Saturday, 23 August 2014

The Good Italian - Stephen Burke

Here is war.  War at it's worst, but no different from any other war for men take sides and fight others, loyalties change, people are killed, people are hurt, both physically and mentally.  But the strength to survive also includes the will to love.  Enzo is the Italian harbourmaster at Massawa, Eritrean port and part of the growing Italian empire.  His friend, Salvatore, a colonel in the Italian army who has never seen battle, is posted at the local garrison, and is living the good life.  Salvatore has an Eritrean girlfreind as so many Italians in this area do, and he urges Enzo to take an Eritrean housekeeper, who will cook and clean for him.... and perhaps share his bed sometimes.  Then Aatifa comes into Enzo's  life.

A nice and quiet life - until Mussolini decideds that he wants Ethiopia, and the troops will come in via the port of Massawa.  It is then that things change very quickly.  Enzo, the beaurocratic form filler and decent man, finds himself in the middle of a war that he wants nothing to do with.  Someone decrees that taking an Eritrean as a wife or lover is against the law.  Italians soon ditch their exotic girlfriends, even those who have children with their Italian partners. 

This book has a very slow start, and for a while I wondered where it was going.  But stick with it is my advice, and you will soon find yourself caught up in Enzo's life.  The descriptions throughout the book are perfect, they give you the feel of everything - the port, Enzo's office, his home, even  the bedclothes in a brothel are there before your eyes.  But it is as fighting escalates that the shocks start.  Small men in big jobs become so foul that you hate them for it; good men must very quickly obey orders that go with the wearing of a uniform.  And Enzo, who has never wanted to be part of Italy's new empire, just took a job that seemed to him to offer a good life;  Enzo, who does not treat his Eritrean staff any different from his Italian staff;  Enzo has to find his way through this dreadful time and hope that he can protect Aatifa too

If you know nothing of WW2 action in North Africa, this is a fine book to start you down that road.  There are a couple of pages of excellent notes at the back which will fill in some history - and probably surprise you, too.  And finally, the author has recommended a couple of books that, if you are interesting in knowing more, are worth the read.  But don't forget, this is above all the story of a quiet man and his love for a damaged woman.