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For the English translation the title echoes Goethe’s ode to Italian culture – Roman Elegies – and, as in Goethe’s 24-poem cycle, this book is also concerned with a German perspective on the sensuality of daily Italian life. From the start however, Sabine Gruber is focused not only on the sensations of life in the Italian capital but also the historical tensions that have existed between these two grand European cultures.
Told through the eyes of three women, all from the same fictional village in Northern Italy, Roman Elegy spans the decades from the second world war to the present day. Stillbach, the village that spawns these three girls – Clara, Ines and Emma – is a microcosm of the South Tyrol, the German speaking part of Italy ceded from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1919.
“‘So, if you’re not German,’ demanded Antonella, ‘then what are you?’ Truth is, I wasn’t sure what I was. I never had been. And the more people wanted me to tell them, the less idea I had. To lots of Italians I was a German, while to most Germans I was neither an Italian nor a German.”
The changing political landscape of post-war Italy is examined from the perspective of these three very different South Tyrolese women, each of whom feels an outsider in Rome despite being native-born Italian. The different language, the different landscape of their upbringing, the prejudices they believe in all serve to drive a wedge between them and their surroundings, forcing them to look at events with dispassionate eyes.
The novel starts in the present day period with Clara, a writer, travelling to Venice in the aftermath of the death of her childhood friend, Ines. She is joined by Paul, an Austrian academic, and past lover of Ines.
Upon the discovery of Ines’s notes for a “multi-volume” work the story plunges back to 1978 when Ines first met Paul and was working for Emma Manente, the proprietess of a budget hotel in Rome. As Ines struggles to comprehend life in the hustle and bustle of Rome, away from home for the first time, Emma recalls her past love for an SS soldier and the steps that have led her to become ostracised from her beloved home town of Stillbach.
“Yes, the Stillbach dialect fell firmly between two stools, a place where it felt safe and comfortable. The Austrian monarchy, Italian Fascism with its proscription of the German language, and finally schoolbooks and tourists from Germany had all left their mark on it.”
While ostensibly a work of fiction, it is apparent that Gruber is equally, if not more, concerned with historical contemplation. Although the characters each face day to day dilemmas, struggle with their work or their love life, the plot is always tied back to the underlying political situation. Historical fiction can be notoriously difficult to get right – either leaning too far towards fiction and appearing lite on the facts or else becoming dry and academic.
Recent fiction titles such as Laurent Binet’s HHhH have taken a fresh approach to the study of recent European history and Gruber manages this line masterfully, weaving layers of fiction in with hard research and detailed background on the role of Nazism and Fascism in recent Italian history. At one point the author herself is referenced by one of the characters and, at the end, in a where-are-they-now post credit she gives equal weight to her fictional creation Emma Manente and the real-life politician Horst Köhler.
“They’ve got it easy writers. They can write the truth and pass it off as fiction.”
Blending intimate background on day to day life in Rome with a fascinating exploration of the historical development of a country, Gruber has delivered an homage to both Rome and South Tyrol that satisfies on several levels without ever reaching for easy options or cliché.