How I Lost the War by Filippo Bologna
Translated by Howard Curtis
Pushkin Press, 2011
It isn’t every day one comes across a novel of guerilla warfare, anti-globalization style, set in a picturesque Italian village, a novel that also involves a detailed family saga and a complicated love story. Filippo Bologna’s How I Lost the War, translated from Italian by Howard Curtis and published this year by Pushkin Press, is a book with several beating hearts.
The book’s undisputed center lies in the history of the Cremona family and its deep roots in the Tuscan village where the novel is set. Through his narrator Federico, the last male standing of what was once a much larger and illustrious family, Bologna details several generations of Cremonas. Federico has grown up in the castle built by his great-grandfather Terenzio (a man who “whipped the peasants”) and is now the custodian of the family’s histories: the story of the death of his grandfather’s twin, also named Federico, the accounts of that Federico’s rebellions, the tale of the deaf Chiappini sisters who died on the same day in their remote hideaway in the castle, and many other conversations and happenings.
Federico is hyperaware of his family connections and what it means to be the lonely survivor of such a tribe:
And it isn’t just a question of similar names, or tombstones. It’s all about blood, not marble. Because sometimes, especially at night, I can feel my ancestors’ stale blood slowing my circulation, waking me, and summoning me to great enterprises.
Alongside this family chronicle is the story of Federico’s village and its takeover by water-mogul, Ottone Gattai. The village sits atop a vast network of hot springs, waters which have never been properly “exploited” until Signor Gattai comes in with his foreign investors and grand architects. He builds a monstrous thermal resort, which, of course, eventually no one in the village can afford to frequent. Although it rapidly becomes the villagers sole means of employment, or nearly.
But Signor Gattai has other plans. Slowly, he begins to re-design the village, turning it into an accessory of the Aquatrade Corporation. He gains legal authority over all the water in the entire village, requisitioning personal hot springs and land where he wants it. The Cremona castle is obviously an object of great interest, especially when Federico reveals his antipathy for Gattai and his projects.
Finally, the love story. Tangled up with Federico’s family history and his current war against Gattai and Aquatrade, Bologna includes the slender narrative of Federico’s love for Lea, a woman he met at university who has joined ranks with him and the other fighters, living in a tent with him in the forest. Their story is, at most, an oversized tangent. It is important only because it will become another one of the histories that Federico must harbor within himself.
One of the more interesting aspects of How I Lost the War is the way the narrative meanders through and around its primary preoccupations. Despite his claim to the contrary, Federico isn’t really telling the reader about one event that happened to him—the war against Aquatrade and Ottone Gattai—but about a series of experiences that began before he was born and that have culminated in him. In that sense, the end of the book is not the end that really matters. Federico—his self, his simple existence—is the end and his understanding of that truth is the lament that connects all the other stories, both historical and contemporary.
Now, in a certain way, this could be considered a generous reading of Bologna’s project. Only because there are moments when it seems that Bologna himself loses sight of exactly all he wanted the novel to encompass and how to go about unifying and treating the great number of excellent ideas behind the work. Not to mention the layers of emotional register he needs to keep track of: nostalgia, sarcasm and irony, gravity, regret, socio-political commentary and honest account. Considered at a distance, How I Lost the War is just a little untidy.
That untidiness doesn’t usurp the book’s value or success, however, especially because of passages like this:
My father holds the microphone like a torch. And I know what my father will say. […] And the reason I know isn’t because my father is predictable, because he’s an open book, or because he’s taken for granted. I know because I am also him. I am him and I am me, I am him while still being me, I am me while still being him. I am Terenzio, I am Fede, I am Vanni and then Fede again. Da capo. I am all of them. I am all the Terenzios, Vannis and Federicos in the Cremona family and in history, I am all the fathers and children and families who have generated the families of the fathers and children and families that existed before mine, before that curious creature descended from the tree to see the sun rising over the horizon of a new territory, before the whales swam in the vineyards where today we collect shells. I am what I am because of the ancient helix that drives life, because of the torch of humanity passing from hand to hand, from womb to womb, I am what I am because of the law, written in dust, to which all creatures belong. I am what I am because of that lamb’s bone trapped in the sixth step of the castle. That’s why I know what my father is about to say.
This is just one example, and there are dozens throughout the book, when Bologna’s writing and ideas connect to give the reader pause for admiration and thought. For wonder. This is a book that takes Italian history and compares it with the globalized Italy of today, a book that marks and explores and deplores the shift between what was and what is, all while following a narrator on an intensely personal journey. There are times when these two elements of the novel seem to serve at cross-purposes, but in the end Filippo Bologna (and Howard Curtis and Pushkin Press) have given the world a story that is as thoughtful as it is ambitious.