World traveling, wine loving tourists might be forgiven for not associating the famed, vine-covered hills of Piemonte, Italy, with savage, civil war.  The towns of Barolo, Barbaresco, Alba produce some of the most coveted red wine in the world.  Made from the finicky nebbiolo grape, and depending on the soils, the position on the hills (full southern being the best,) the rain, the heat, the luck of the season, wines with their names are fermented and stored for a minimum of 3 years in order to get the prized DOCG label.  The land is overwhelmingly green and lovely.  The mornings are often cool and foggy from the not-so-distant Mediterranean.  In fact the nebbiolo grape is named for the nebbia/fog on which it depends.

The Famed Nebbiolo

The Famed Nebbiolo

Along with these wines comes Barbera, both a wine and a grape,  vines threading their way up and over the hills of the Langhe to the south and east.  In the bottom lands corn and greens are grown, the soil not propitious for the valuable grapes. Occasional small herds of cattle and sheep cluster, though greatly reduced from pre-war years, after wine and grape became the economic engine of the region.

Besides the wonderful views and welcoming people, the tasting rooms, the odor of the fabled white-truffle, the pleasant cobbled streets to wander, there is much to learn for those who will.  From the geology of sea-floors beginning to rise some 22 million year ago, to the viticulture that goes back to the Bronze age, merely 3500 years,  from Churches of the 12th century to those re-built after the destruction of the  WW II.  Keeping track of local festivities celebrating harvests, horses and saints could keep a person busy for weeks.

But war there was, all over these green and terraced lands.


I Caduti, Soranzen, Belluno, Italy

I Caduti, Soranzen, Belluno, Italy

In every small town there are obelisks to I Caduiti /The Fallen, most raised after WW I, and added to after WW II (which had fewer mortalities; 651,000 to 319,000)   Unlike memorials in England, France and the U.S. there are few extolling honor and glory. Simply, it is written, “The Fallen.”  In the two years of civil war from 1943 to 1945, some were on one side, some on another. Many places, such as Modena and Bologna, Bergamo and Parma, have made a a place of pride for their partisans who fought the German occupiers and Italians still loyal to Fascism.  Old black and white photos of I Partigiani are arrayed at the base of the  Ghirlandina Tower in Modena, a striking percentage of them women.  As in other places, who was a true partisan and who an opportunistic shirt-changer after the Allies landed, is not always known — however loudly claimed.  Historians have recently begun to unearth what many likely do not want to hear.

Though there was opposition to Mussolini and his black shirts from his first rise to visibility in the 1920s, and a from few small groups when Italy entered the war in June of 1940 (once the fall of France gave Mussolini confidence,)  it wasn’t until September 1943 that Italian partisans began to be a real presence in the country.

With the Allied forces landing in Sicily on July 10, 1943,  the handwriting was on the wall.  The Italian army had not done well in their claims in Libya, the Sudan and Ethiopia, or in war-related invasions of Egypt and Greece.  The navy was almost destroyed by the British in the Mediterranean.  On July 25, 1943, two weeks after the Sicilian landing, the Fascist Grand Council replaced Mussolini with General Pietro Badoglio as Prime Minster.  The army fell apart.  Ninety-four thousand or so joined the German army and continued to fight; over seven-hundred thousand were captured and sent to German work camps.  Tens of thousands deserted and headed for home, some of them wanting to get away from the fighting, some wanting to join it, under different flags.  Young men, and old, and not a few women gathered in the hills, especially in north-eastern Italy, the region known as the Piemonte, in the southern shadows of the Alps.

A week later,  it is estimated that some 2,000 partisans had gathered in the town of Boves.  By the end of 1943, 9,000 were said to be operating in Italy.  By the summer of 1944, there were 82,000, 25,000 of these in the Piemonte.

Organization began anarchically, people of like background and political persuasion looking for each other and throwing together groups as best they could.  The Communist Party of Italy (PCI) had long been organizing in the great industrial cities, and to a lesser extent in agricultural zones.  Those who had been involved and knew a smattering of party language and discipline formed quickly.  The “Reds” were often the largest, the best disciplined and best armed groups.  Many of the deserting soldiers, however, had monarchist feelings and, the king having dismissed Mussolini and signed a treaty with the Allies,  they found fellow feeling with other “Blues. ”  A third self-identified group were the unaffiliated, the Autonomos — neither royalist nor communist but wanting the Fascists gone.  Within  each of these categories, were many divisions, units named after iconic ideas or people: the Mazzinis, Garibaldis, Matteottis.


