Not All Bastards Are From Vienna
This restrained, beautifully written debut novel looks at war from the microcosm of a single location, that of a villa in the small Italian town of Refrontolo, just north of Venice, in the immediate aftermath of the disastrous Battle of Caporetto. It is November 1917, and the German/Austro-Hungarian armies are pressing their advantage to drive deeper into Italy.
The novel opens as a contingent of Germans commandeers the villa of the Spada family for the officers’ use, and billets the infantry in the almost-deserted village. The adult narrator, Paolo Spada, looks back on the story through the eyes of his 17-year-old self, describing events with just the right mix of understanding, naiveté, and desire for grown-up adventure that a boy on the cusp of manhood would have in that situation.
Engaging characters populate the Spada household: strong-willed grandmother Nancy; contrary, charming grandfather Gugliemo; fiercely loyal housekeeper Teresa; beautiful, eccentric neighbor Giulia; intelligence-officer-cum-house-steward Renato; and, at the center, Paolo’s intelligent, resourceful aunt Donna Maria. Paolo observes the chastely tender relationship that grows between Maria and the Viennese major in charge of the billeted army, Baron Von Feilitzsch. These two aristocrats with similar educations and cultural influences share far more in common than does the moneyed family with the local peasants, but war both divides and unites along national boundaries. Maria and the baron are the last products of old empires that will not survive the war. As many in the family are drawn into helping Renato’s insurgency missions, those boundaries are fully drawn.
Molesini’s language is simple and lovely, and his story draws the reader in close to the family. He notes that this novel was inspired by Maria Spada’s privately published Diary of Invasion; he has written a book that is equal to such a remarkable woman.