Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis + If This is a Man + The Truce

I may not be able to spend as much time preparing book reviews this year,
so they won't be as thorough or structured as I'd like.  The gap between
reading and reviewing may increase, and I'll also probably tie books
together by theme.  For example, the three books reviewed here look at
plight of Italian Jews during the rise and fall of fascism in Italy (during
the 1930s and 1940s).

1. "Il giardino dei Finzi-Contini" ("The Garden of the Finzi-Continis")
    by Giorgio Bassani

Set in the northern city of Ferrara, this is essentially a story of
unrequited love between the narrator, a working-class boy, and Micòl,
a girl from a prominent family (the Finzi-Continis from the title).
Both are from Italian Jewish families.

The narrator tells of a couple of periods in his life where he spent
time with the Finzi-Continis: first in his childhood, then later
when he was studying at uni.  Other characters include their parents,
Alberto Finzi-Contini (Micòl's brother), and other youths they spent
time with.

Despite the differences in social standings, the narrator holds out the
hope of marrying Micòl.  Interestingly, his chances appear to be helped
by a ban on inter-racial marriages that existed at the time.  This
should drastically reduce the number of rivals.

The plot summary on Wikipedia is quite good and concise:

As you read this book you're aware of the tragedy that looms for many
of the characters.  Despite this, it's an enjoyable read.

A film adaptation by Vittorio De Sica won the Academy Award for Best
Foreign Language Film in 1972.

2. "Se questo è un uomo" ("If This Is a Man") by Primo Levi

This is the autobiographical account of an Italian Jew (Primo Levi),
sent to work in a labour camp within the larger Auschwitz concentration
camp.  The author describes life in the camp - it's even worse than you
would imagine.

As in any "society", there is a pecking order, based not only on the
type of prisoner (political prisoner v criminal v Jew), but also on
which community you're from.  Amazingly, micro-economies thrive.  The
unit of currency was a daily ration of bread.  Prices were set for a
variety of goods and services: e.g. mending shoes, eating utensils and
medical checkups.

Given the gloomy setting, this is not an easy book to read.  But I was
inspired by the way people could maintain their humanity in such
terrible circumstances.  There's also the knowledge that the author
survived the ordeal to bear witness to what happened.

A more detailed plot summary and analysis (albeit in Italian) is
available on Wikipedia:
(Try Google Translate or similar if you're interested).  References to
parts of Dante's Inferno are sprinkled throughout the story, and the
Italian Wikipedia article discusses some interesting metaphors.

3. "La tregua" ("The Truce") by Primo Levi

This book follows on from "If This Is a Man", and chronicles the
author's liberation and journey home.  It's a long and indirect voyage
(an "odyssey"?), filled with interesting episodes.  Apart from Poland,
some of the places the survivors pass through include Ukraine, Romania,
Hungary, Austria and Germany.  I've managed to find a map of the route:

Primo and his fellow survivors look forward to getting home, but they're
unsure of what they will find when they get there.  Are they're families

There was a recent film adaptation, which was reasonably faithful to the

For a more detailed summary and analysis, check out the article on the
Italian Wikipedia: