Review of The Reprisal by Laudomia Bonanni

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Reprisal

by Laudomia Bonanni
University of Chicago Press

Laudomia Bonanni’s The Reprisal, available in English translation for the first time thanks to the University of Chicago Press, is a disorienting, confusing novel, and all the more successful for it.  Initially rejected by Bonanni’s publisher in 1985 when she was unwilling to agree to changes in the manuscript, the book was published posthumously in Italy in 2003; it had perhaps been written decades earlier and revised over a long period. That extended, ambiguous gestation period and the equally ambiguous but suggestive correlations between the novel and Bonanni’s own experience in the Second World War create layers of intrigue and curiosity that extend beyond the text, even for a reader inexpert in the particular intricacies of Italian literary history. Over all that time, this novel could have become any number of others instead, or so easily could have not existed at all. It occupies—perhaps especially in translation—a rich liminal space appropriate to its recounting of difficult-to-pin-down events.

Having surrendered to the Allies a month earlier, Italy declared war on its former ally Germany in October 1943. It is from this period of flux and ambiguity that Bonanni draws the story of a group of village men hiding in an alpine monastery and their capture of a heavily pregnant woman they take to be working for the other side; Bonanni plunges us into the grittiness of violence and birth, along with the complex morality of war and history. The men decide to execute the prisoner as soon as her child is born, and then struggle with that decision while they wait out the arrival. The narrator, a teacher who is among the self-exiled of the monastery, recounts early on, “That cursed day we set out for the hermitage of Acquafredda. Armed, of course, and with knapsacks and blanket rolls and a mule loaded down with supplies. But at that point it was no expedition and it was not yet an escape. It still could have turned into a temporary exile, to allow the dust to settle or come to an end. Even wars come to an end. (I believed that, then.)” The concrete, tangible details of “knapsacks and blanket rolls” weigh down the prose as they do the mule, giving the abstract moral and philosophical questions their gravity across the distance of time passed between events themselves and the narrator’s much later recounting. His taking for granted of particular knowledge—why this period of exile occurred, for instance, and why he now believes wars do not reach their end—create a disorientating half-awareness that continues throughout the novel. Information about past events—such as a fire that claimed the life of the father of one of the exiles, a young boy—is doled out in small pieces so the reader often knows something matters without quite knowing how. All of this is told in a voice reliant on reticence and readerly confusion, and that obfuscation arises in other ways, too.

Characters are sometimes referred to by their actual names, but just as often by a title or nickname or profession—the boy, the man, the seminarian—and sometimes in rapidly alternating succession. This creates a sense of a large cast and a difficulty with keeping straight who is who and what role each plays. The narrator himself, the teacher, is nearly anonymous and invisible as he offers us for the most part a “camera eye,” and only at a couple of surprising moments offers specific, personal, and tangential memories—not necessarily flattering ones—of his own life. Meanwhile, when the pregnant prisoner, known as La Rossa (The Red), is captured attempting to sneak through the mountains smuggling weapons, she is suspected of a murder in the village (the details of which are kept vague) and so established as an enemy of these men in the monastery with whom the reader has already become aligned. Yet she is also the most sympathetic character, a pregnant woman held captive for not wholly clear or convincing reasons, so we struggle for a moral footing as we read on. That struggle is deepened by undercutting phrases like “Cell number one was assigned to the prisoner [the protagonist],” making us constantly reassess each character’s role in the story. And yet La Rossa is more crude than her almost genteel captors, who struggle to maintain decorum and treat her with the dignity and respect afforded her gender, even as she curses them and keeps them uncomfortably aware of her body and pending delivery, almost insisting that the reader take the side of the men as she goads and insults them.

All of this creates a claustrophobic density of language and sense which is difficult to parse at times, but in a way brings us closer, as readers, to the isolation and tension of these exiles cut off —or apparently so—throughout the winter in the enclosed space of the high monastery. Yet we must also ask how much of the claustrophobia is a product of reminiscence, and of the narrator’s years trapped with his knowledge of what happened in those mountains, waiting for it to be known. As the character Vanzi says, “In the mountains, hatred is stubborn. This is how it is and there’s no way out. Who will be next? Whose house will be torched? Who will be massacred like Baborino?”

The narrator seems as trapped at the time of narration as at the time of the events themselves, yet as La Rossa earlier tells the men, “Whatever’s shut asks to be pried open.” What heightens all of this moral confusion is Bonnani’s deliberate lack of disclosure of what, exactly, has driven these men into exile. It’s jarring because while La Rossa is positioned as an “enemy,” she is in fact being punished for working with the Resistance to help drive the Nazis from Italy, while the men with whom we are narratively aligned are collaborators—thus this is a reversal of the “familiar” story in these last days of the war, when armies and alliances and easy distinctions are breaking down all over. So the “reprisal” of the novel’s title is most immediately the punishment of La Rossa but may also be the narrator’s punishment of himself by writing it down, or some other event that has driven these men to the mountains.

To highlight such ambiguities is not, I hope, to spoil any surprises, because these questions are woven into the text from the start. The Reprisal is not a novel of intricate plotting and twisting turns. Its outcomes and events are in some ways inevitable from the opening pages, and the tension of knowing that lends much of the book its momentum. Bonnani’s purposes seem to be moral as much as aesthetic, as well as gendered: a driving force here is a no-punches-pulled critique of the warmongering of men. From her first appearance, La Rossa demeans and refuses to take her captors seriously, laughing in the face of her own death sentence as if the men were no more than boys at play. Likewise, the later arrival of some village wives with fresh supplies calls into question the degree of the men’s isolation and the secrecy of their exile; the women seem like mothers intruding on a backyard game of war. Bonnani simultaneously undercuts the presumptious foolishness of such masculine schemes and offsets that with a certain sympathy toward these men, who have been overwhelmed by and swept up in global events so much larger than their own village lives—yet she never lightens the load of culpability for their own actions. That uncomfortable, unresolvable balance makes The Reprisal a challenging, bleak, and haunting read—and a vital one.