There are some books that puzzle me because they have intricate layers, call on background knowledge I don’t have, or because I’m too dense to pick up what the author is putting down. Then there are books that puzzle me because I think they don’t know what they want to be. Let me explain, using Andrea Molesini’s novel, Not All Bastards are from Vienna, as an example. It’s entirely possible that I didn’t understand the book; it’s an award winner, after all. But I didn’t understand this book because the tone vacillates between picaresque coming-of-age story and grim World War II novel of conscience. On their own, these narratives would have worked. Together, they are an unfunny odd couple.
Paolo Spada, our protagonist, lives with his grandparents and aunt in the villa in northern Italy. They are weathering the war quite well until the Italian front sweeps over them. They are occupied by Germans, then Austrians, in the fall of 1917. Grandma Spada sets policy for her family. They will be civil. They will cooperate only enough to avoid a bullet. They will be neutral. Things might have gone according to Grandma Spada’s plan if her steward hadn’t been moonlighting for the Italian Intelligence Service. The steward, Renato, is in contact with a British pilot who is gathering information for the Entente. In spite of her policy, Grandma Spada works up a code using the villa’s shutters to pass along information.
Still, the Spada family are doing all right. They’re hungry, but so is everyone else. Paolo ducks the village priest’s infernal bad breath, helps the schoolteacher with the younger kids, and tries to woo the lovely Giulia. But every time I relaxed into Paolo’s life-during-wartime stories, something awful would happen to jar me out of it. German and Austrian troops rape women, steal every scrap of food from the village, and are watching for any excuse to shoot the local men.
Not All Bastards are from Vienna does, eventually, stop trying to be funny in its final third. Paolo was too young to join the Italian Army, but he’s too curious to be left behind when Renato goes on his missions. Before long, the Spada family really are at war with the Austrians. The problem is that there are no rules to protect people who decide to be come irregular spies and saboteurs, especially in the middle of one of the bloodiest conflicts in history.
I started to like this book more once it stopped trying to be funny. I’m not adverse to funny war stories. I quite liked Catch-22 and love M*A*S*H (movie and TV series). But Molesini’s version of humor isn’t satire like Catch-22 or M*A*S*H. Satire works in stories where terrible things happen to people because atrocity and truth-in-cutting-jokes work together. A lighthearted story about a lustful teenager in a town with a halitosis-ridden priest juxtaposed with grim war crimes just don’t fit.
One could argue that the jarring tones are the point of this book. But the fact that Not All Bastards are from Vienna ends up as a war story would support my argument that this book doesn’t know what it wants to be.
I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 2 February 2016.