing on Ida, we witness the ordeal of the “ordinary people”, how much they had to endure. The hunger is unspeakable. What they have to eat is hardly imaginable. Grass, cats, rats, anything. Being homeless and having no clothes is horrible. Having to fight or steal for just a little bit of bread is hard to imagine. It’s a truly harrowing account.

One of the most interesting details is the narrator. Who tells this story? To whom belongs this voice that is audible at any time, that speaks to us directly and from the heart of this novel?  Is it History speaking to us? It seems to be, as the way Morante describes people, animals and things seems to signify that everything is animated. So why not History itself? History is such a force, it seems as if it has become a being driven to destroy.

What I loved about this novel is that everyone has a voice. Useppe is as much a person as are his dogs Blitz or Bella. Their thoughts and feelings are rendered in great detail. I think in doing so she manages to emphasize that in a war everyone is equal, everyone is threatened. I also liked the detailed in the descriptions, the exuberant storytelling.

Despite all the positive aspects I also had a few problems with the novel, especially at the beginning. I didn’t like Ida. I know, it will sound mean, but she was too simple for me. She isn’t very introspective, she is almost a simpleton, still she is touching and the tragedies she endures moved me. I understand Morante’s choice for a character like this but I didn’t always enjoy it.

While reading this novel I found myself smiling a lot. Useppe’s and his dog’s thoughts are so charming in their naivety. The end of this novel moved me a lot. Without giving away too much, I can tell that it showed that there are far more victims in wars than winners, that wars still impact people long after they have ended and that history doesn’t spare anyone. There is no escaping this force that wreaks havoc in human lives.

Before closing I would like to ask a question of anyone who might have read this novel, now or at another point in time: Isn’t it dangerous to treat History like a being? Isn’t this blurring the fact that History isn’t an undefined, independent force but, in the end, it is people who harm other people?

Other reviews:

*****

History was the eight book in the Literature and War Readalong. The next one will be Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Discussion starts on Friday September 30, 2011 .