I’ve been known to cry at the movies, but I don’t think I’ve ever cried over a book … until last night. I finally was finishing Elsa Morante’s History: A Novel. It’s another 700+ page novel about WWII. Vassily Grossman’s 1800+ page, two volume opus (Life and Fate, Stalingrad) has the sweep of War and Peace. Morante, however, focuses on one woman and her family in Rome from 1941 to 1947.
The last 150 pages of La Storia narrate the wanderings of Ida Mancuso’s six-year old boy, the offspring of her rape by a German soldier at the beginning of the story. He’s developmentally disabled and becoming subject to more frequent epileptic fits. Because he tends to drop consonants, he’s known as ‘Useppe, the way he pronounces his name Giuseppe. Because ‘Useppe can’t cope with the classroom regime, Ida keeps him at home under the care of their large sheepdog, Bella. Most days, however, through “that spring and summer of ’47” boy and dog wander “free, in the Testaccio district and environs.” Their encounters with a runaway teenage boy in the scrublands along the Tiber have an almost idyllic character.
I must admit, however, that I got bogged down during a 50 page chapter in which ‘Useppe and Bella listen in a bar to a drunken monologue by ‘Vavide (Davide), the former owner of Bella and resistance comrade of ‘Useppe’s late brother. Davide’s meanderings get philosophical and political, but I didn’t find them as coherent as similar passages in Grossman’s novels.
‘Useppe and Bella never learn that Davide died of an overdose shortly after they left him at his apartment. In the following days they continue their excursions to the shores of the Tiber, but never find the runaway ‘Scimo again because he’s been taken back to the home for delinquents from which he’d escaped.
In the final chapter ‘Useppe has a gran mal seizure in ‘Scimo’s hut after a violent encounter with a gang of boys. Bella, torn between staying to guard ‘Useppe and going for help, finally takes off as evening is falling. Ida, who has awoken from a nap to find that son and dog have not returned as usual, has started looking in the direction of the hut as described by ‘Useppe. Bella finds Ida about halfway home and brings her to the ditch where ‘Useppe is lying.
As a parent who has had to carry a sick six-year-old, I could feel Ida’s struggle to get ‘Useppe home. I was in good health and in my 30s. Ida was in her mid-40s, not in good health, and never had strong limbs. But she lifted ‘Useppe out of a ditch and started on the long journey home. Luckily she was able to hold the boy astride Bella’s back until they got to a tram stop. While they took the tram, Bella followed along, at one point startling another passenger when she jumped up to put her nose against the window.
Ida spent most of the night on her knees leaning on ‘Useppe’s bed. As happened frequently during the novel from the time ‘Useppe was an infant, with no human or dog to watch over him, Ida had to leave ‘Useppe in bed to go to work the next morning. She admonished ‘Useppe and Bella not to go out again that day.
By this time the narrator has dropped a few hints that ‘Useppe will not live much longer. So we’re prepared when Ida starts having terrible visions during a meeting at the school where she teaches. She finally rushes out of the meeting towards home. As she reaches the last landing outside her apartment, she hears “a painful weak voice, like a little girl crying. It was Bella’s whimper ….” Inside, ‘Useppe has fallen in the entrance hallway. Ida carries the boy to his bed, refusing to accept the evidence of her senses. Bella understood,
The dog, in fact, was there looking at her, with a mourning melancholy, filled with animal compassion and also with superhuman commiseration, saying to the woman: ‘What are you waiting for, you wretched creature? Don’t you realize we have nothing now to wait for?
This passage is typical of Bella throughout her wanderings with ‘Useppe. The narrator is not so much humanizing her, as making her a character. With Bella there, the reader feels that ‘Useppe will be safe from himself as well as others. These feelings underlie my reaction to the ending. As to the ending, I debated before writing this post whether to give it away. In checking back through the book, however, in the Foreward I found that Morante had based the novel on a true story about a mother, boy, and their dog. So I’m not spoiling anything for other readers, unless they happen to be like me and take so long to read the novel that they forget what they read a month ago.
After Ida has carried ‘Useppe to his bed, she goes crashing around the apartment in a frenzy, finally sitting in a chair by the bed. There she gets the same smile on her face that ‘Useppe would have after a seizure. She hadn’t been hysterical, as sometimes happened when she was a child. Rather, “her reason, which had always had to struggle to maintain its hold in her inept and frightened brain, had finally let go.”
Here the narrator jumps to the report in the next day’s newspaper.
Pathetic drama in the Testaccio quarter — crazed mother watching over little son’s corpse. And in the end you could read: It was necessary to destroy the dog.
That last line got me. I just wasn’t expecting to lose Bella too. She wouldn’t let the emergency workers into the apartment to remove ‘Useppe and Ida.
Ida never regained her senses, but lived another nine years in an asylum. As Morante did at the beginning of each year, she finishes the book with a listing of the major world events from 1947 to 1961. At the end of the list, she appends on a separate line “… and History continues …”
On the facing page she has placed an epigraph with a quote from Gramsci’s Letters from Prison.
All the seeds failed, except one.
I don’t know what it is, but it is
probably a flower and not a weed.
(Prisoner no. 7047 in the Penitentiary of Turi)
In the context of my grief over Bella, the list of major world events with “and History continues” seemed more than ironic. The emptiness of a world without Bella, ‘Useppe, Davide, and all the others who die in the course of this novel makes all this HISTORY seem so hollow. But then the line from Gramsci pulls us out of despair. He had been trying to grow some plants from seeds in his prison cell to bring some color and life to its dingy walls. As he wrote, one survived and it was “probably a flower.”
My grief for Bella didn’t last long. She was after all a fictional character, but in the few moments that I felt it, I felt the same groundlessness as I’ve felt before on the death of loved ones. In this context, Gramsci’s words offer us not hope, but life. Like the I Ching hexagram #3 zhūn,屯 which marked the beginning of my widowhood, the sign of spring in the “mud season.”.