Chronicle of fear­ful times

A Chill In The Air: An Ital­ian War Di­ary 1939-1940 BY IRIS ORIGO Pushkin Press, £14.99

Sunday Herald Life - - BOOKS REVIEWS - Re­view by Mal­colm Forbes

IRIS Origo’s life (1902-1988) con­tained two sig­nif­i­cant changes in di­rec­tion. She was born in Eng­land, but af­ter fall­ing in love with an Ital­ian march­ese she set­tled in Italy. When her adopted home­land was en­gulfed by war she re­fo­cused her writ­ing, turn­ing from bi­ogra­phies of other peo­ple (By­ron’s daugh­ter Al­le­gra, Gi­a­como Leop­ardi) to an ac­count about her­self and those around her.

That book was War In Val d’Or­cia: An Ital­ian War Di­ary 1943-1944. Pub­lished to ac­claim in 1947, it stands as a vivid chronicle of how a ru­ral Tus­can com­mu­nity showed courage un­der fire dur­ing what Origo called “years of ten­sion and ex­pec­ta­tion, of de­struc­tion and sor­row”. To­day it re­mains her best-loved work. How­ever, Origo’s great­est achieve­ment isn’t so much what she wrote as what she did. Putting her life at great risk, she gave sanc­tu­ary at her es­tate of La Foce to sol­diers and civil­ians, in­clud­ing Al­lied prison­ers of war and de­sert­ers from Mus­solini’s army, hun­gry par­ti­sans and needy towns­peo­ple, plus 28 refugee chil­dren. These self­less deeds were bravely car­ried out yet are only mod­estly doc­u­mented in the di­ary.

Keep­ing a di­ary was it­self a heroic act. In her pref­ace to the book, Origo ex­plains how she would first hide it among her chil­dren’s pic­ture-books and later, as the Ger­mans closed in, bury it in tin boxes in the gar­den. Some pas­sages were scrib­bled while un­der pres­sure, in a room crammed with chil­dren; oth­ers were writ­ten while in dan­ger, in the cel­lar dur­ing bouts of shelling. What­ever the sit­u­a­tion, she put down each day’s events as they oc­curred, dili­gently, lu­cidly, and above all, truth­fully.

NOW, al­most 30 years af­ter Origo’s death, comes an­other war di­ary – newly dis­cov­ered, pre­vi­ously un­pub­lished – which once again shines a clear light on a tu­mul­tuous pe­riod. War In Val d’Or­cia ended on an up­beat note: “De­struc­tion and death have vis­ited us, but now – there is hope in the air.” The omi­nous ti­tle of the lat­est di­ary – A Chill In The Air: An Ital­ian War Di­ary 1939-1940 – fore­tells a story in which hope is in short sup­ply. Span­ning 16 fraught months, Origo’s com­pelling and il­lu­mi­nat­ing jour­nal is a po­tent blend of sifted news re­ports, col­lected ru­mours and col­lated views. In and around this, Origo sprin­kles her own shrewd re­flec­tions, keen-eyed ob­ser­va­tions and ever-in­creas­ing doubts.

The book’s epony­mous chill crops up in an early di­ary en­try. On March 28, 1939, Origo is in Rome, where hordes of Fas­cist squadristi are as­sem­bling to hear the Duce’s speech. It is cold and wet but Origo senses “an­other chill in the air: the uni­ver­sal dis­taste for Ger­many as an ally”. Ram­pant anti-Ger­man and anti-war

sen­ti­ment rears up else­where. In As­sisi, Mus­solini and Hitler are re­ferred to as mur­der­ers. A young preg­nant woman on Origo’s es­tate prays daily that she will have a girl: “What’s the use of hav­ing boys if they’ll take them away from me and kill them?”

When Hitler in­vades Poland, a stunned Origo notes the de­fi­antly pro-Ger­man stance of the Ital­ian press and its con­dem­na­tion of Pol­ish “ag­gres­sive­ness”. Then in 1940, as more coun­tries top­ple, the Ital­ian pro­pa­ganda ma­chine is cranked up: loud­speak­ers blare out in streets and squares, posters on pub­lic build­ings pro­claim “the col­lapse of the democ­ra­cies”, and ra­dio sta­tions play pa­tri­otic marches. The fake news that is ped­dled ranges from trumped-up sto­ries about Al­lied atroc­i­ties to puff pieces ex­alt­ing the Duce to party-line med­i­cal ar­ti­cles in­form­ing Ital­ians they are bet­ter off with­out cof­fee: “wine is far less harm­ful.”

Though a pre­quel of sorts, this di­ary is markedly dif­fer­ent from its suc­ces­sor. War In Val d’Or­cia was as much a per­sonal di­ary as it was a war di­ary, from the ar­rival of the evac­u­ated chil­dren at the be­gin­ning to Origo’s dra­matic great es­cape at the end. In con­trast, in A Chill In The Air, Origo dis­closes next to noth­ing about her pri­vate life. No se­cret self is laid bare.

We catch only a fleet­ing glimpse in the last recorded months. On June 30, 1940, Origo ca­su­ally men­tions be­ing af­flicted by labour pains. She de­parts for Rome, to the house of her god­fa­ther Wil­liam Phillips, the Amer­i­can am­bas­sador. A month later, the di­ary con­cludes some­what abruptly. A brief, al­most cur­sory end­note ex­plains the birth of a daugh­ter, the em­ploy­ment of a Swiss nanny, and the com­mence­ment of du­ties for the Ital­ian Red Cross.

ORIGO may keep her­self un­der wraps, but her de­scrip­tions of, and notes on, the es­ca­lat­ing chaos around her proves con­sis­tently fas­ci­nat­ing. We come away with a bet­ter aware­ness of both the mood of queasy un­cer­tainty and pa­tri­otic fer­vour that per­vaded Italy in the run-up to war. Origo lis­tens to Ro­man aris­to­crats, Tus­can peas­ants and var­i­ous out­siders: a 10-year-old boy in­cor­po­rates Fas­cist ide­ol­ogy in an es­say, not be­cause he be­lieves it but be­cause “it is the only way to get good marks”; a Swedish woman is ex­pelled from the coun­try for “im­pru­dent speak­ing”. Origo weighs up at­ti­tudes and opin­ions, cuts through blus­ter and speaks her own mind. When one pa­per praises Hitler for a speech that dis­played his “deep hu­man­ity”, Origo of­fers a nec­es­sary cor­rec­tive, high­light­ing how “the hys­ter­i­cal parox­ysm of anger” gives way to “the ac­tor’s sob in the throat”.

In one di­ary en­try on the eve of war, the English march­esa sums up the calm be­fore the storm with char­ac­ter­is­tic clar­ity and verve: “A still, lovely sum­mer’s evening; the grapes ripen­ing, the oxen plough­ing. Only man is mad.”

In A Chill In The Air: An Ital­ian War Di­ary, Iris Origo high­lights the madness of the war

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.