Levi’s English-language debut, 2001 winner of the Moravia Prize in Italy, uses a romance to dramatize the plight of Jews under Mussolini.
It’s love at first sight when Dino Carpi approaches the beautiful young woman lying on the ballroom floor in his parents’ hotel in Rome. She has broken her leg in a fall. Dino is a teacher, a classicist and an admirer of the Greek poet Pindar, who prized the harmony which Sonia exemplifies. This happened in 1930. It’s now 1967, and Dino, an old man in Tel Aviv, is writing his life story as a long letter to a recipient in Italy whose identity will remain unknown until the end. (It’s an awkward device.) The story hinges on the fact that Sonia is a Gentile and Dino is a Jew, though only the twice-a-year kind (Yom Kippur and Passover). She reciprocates his love, and the nonobservant Dino accedes to the demands of Sonia’s father, a wealthy banker and ardent fascist, that their marriage be Catholic and his Jewish roots stay hidden from their prospective children. Such a wimp does not make a stirring protagonist, and there’s no drama in Dino’s plodding account of his relationship with the equally passive Sonia. Their wedding and honeymoon barely rate a mention. Sonia’s family are reactionary bores, with the exception of rebellious kid sister Lorenza and witty, iconoclastic cousin Gherardo. They provide the only sparks of life until 1938, when Mussolini turns up the heat with his anti-Semitic proclamations. Dino is fired; his father sells the hotel. Pliant as ever, Dino goes along with Sonia’s plan (hatched by her father) for him to disavow paternity of his six-year-old son Michele; he even agrees to the annulment of his marriage. Only when militantly antifascist Lorenza dies in a suspicious “accident” does Dino express his outrage, but it’s too little, too late, and his solo flight to Palestine is anticlimactic.
Dramatic material that has been better explored elsewhere, notably in Giorgio Bassani’s 1962 novel The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.