Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Reading (in) Rome

Georgia asked what I was bringing to read on my trip and whether I was bringing my reading in print books or e-books. I did consider bringing some "real" books along. It was tough, for example, to leave behind Marlon James' Brief History, halfway finished, but I knew that bringing it here meant having to cart it both ways; I'd never be willing to abandon my copy. Another temptation was the book on Roman history through archaeology that I'd just begun reading, James H.S.McGregor''s Rome from the Ground up. It would have been so satisfying to read a chapter and then be able to go out and see the sites he explicates. Again, though, a heavy book that I wouldn't be willing to leave behind, taking up precious luggage allowance coming and going.

So, given the limitations of a carry-on-only commitment, loading up my Kobo app was really the only way to go, although I did slip a slim volume of Tomas Transtömer poems into my bag, just in case....

The titles I loaded are all light reading aimed at deepening my sense of Rome in particular, Italy and the Italian culture in general. I began with Virginia Baily's novel Early One Morning, set during the Second World War and during the 70's. A young Italian woman whose parents have both died, leaving her solely responsible for her younger, epileptic sister, and whose fiancé has recently been killed in the war, visits the Jewish ghetto one morning as part of her efforts to contribute to the resistance. Witnessing, aghast, the rounding up Into trucks of the neighbourhood's inhabitants, Chiara responds instinctively to a mother's desperate handing-over of her young boy. Claiming him as her nephew, Chiara lifts him down from his mother's arms, saving him from deportation, concentration camps, and probable death, but also severing him from family for life. Her love for the boy, her struggles against his resistance, her need to save him from discovery and extermination as a Jew, all form one important strand of the novel.

The other strand is the story of a teen-aged Welsh girl who discovers accidentally that the father who raised her is not her biological father. In fact, her "real" father, as she terms him in anger against her parents' deception, is the young man rescued, as a boy, by Chiara. Maria travels from Cardiff to see what she can learn about her heritage, thus allowing readers lovely glimpses into Rome in the 1970s. As well, the novel captures that wonderful flaring of possibilities that can perhaps only be experienced fully by someone on the brink of adulthood. And perhaps only in a wonderfully chaotic, sensual city like Rome.

Because this novel is also very much about Rome, and although much has obviously changed over the last 70 years, in a city as old as Rome, there is yet much that remains the same. So that I delighted in recognition of sentiments such as Maria experienced, as in the example I've highlighted here.

I will admit to reservations about novels that use the Holocaust as a plot element to entertain and romance us. Early One Morning does educate, yes, about the evils of fascism, the horrors of wholesale deportation and murder, but there's no denying that too much of the ugliness happens offstage, is bracketed, rather. And the ending is, arguably, too satisfying to be satisfying. Yet the tale is well told (excellent pacing, a very deft movement between the two narratives), and the character development is rich and nuanced with ethical dilemmas foregrounded convincingly but not heavy-handedly.

And perhaps we're so ready to forget that even lighter reading around the holocaust is better than silence. We need to stumble into this knowledge through various paths, I suppose, just as we are intended to stumble into these reminders lodged in the streets of Rome's Jewish ghetto. These stolperstein (German for "stumbling blocks") are part of an international project by artist Gunter Demnig. I had recently been reading about objections to their placement in Vienna and then noticed these on Sunday while out walking with my daughter, son-in-love, and granddaughter.

Such a sobering, concrete reminder of a tragic reality, an undeniable part of the history of a sprawling and complicated city. A dangerous reality to introduce into a blog post -- any exit strategy is doomed to appear trite. But that is what I've been reading of Rome, in Rome. . .

Next on the Kobo, a memoir of a man searching out his Italian heritage. But for now, I think I'm going to do some reading of the streets of Rome, using my feet for eyes. . . Time enough for writing and words later....



  1. I was just at my book club Monday. We discussed the recent interest in fiction dealing with the struggles of civilians in World War Two. It sounds like "Early One Morning" is another such book. If you are interested, there is an interesting podcast, I believe that it was on "Ideas" about Anti-semitism in France. As much of the discussion centres around the Marais, you would probably find it interesting. I find that I learn a lot by using my feet.

  2. I'll have to look for that podcast when I get back. I've read a fair bit about anti-semitism in France -- a long, sad history, and too much of it in the 20th century. I've taken a number of German Literature classes, in which we were encouraged to think a bit about styles and structures artists might use to consider this period ethically. There's such a danger of turning it into a comforting catharsis or exploitative, even sensationalising, entertainment.
    I love your sentence "I learn a lot by using my feet" -- so do I! so true!

  3. How appropriate and perfect timing-Today is the day when Auschwitz was liberated!
    Your book seems to be very interesting

  4. I am very glad to hear you had one 'real' book in case of technical failure.

    As I read the excerpt I grabbed my phone and looked at my photos of the Tevere; yes, murky grey-green! A walk by a river is wonderful. My daughter and I had colds when we were last in Rome (not bad ones...but it made a funny story of trips to the Farmacia, evenings drinking garlicky broth watching Masterchef Italy, tissues like sandpaper mounded in the teeny wastebasket...). Anyway! The first day we were mostly restored to health we headed for the river. Cool and restorative.

  5. Dottoressa, I'm so pleased about the timing, which was completely accidental -- thanks for pointing it out
    Geogia: Yes, imagine if all my e-options failed -- imagine not having a book on hand!
    My granddaughter has had a cold most of the time I've been here -- glad I don't, but glad to hear you turned yours into a memorable bonding experience with your daughter -- your entire trip sounds otherwise wonderful, though.