Dante's War by Sandra Sabatini
Dante's War by Sandra Sabatini. Make a note of the title and the author – it will be in the press as soon as a few more people have read it and reviewed it – and it will be a definite contender for the 2009 literary awards. Just released this month, it is one of the best books I have read in a long time. Dante is Dante De Angelis, born in Spoleto, an ancient town in the Umbrian hills north of Rome. He is the only child of a loving mother and a brutal father. He barely survives the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic and is ever after a slight and hungry child. His only friend is Sabino, youngest in a family of girls, whose love of life and confidence gives comfort to Dante. Together the boys explore the hills and attend school – where they are first introduced to Fascism. “The Fascists came … with cookies and framed portraits of Mussolini…certificates with swirling Latin letters. …pencils and flags.”
Angelina is then introduced, and the story moves effortlessly from Dante’s childhood to that of Angelina, along with the spread of Fascism throughout their country. We come to know Angelina as she grows up in a farming community near a small village, a place much unchanged from ancient times. Life for the women revolves around the washing well, an almost biblical scene. The well is where the women bring their clothing and sheets to be washed – where Angelina learns about marriage – and sex – as the women “erase the traces of love” from the sheets.
Angelina leaves her home to work for her aunt in Rome just as Dante discovers that the coming war provides him with an escape from his father. Dante and Sabino leave the village and train for the military. Life at the military academy is almost as brutal as home for Dante. He does not take direction well, but he does manage to graduate and both Dante and Sabino are now aircraft mechanics – jobs they believe will keep them out of the fighting and safely away from the danger of being killed in this war.
On his final leave before going to war Dante spends his time in Rome – not wanting more than a day at home to say goodbye. In Rome he meets Angelina – perhaps it is knowing that he is going to war that gives him the courage to speak to her – and perhaps it is also the reason that she responds. They promise to write to each other – and so the separation begins – and love begins to grow.
These are the war years. For Dante and Sabino it is exhilarating work on the new airplanes that have been developed to fight this war. For Angelina it is life still much as usual in the village she has returned to after working in Rome. She cares for her mother who is ill, and helps her father in the fields.
Dante and Sabino, after some safe postings in Italy are now in North Africa with Rommel’s campaign. Here they are visited by the charismatic Mussolini. In Dante’s village at home “Everyone loved the Duce… there were pensions, there were jobs” the citizens looked forward “to thriving retirement. All because of Mussolini. It had to be good.”
“And then came the inspired notion of a second Roman empire. And Hitler.” And the world changed for all of Italy.
Life in Angelina’s village becomes more difficult. There is less food and the people, who have come to oppose Fascism, must be very careful. There are ruthless reprisals for any action against the occupying forces. And for Dante and Sabino the war is no longer safe.
They dream of life after the war, Dante knowing he wants only to live and share his life with Angelina. Dante listens to Rommel in the desert, as he urges the men to fight “as though the words themselves were weapons that would lead them to victory.” In the dug out the men pray, “no one prays more urgently for peace than a soldier.”
Dante and Sabino know it is not possible to win this desert war as they retreat, hoping to survive the final days of the war. To Dante “it seemed an immensely long time since he had seen Angelina...He loaded and fired, and wondered whose son he was killing.”
Read it and weep. Once you open the cover of this book your life will have to be put on hold until you finish.
It is a winner.