History: A Novel
by Elsa Morante. Avon paperback (1979), $2.95. by Estellc Gilson
This is a novel that can transform the way you see the inarticulate, defenseless creatures of the world. Elsa Morante, a 62-year-old recluse living in a small apartment in Rome with only cats for company, wrote La Storia to give voice to the victims of power: to dogs, cats, babies and birds—to prostitutes and pimps— to the poor—to inarticulate intellectuals—to those who “in their vulnerable bodies. . .sense the universal power that can devour them and annihilate them, for their guilt in being born.”
The central character of History: A Novel is Ida Ramundo Mancuso, daughter of a Jewish mother and an anarchist father, a victim of history, “a woman, who neither rich nor poor, belonged… to a species that lives (perhaps endangered?) and dies and gives no news of itself except. . .perhaps in the crime reports.”
The book, issued in Italy in 1974, begins with a brief account of world historical events from 1900 through 1940. Each year of Ida’s life from 1941 to 1947 forms a chapter prefaced by an account of what the powers of the world were doing. No matter what happens to its victims, “history,” Morante tells us, “continues.”
When the novel begins in January, 1941, Ida is 37, a widow with a teenage fascist son, Nino. Half-Jewish, fearful and worn beyond her years, she is raped by a drunken Nazi soldier, a boy not much older than her own son. The child born of this rape, Useppe, is a precocious, graceful, joyful, loving creature. Before long, Ida and the baby are bombed out and move to a shelter teeming with refugees— poor, filthy, exhuberant Romans, Neapolitans, black marketeers with their birds, cats and babies.’ Useppe, “too beautiful for this world,” undernourished and undersized, begins to suffer severe epileptic attacks as knowledge of cruelty, pain and death come before his eyes.
The most complicated figure in the novel is Davide Segre, a young Jew, an intellectual and anarchist, who seems to speak for Morante. He cannot love anyone, and all of his dreams and plans for defeating the world’s oppressors fail. His book is unwritten. His speeches are unheard. He cannot renounce his body’s desires nor avoid its betrayals. He wants to be a factory worker but vomits each working day. He condemns violence but murders a Nazi atrociously.
This is a passionate book that does not turn away from horror. Yet it is not a depressing book. Amid the horror, Morante’s characters continue to hope and to love. Unfortunately, with the exception of Segre they do not think. Nor are they, with the exception, again, of Segre and little Useppe, sensitive to the feelings of others. The inability of Morante’s characters to see moral choices or to struggle effectively with the circumstances of their own lives, undoubtedly reflects her views of “victims.”
The hope Morante brings is born of the human spirit. The very last words of the book are not Morante’s but those of a prisoner: “All the seeds failed, except one. I don’t know what it is, but is is probably a flower and not a weed.”