A new novel from Pushkin Press is always welcome and How I Lost The War proved to be as expected, a witty but thought-provoking read with bags of Italian flavour to transport readers into fragrant Tuscan summers – but this is no rural idyll, for it is about to be transformed by powerful forces of commerce and development.
We find ourselves steeped in the life of a village, once renowned for its thermal baths, where Federico, the guardian of his family’s castle, find themselves at the centre of a battle to resist a scheme of brutal modernisation. Ottone Gaddai, an all-for-profit businessman arrives with grandiose plans to revive the spar. Gaddai has no problem ingratiating himself with the local mayor for as everywhere, money talks, and Gaddai has plenty of it to fling around.
The first act of the new regime is to rejuvenate the village square, cutting down the ancient acacia trees and replacing them with flimsy limes. Ancient flag stones are taken away and in their place, machine cut aggregate slabs are laid. Workmen remove the old travertine benches, “masterfully handcut by local stone-cutters” and install instead modern wood and iron benches. Finally, a monstrous modernist statue is placed in the centre of the square, description of which defies language – “the melted ice-cream”, “the tapir”, “the intestine” all quite failing to describe the crouching copper-coloured figure with “a bronze pipe coiled around itself like a pipe or siphon”.
A committee is formed to try to get this monstrosity removed, but local politics has now become no place for amateurs, and with the backing of the new money which has come into the village, the statue remains. These events will be familiar to people all over Europe but have particular poignancy in the beautiful old Tuscan village where the scene had remained little changed for centuries.
The Aquatrade resort rises from the foot of the hills. It dominates the middle of the valley with hits pharonic central body over which flutters a large flag with a blue-clawed serpent on a white background, the hated emblem of the ever more hated Aquatrade. From the central building, the two huge side wings fan out, built on what remains of the old Medicean portico. At first glance, the effect is that of a huge pink foreign body in the middle of the verdant valley. . . all around hundreds of metres of electrified fence, barbed wire and watch-tower, with Gattai’s private police force watching over every crack, every square centimetre.
Despite the humour of the book, the reader gets the impression that the author, Filippo Bologna, is pretty passionate about the issues raised in it. I do not get the impression that he objects development as such but rather the systems, both political and economic, which can remould a whole community in the interests of profit.
Dead dinosaurs. And rotted plants. That’s what burns in our engines, that’s why people are at each other’s throats, that’s what rules the world, that’s what has saved and ruined our nations. Oil, black gold, that’s what we all believe in.
I would not like to give the impression that the book is all about the development for that would be to omit the personal story of Federico and his family. Federico tells us about his grand-father, an irascible old man who “whipped the peasants” but, despite this, was much respected in the community. We hear stories of Tuscan life over the last hundred years or so, and Bolgona paints an entrancing picture of rural life in a beautiful region. This of course gives a nostalgic counterpoint to the intrusions of modern life and make the contrast between old and new ever more dramatic. We know what we are losing because Bologna has made us love his little patch of paradise before contemplating its destruction. For this book has a message, and in the best traditions of story-telling, the message is wrapped around with an appreciation of the little mand and woman and liberal doses of mockery of those who exploit them.
Sometimes, Bolgona departs from story-telling to address the reader directly:
You just have to consume as much as possible, stop recycling, throw an object away even if you could mend it, take your car even for short distances, and when possible, even more than one care per person, leave the lights on and the heating and the air conditioning, perhaps with the windows open out of our contempt for the Carnot cycle, start the dishwasher without waiting for it to be fully loaded, take a bath instead of a shower, never drinking water from the tap but only expensive mineral water, possible from a fjord . .
How I Lost The War is a very European book. There is a tradition of political dissent in mainland Europe, with writers and artists in its vanguard, which is largely lacking in Britain, with his sheep-like Daily Mail readers, so easily duped into accepting the inevitable imperatives of right-wing economics. The common belief is that only odd-balls and students bother to protest in modern Britain, the days of mass uprisings against rulers being consigned to the far-off days of our forbears. It is refreshing to read a novel which is suffused with a passionate belief that we need to stand against the mindless desecrations of our times.