Giuseppe: A Survival Story

Written by Piero San Giorgio
Review by Helen Johnson

Imagine you could go to your grandfather – or great grandfather – and say, “Tell me about the war”. And he organised his thoughts, and wrote down his experience of the Second World War – with helpful little footnotes to explain things you might have missed in school.

This is Giuseppe. He begins with his childhood in rural northern Italy. His mother tended a vegetable patch, and his father worked in a mine, where, after minimal schooling, Giuseppe followed. Teenage years: an active young man more interested in Saturday night dances than a man nicknamed “Il Duce”.

And then, war. Conscription. A country boy who couldn’t even place his postings on a map. A country boy whose aim became both simple and supremely difficult: stay alive. Imprisoned by the Nazis after the fall of il Duce, Giuseppe explains the subtle, but deadly, difference between American and British “Prisoners of War”, and Italian “Military Internees”.

San Giorgio writes in the first person, with annotations that give a powerful feel of authenticity – so much so, that I wondered, was this fiction at all? The cover was ambiguous. What was Giuseppe trying to tell me? An afterword reveals that Giuseppe was a man who filled the role of grandfather in San Giorgio’s life. The book is created from the author’s memories of Giuseppe, with research to fill the gaps.

Many historical fiction authors write about real people, combining facts with imagined feelings. San Giorgio has done exactly this – and done it so magnificently, that it reads like a genuine memoir. So why am I uneasy at this blurring of the boundary between fiction and biography? I’m not sure. But Giuseppe is a readable story for those interested in the Italian experience of WW2, and San Giorgio’s take on the politics behind it.