books-twenty-three-days-albaAmong the fighters, and with the Blues,  was a young man (22) named Beppe Fenoglio (Beppe from Giuseppe).  From his year or so of mud-soaked, hunger-struck fighting he contributed to Italian, and war, literature, several interesting volumes.  The earliest, and shortest is a collection of twelve stories, The Twenty Three Days in the City of Alba.  The title story is about the short period between the partisans running the Fascists out of the city, and before the counter attack, which sent them back to the hills, or to their graves. It and the following five are about the small-scale fighting in the hills and valleys around Alba, and the men who took part.  The final 6 are about life, and love, in the rural Italy of the time.  The terse, unembellished prose, is familiar, and easy,  to modern readers and has reminded some of similar stories of Hemingway. Though not all of equal literary value, all at least inform and light a difficult time and place.  A second, also a short work,  A Private Affair, tells of a university student, having joined with the partisans, and often under duress, if not actual fire,  but caught in his own dreams of love and memory.  It, too, is more accessible to this decade’s readers than his longer, memoir-rooted novel, Johnny The Partisan/ Il Partigiano Johnny, [reviewed here].   Working from the same experiences — he had grown up in Alba and fought with a “Blue” tinted unit– tells more of the story, with more of the hope and more of the sorrow, in language and style which by its pure inventiveness sometimes distracts from the story at hand.

All three titles have been translated to English:  The Twenty Three Days of the City of Alba,  in 2002, by John Shepley (Steerforth /VT) is relatively available at on-line book sellers, at used book prices;  A Private Affair, by Howard Curtis, 2007, is not hard to get hold of;  Johnny the Partisan by Stuart Hood, 1994, is very difficult to find at a reasonable price.  I got a copy through inter-library loan.

Unlike many war stories, memoir or fiction,  Fenoglio, does not write to glorify heroism or cheer on the sacrifices.  In fact, there are no thrillingly told fire-fights in which the more courageous unit wins, or the hero survives, and few others.  What he does write of are the ways exuberant, and careless boyishness that turns into sudden fear, how the promise of a safe billet turns ugly, how men compete to execute one of their own.  Not drawn in the dark, explicit lines of the British anti-war poets of WW I, Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Owens,  he shows us the mundane, and for him, necessary, turned into terrible mile-markers.

This, from the title story, is a good place to begin:

“Once  [the Fascists] had gained the opposite bank and all that could be seen of them was the dust as it settled, they all stopped, turned around, and yelled in the direction of the free city of Alba: ‘Sellouts, bastards, traitors, we’ll be back and hang the whole bunch of you!”  … they didn’t launch only insults but mortar shells as well, which later earned the city’s roofers a fine profit. The partisans ducked into doorways and portals, the citizens tumbled down into their cellars, and a couple of squads rushed to the river bank where they opened fire with their machine guns and killed a cow in the pasture on the other sides.  This brought hoots of laughter from the fascists, who quickened their pace, however, as they marched away.”

Though this, and other passages, contribute to a widely held image of Italians as fighting in an opera buffa, he does not let it veer too far.  In a wrenching story called “Old Blister,” an older partisan is found to have threatened and robbed a couple, while drunk.  He is tried and sentenced by his own command to the firing squad.  Led away from the camp, he convinces himself that it’s all a dark joke, something to teach him a lesson.  As they near the spot, one of the men is dispatched into a stand of trees with a shovel.

The Cossano partisans stopped.  They formed two lines, leaving a wide corridor in the middle, like people waiting to see a game of bocce.  And when Blister had been placed at one end of this corridor they took their hands out of their pockets and stepped back a little.

Blister looked very angry and said, “Do as you like, but enough is enough.”  And he looked at Morris, because it was up to Morris to put an end to this play-acting.

Morris cocked an ear toward the chestnut grove: he could hear Pietro’s shovel striking the earth, and it made a nice sound.  He looked at Blister to see if he heard it too, but from his face he didn’t seem to, whereupon Morris said to himself that Blister was really old.

Blister, however, caught the sound and understood, and he let out a whimper such as idiots make who always have their mouth open.  Then he screamed “Seth…” in a voice that made the ears of all the dogs in the long valley stand up, and ran toward Seth, who had appeared at the other end of the corridor.  He ran forward holding his hands out in front of him as though to plug the muzzle of Seth’s gun, and that was why the first shots pierced his hands.

The romance of fierce, unyielding  good-hearted partisans fighting the cruel and rapacious fascists is gone.  In fact, according to the translator, John Shepley, the Italian left was not happy with the book when it came out, accusing Fenoglio of “de-sacrilizing” the resistance.  From a longer vantage point it doesn’t seem so, or if so, necessary.  These are ordinary men, caught in, or volunteered for, extraordinary times.  They act like ordinary men, shot through with the unimaginable, courage yes, fear often. However much they believe in a cause, or how little, having joined only with a longing for some action, praying to return to the ordinary is an everyday occurrence.   Some days a man would trade a week of his life for a bath, right now.

Fenoglio’s terse, non-celebration, is not, however, against war itself, or even this war in particular.   It appears, like other human torments, and is lived through, by some more courageously, by some, less. A good counter, it seems to me, to so many battle-books that, however brutal and frank in their descriptions issue from the nearly universal yearning to participate in, and prove oneself, in the game of chance called war.