Erri de Luca, Il torto del soldato (Italian, 2012)

I read far too few Italian books and I should probably be ashamed of it. The name Erri de Luca rang a bell, and the book was short, so I figured I would give it a shot.

Imagine a country inn set in the Dolomite mountains. At the restaurant two tables next to each other: at the first a writer, a translator who translates Yiddish books to Italian, not because he’s Jewish himself but because he is fascinated by this language and its history, and at the next a 40 year old woman with her ageing father, who happens to be a war criminal. The whole interaction between both tables is reduced to a glance over the Yiddish papers by the old man, and a smile from the woman. The book is built around two parts: the first told by the translator, the second by the woman.

Erri de Luca draws parallels between the Yiddish language and the Neapolitan language, both rapid and witty. The part with the writer, who may well be de Lucca himself, is very moving and relatable, full of digressions and anecdotes. You can imagine it as a snippet of a real scene.

The second part is also full of digressions, but it’s chilly and devastating. The young woman has grownup raised by her mother and a man whom she knew as her grandfather. The day her mother left them both, she learnt that this man was actually her father, and that he was a former Nazi, gone into hiding for a long period overseas, then returned to Vienna under a false name, with a new career as a mailman, but no regrets whatsoever about what he did. His only fault was to be defeated, his reasoning goes. If Nazis had won the war the other side would have been the criminals. He has kept his repulsive paranoia against Jews and it even increased to a full-fledged mania as he tried to find in the Kabbalah a justification for the Nazi defeat.

The story is deceptively simple, but full of visual, sensual details and back stories and digressions that sprout in every direction, enriching the story with so many layers and echoes and new meanings every time you pull another thread. Another writer could have made 300 pages out of it, it’s only to the writer’s credit that he kept it to 80 pages. I’m not sure what to make of it, but it was really a great experience, and I’ll make sure to visit Erri de Luca again.

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