An obelisk to Benito Mussolini, also known as Dux, a controversial figure in the history of Italy, stands in Rome, Italy.
Among the most haunting views of Alpine landscapes in Italy’s South Tyrol are those of a half-submerged bell tower rising from the waters of Lake Resia. Though the bells themselves were removed decades ago, some locals whisper that on winter nights you can still hear them ringing out over the area.
This structure is the last remnant of the vanished village of Curon. Despite protests from inhabitants, it was flooded in the 1950s when the authorities went ahead with the construction of a dam that joined two adjacent lakes. Houses, churches and agricultural properties were razed, and only the tower now remains as a solitary witness.
That isn’t the only noteworthy feature of the region. As Italian writer Marco Balzano notes, it is “the only place in Europe where fascism and Nazism followed one another without interruption.”
First, South Tyrol was annexed from the Austro-Hungarian empire by Italy after World War One; then, Mussolini’s government started an aggressive Italianisation of the area. Later, as part of the alliance between Mussolini and Hitler, the German-speaking population was given a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea. They could leave their homeland and emigrate to Germany, or stay in Italy and embrace integration.
Those who remained were subject to yet another throw of history’s dice. When Mussolini was toppled, the province was flooded with German troops who stayed on until the Nazi surrender.
The plight of one family under the shadow of the bell tower during that fractious time is brought to life in Balzano’s new novel, I’m Staying Here, now translated into English by Jill Foulston. It vividly illustrates that competing ideologies and nationalisms may be all very well on a global stage, but it’s often the people on the ground who have to pay the price.
The novel takes the form of a letter written by Trina, the central character, to her missing daughter. As such, it brings to mind another recent novel, Mirza Waheed’s Tell Her Everything, which deals with a father writing to his daughter to explain his past.
“I’m going to talk to you as if you’d looked into my heart,” says Trina, returning at the start to the time when she herself was a child. This was when life kept pace with the rhythm of the seasons, and “like an echo that fades away, history seemed never to have reached them.”
Then, the fascists start their march. Public buildings are burned, protestors beaten, and place names changed. There are frequent rallies, curfews, and signs that proclaim: ‘It Is Forbidden to Speak German’ and ‘Mussolini Is Always Right’.
Trina becomes a schoolteacher, holding secret classes in catacombs. She and her family have no option but to succumb to this new way of life. “It seemed like fascism had always existed…the walls had always been plastered with the Duce’s face, the carabinieri had always been nosing into our business and making us go to the piazza for announcements. We were getting used to not being ourselves anymore.”
Soon after her marriage, the so-called Great Option arrives: they are free to leave and settle in Hitler’s Germany. Her husband is dogged in his refusal to do so, and when asked why, he says: “Because I was born here, Trina. My father and mother were born here, you were born here, my children were born here. If we leave, they’ll have won.”
It’s a decision that will have harsh consequences. Nazi troops take over the area and Trina and her family flee to the mountains. This is among the most affecting parts of the novel, detailing how they have to forage for food, find ways to trust fellow inhabitants, and simply survive. People change with the times and splinter along political lines.
The war ends, yet some aspects continue: “fascism was no longer the law, but it was still around all the same, with its arsenal of conceit, high-handedness and all the people Mussolini had brought in.” One symptom of this is the old threat that now becomes all too real, the construction of the dam which will erase the village.
I’m Staying Here is written in a style that is simple to the point of being plain, and it soon becomes clear that this is an apt choice. The subject calls for windowpane-like prose that focuses on how Trina and the rest suffered from “the exhaustion caused by other people, the exhaustion we bring on ourselves, the exhaustion brought about by our ideas.”
Contemporary resonances are everywhere in the novel, but they are never spelt out or underlined. There is one sentence though, uttered by Trina’s husband in a moment of despair, that rings out like a bell: “The people hushing it up are letting the horror advance every day.”