Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

"War in Val d'Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943-1944" by Iris Origo

This book was highly recommended by the tour guide at La Foce (who happens to be Welsh. Which is neither here nor there; I just thought that was an interesting tidbit of information). For the most part, I don't like books about war, but this title stuck in my mind. I put it on my wish list (I was requestor #2 of 2) and waited for weeks for someone to post a copy, and then got impatient and ordered a used one through amazon. I assume that, since I've finished reading this, the requestor who is now #1 of 1 will be very happy to get it.

The cover you see here is not the same as that of the copy I read. I couldn't find cover art to match my super-awesome library-binding large-print edition, so I chose one that I think looks much nicer (and shows an actual photo of La Foce, rather than a drawing that could be of anywhere in the Italian countryside).

This book (for me) started off slowly, and for a while I only stuck with it as if it were an assignment I had to complete. Most of the "1943" part of the book was a lot of flitting around and discussing rumors of war. Once 1944 hit, however, the intensity ramped up as the fighting drew nearer. For the Origos and those living nearby, life was distilled to its simplest and most basic elements. Many of the things once thought important were left by the wayside, and the most valuable quality (along with quite a bit of patience, steadfastness and courage) was the tenacity needed to persevere until they could reach the other side of the dreadful war that had been thrust upon them. At their lowest point, Iris writes, "We have left behind everything that we possess, but never in my life have I felt so rich and thankful as looking down on all the children as they lay asleep. Whatever may happen tomorrow, tonight they are safe and sound!"

It was amazing to see how quickly one's worldview can change in such a situation. At one point, Origo and a companion make a risky pony-cart drive to Montepulciano for medicine, and were happy in their success, as they "only had to jump down into a ditch twice, as the fighter planes swooped down over our heads." Of course this could have been written in irony, but judging by the straightforward manner in which the rest of the book was written, I don't believe Iris Origo was given to sarcasm. At another point, Origo mentions that the electricity and telephone wires were both cut, "so we get no news, which matters the less, in that the news is now happening here . . . I ask [a German medical officer]: 'Are you going to the front?' [To which he] laughs and replies: 'And where do you think you are?' " And then, during the frightening walk to Montepulciano on June 22, 1944, the Origos and those under their care hid in a cornfield as planes flew overhead. Iris lay thinking, "This can't be real--this isn't really happening."

I think that, not only was this sort of mental disconnect necessary for her to be able to handle the situation and go on, but that that would probably have been my own method of coping (assuming I were capable). I am just glad that I have not had to prove this. It has never been more clear to me that Americans are very lucky to have not, in many generations, experienced war on our own turf. The worst that any of us still living have experienced at home is 9/11, which of course was bad enough, but thankfully was not sustained over the long period of time that wars tend to cover.

There were many poignant moments in the book, among which was the first birthday party of Origo's daughter Donata, on June 9, 1944. "While planes drone overhead and swoop down on the valley roads, we have a children's party in the garden. (The children have, by now, completely lost their original nervousness . . . )" It is just so odd to think of growing accustomed to the sight and sound of war planes flying overhead.

Equally odd is how small a mention D-Day receives in this book. On the one hand this shouldn't surprise me, as this woman's diary mostly just covers her own little universe, and Normandy was not a part of it; but on the other hand, that Allied invasion is (in my mind, anyway) one of the most widely-known events of WWII among Americans (along with the Pearl Harbor attack and the atomic bombs in Japan; those three things probably mark the beginning, turning point, and ending of the war, as far as the U.S. was concerned). But perhaps I should be impressed that the Origos heard the news that very same day. Iris writes, "Hear at eleven-thirty that the Allied troops have landed this morning on the coast of France. Proclamation of Eisenhower to the people of France."

Another thing that surprised me was Origo's observation that the German Field Hospital Units were curiously inefficient and apathetic. She says, "They hang about interminably with nothing to do, and never seem to be where they are really wanted, nor do any of the German troops show the slightest interest in, or helpfulness towards, members of other units than their own." This mainly surprises me because I have always thought of the German people as very efficient and disciplined, and I had always assumed their military fought WWII with great order, structure, and effectiveness. I wonder if this inefficiency that Origo noticed was common throughout the German military of the time, or if it came on along with low morale when the troops began to see that they might lose the war.

I think perhaps the opinion of Americans regarding the German soldiers of WWII is that they were all either monsters or mindless grunts. Although the Origos were certainly not on the side of the Germans, at least Iris portrays them in a very fair and even-handed manner. The Origos came in contact with any number of very polite and understanding Germans (most of whom Iris described as "correct"), like the officer charged with conserving the priceless artwork in Florence.

This is most evident in the footnote regarding a German soldier the Origos probably never even met. When the Origos were finally forced out of their home at La Foce, they were unable to bury the body of Giorgio, the consumptive partisan they had been nursing. When they returned to their home, they found that someone had buried the body and marked the grave with a cross labeled Unknown Italian (in German). For a German to have had the decency and respect, not only to bury the body of his likely enemy but even to mark the grave, clearly shows they were not all heartless.

I think the entire book, and my view of WWII (and wars in general), is summed up at the end of Origo's entry from June 22, 1944. She writes, "This glimpse of a tiny segment of the front increases my conviction of the wastefulness of this kind of warfare, the disproportion between the human suffering involved and the military results achieved . . . the events of the last week have had little enough effect upon either side: it is the civilians who have suffered."

I can't wrap up my post about this book without admitting that, during the several mentions in Origo's writing of Allied planes mistakenly machine-gunning innocent Italian peasants, it popped into my head that it must have been Yossarian . . .

Now I want to read Iris Origo's memoirs, entitled Images and Shadows. I would love to read more about La Foce and hear about life in the Val d'Orcia in happier times.

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