In the past few days, while sitting lakeside, I read three books, a luxury for me.
The first was a heavy-hitter. I stumbled across War in Val D’Orcia: An Italian War Diary 1943-1944, while browsing in The Lion Bookshop on Rome’s Via dei Greci. It was written by Iris Origo, an Anglo-American who came from privilege to marry an Italian landowner in the 1920s and settle into a new agrarian life on the family’s Tuscan estate.
After years spent cultivating the land and setting up a health center and school for the local farmers and their families, Iris and her husband Antonio found themselves caught up in deadly conflict. Her diary, meticulously kept during two of the worst years of World War II, tells the story of how everyday Italians helped protect refugees from their own country — and soldiers from the countries of their “enemies” — from both the Germans and the fascists.
Having just returned from Italy, where we spent a week in Tuscany, I found Origo’s war diary particularly compelling. I could picture the settings she described and recognized some places she mentioned. When she writes of the massive bronze doors of the Duomo’s Baptistry being removed and hidden far from Florence to save them from wartime damage, I remembered their golden beauty. When she speaks of the battles at Monte Cassino, I recalled my husband pointing out the ancient Italian monastery as we zipped along the autostrade on our way to Sorrento.
The best thing about Origo’s wartime diary is that it gives us a woman’s view of war, which is a rare thing. We often hear the accounts of generals and commanders and even foot soldiers. But the voice of average civilians, especially women, is usually silent. In Origo’s diary, we get her first-hand account “in real time,” as we say nowadays. She wrote her story as it happened, finding enough stolen moments to convey the facts and the feelings of her own wartime experience as a mother, a humanitarian and a citizen of the world.
The message her story conveyed to me is that civilians are the most damaged by war. It is civilians who are the oft-ignored victims.
Woolf describes a photograph of the Spanish Civil War sent by the government that shows “dead bodies for the most part … a man’s body, or a woman’s; it is so mutilitated that it might, on the other hand, be the body of a pig. But those certainly are dead children, and that undoubtedly is the section of a house” (14).
A sobering subject for a summer read, which wasn’t my intention today. But Woolf’s influence will prevail. And my brief, airy reviews of the other books I read this week will have to wait for another day.