Book Review: A Chill in the Air

Iris Origo is perhaps best known as the author of her previous diary, War in Val d’Orcia, which she published to acclaim in 1947. It was praised for the positive effect it had on Anglo-Italian relations as it detailed the risks taken in the German occupied region of southern Italy, where Origo lived with her husband and daughter, to assist partisans, fugitives and refugees. A Chill in the Air is another of Origo’s diaries covering the years 1939/40, when Italy was looking to Mussolini to keep them out of a war slowly spreading across Europe. It details the rumours and propaganda of the time – the struggle to sift truth from a variety of news sources and the debates these sparked.

Origo was born to wealth and privilege. She had high placed connections in the arts as well as diplomatic circles. In 1924, aged twenty-two, she married Antonio Origo and they purchased an estate in southern Tuscany. Despite having a child (who died, aged 7) she continued to travel abroad periodically, indulging in occasional love affairs. She would return to her husband who was taking advantage of Mussolini’s ‘Battle of the Wheat’ to turn their arid land into productive farms worked by peasants.

The book offers a first hand account of a strange time written by a woman largely raised in Italy but not fully belonging due to her British and American parentage. As well as providing insight into the thinking of her peers and the local population, it offers thoughts on wider attitudes to the growing threat of conflict. Early on Origo recognises that governments must manipulate popular opinion by whatever means necessary if they are to get their way.

“It is now clear what form propaganda, in case of war, will take. The whole problem will be presented as an economic one. The “democratic countries”, i.e. the “haves”, will be presented as permanently blocking the way of the “have-nots” to economic expansion.”

There is resentment from wives and mothers as their husbands and sons are conscripted. They question the point of raising boys, of working hard for a better life, if the men they nurture can simply be taken away.

There are predictable prejudices and blind spots recounted, depending on who the author is talking to. Despite differences of opinion, few have any appetite for the coming war.

“A still, lovely summer’s evening; the grapes ripening, the oxen ploughing. Only man is mad.”

Nevertheless, as Hitler continues his expansion this mood must be changed – governments control through fear and suppression of resistance.

“Day after day, year after year, every paper gives us the same news, preaches the same doctrine. Plenty of people say, ‘We don’t believe what’s in the papers: it’s all a pack of lies!’ But all the same, something sinks in.”

Horrific tales of atrocities abroad are discussed. The German army, high on cocaine to retain energy, are reported as baiting and killing the ordinary Polish people they come into contact with. Businessmen make money from stolen property and commerce.

“The capitulation of Holland is announced with considerable Schadenfreude. On the same day a grocer in Florence receives a letter from a German firm – already offering him Dutch cheeses!”

More countries fall to Hitler’s occupying forces and freedoms are curtailed. News from abroad becomes harder to obtain. Attention focuses on what Italy’s future role will be.

“we hardly pay any attention to the news that Russia is occupying Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. Japan is menacing Indo China. Banditry spreads fast.”

When Italy joins the war there is a feeling of inevitability. Within the new order, power is shifting.

“the contempt of the new world for the old, of the self-made man for those who have attained with ease what he has achieved with effort.”

It is interesting to read this Italian view of other nations, especially of England – regarded as corrupt and sterile – and of Churchill whose speeches are considered:

“vain boasts, based on no foundation of fact – a cynical last attempt to bolster up the English people to meet their inevitable destruction.”

The diaries cease abruptly when Origo goes into labour – her pregnancy had not been mentioned until she travelled to Rome for the birth.

In an Afterword, written by her granddaughter, we are offered a glimpse of the author’s later years.

These diaries offer a first person account reported with immediacy rather than hindsight. I did not find the entries entirely compelling but they challenged the history taught to me in school. For this I am glad to have read the book even if my interest did at times wane. The politics and loyalties of Italy under Mussolini are portrayed in an alternative and therefore thought provoking light.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

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Book Review: Soul of the Border

Soul of the Border, by Matteo Righetto (translated by Howard Curtis), is set in the remote and diminished village of Nevada near the alpine border between Italy and Austria. Here the De Boer family have lived for generations, eking out a living growing tobacco on the steep valley terraces. By the end of the nineteenth century the border has been moved, the land changing from Austrian to Italian rule. The high quality tobacco grown in the area is strictly monitored and purchased by the monopolistic Royal Tobacco Company.

Augusto de Boer is married to Agnese. They have three children: Jole, Antonio and Sergio. Each must work relentlessly to grow the crop that keeps them from starvation. The threat of famine and illness have driven many in the region to abandon their land and seek fortunes elsewhere.

To make life a little easier for his family Augusto has found ways to hide and process small quantities of their crop. Following the main harvest he will traverse the mountains and cross the dangerous border to reach the mining towns in Austria. Here he trades his smuggled tobacco for minerals that the exploited miners sneak out from below ground in their bodies. He brings home the valuable silver and copper that he may trade them for food and livestock. It is a dangerous business as customs officials roam the border lands intent on punishing those they regard as robbing The Crown and their wealthy acolytes.

When Jole turns fifteen Augusto decides that she will accompany him on his dangerous journey that someone else may learn the route through the mountains. Several years later, when he has not returned home from a smuggling trip, she sets out with tobacco to make a trade and find out what happened to her beloved if taciturn father. What she learns on this journey will change her forever.

The book is written in three parts. The first sets the scene and explains how the family lives. The second and longest part covers the journey Jole makes, the dangers encountered and the people she meets. The final section details her attempt to return. The perils encountered at home and away are both natural and man made.

The plot progression is, at times, slow with unremitting dangers described in detail, only some of which are actually encountered. There are depictions of the poverty experienced by those whose harsh and poorly rewarded work ensures the wealthy continue to live in comfort. Balancing this bleak outlook is the beauty of the mountains and their natural inhabitants, although these can, at any moment, become life threatening.

In many ways this is a timeless tale of mass exploitation to generate wealth for elites. By establishing and then strictly enforcing borders and laws, to remove hope of improvement for workers, there will naturally be those who turn to subversion. Augusto and then Jole force themselves to face fear and danger for the love of their family. The risks they take may feel worthwhile but ultimately the personal cost is high.

The writing is well structured with keen portrayals of time and place. The premise of the tale may not not be original but it is vividly told.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.