Angela Bianchini. The Edge of Europe.
Angela Bianchini's The Edge of Europe (Capo d'Europa) recounts the story of a young Jewish Italian woman's departure from Italy in April, 1941. The character, identified in the novel only as "la ragazza," is from a well-to-do Jewish Roman family who has arranged for the girl's flight to the United States. In order to reach New York, the girl must pass through Lisbon, where she will be cleared for departure on an ocean-liner with the help of a Jewish rescuer of refugees, a former freedom fighter from the Spanish civil war campaign of 1936-39. The hero is named Juan Ruben, who is characterized as an "infallible and noble patriarch" (83). Juan's exquisite wife Elizabeth is also a larger-than-life character described as "the incarnation of beauty. The one with whom everyone falls in love" (77). The Rubens are the central characters besides the narrator and they are portrayed as a romantically heroic and exotic couple, similar to the famous fictional Nazi-fighting pair from the film Casablanca (1943): Victor Laslo and Ilsa Lund. Like Laslo and Lund, the Rubens fled Paris in June of 1940 when the Nazis marched in; and like the film couple, they both wound up for a time in Casablanca before fleeing to Lisbon en route to the United States.
But although an air of heroism and adventure pervades Bianchini's novel and even though the novel features a kissing scene, The Edge of Europe is not really a romantic drama but the intimate chronicle of the emotional reactions and perceptions of a young woman at a defining moment in her life. In Bianchini's novel, the young, sheltered Italian girl enters into the wider world where she is forced to question assumptions about who she is and how Mussolini's Italy ought to be judged. Not yet twenty, Bianchini's heroine had believed fully in Italy and in Mussolini even after having been subjected to the anti-Semitic "racial laws," passed in Italy in late 1938. In a conversation with Juan Ruben she tells him "that yes, the racial laws existed [...] but the Italians, by and large were very kind" (22). In her first meeting with Ruben, the anti-fascist Jewish hero strikes her as precisely the type of man the anti-Semitic Italian press would have vilified with epithets such as "the fugitive Ruben," "Ruben the defamer," and the "demoplutocratic Ruben" (19). (Demoplutocracy is a fascist-era term for pseudo-democracy controlled by Jewish wealth. Some students of anti-Semitism see a revival of this kind of thinking in current European left-wing attacks on the excessive power of the "pro-Israel Jewish lobby" in the United States). But even though Bianchini's "ragazza" is initially shocked by the kind of couple who will be helping her flee to New York, she quickly begins to admire Juan and Elizabeth as "aristocrats of departures and nostalgias; [...] fighters, always able to maneuver, to manipulate their weapons" (49). By this time, the narrator-protagonist finds herself alone on a rainy night, looking out over the vast Atlantic Ocean at the enormous black cliffs of the "Cabo de Roca," at the edge of Europe, her old identity has been submerged under the large Atlantic waves that crash under "a leaden sky, in the air that was now almost black" (61).
The Edge of Europe is followed by an afterword entitled "Exiles and Returns in Angela Bianchini's Fiction," in which Angela Jeannet situates Bianchini's novel not only in relation to other works by the author, but also to texts by mid-20th century Italian novelists, particularly Elsa Morante and Natalia Ginzburg, who gave "voice to the quiet despair that presided over women's lives" (117). In discussing the relation of The Edge of Europe to previous fiction by Bianchini, Jeannet points out that the characters "are drawn with precision of touch, and, even though they are filtered through another character's memory, they are complex and filled with contradiction" (120). The most original discussion is the comparison of Bianchini with turn-of-the-20th-century French author Colette. Jeannet suggests that Bianchini is a novelist of Roman life just as, in Colette, "Paris lives in symbiosis with the fiction" (127). Jeannet points out that in describing the return of her female protagonists to Rome, "Bianchini makes visibile and audible the presence of people in the streets, squares, and parks of Rome" (124). Less convincing in Jeannet's essay are attempts to discuss the historical dimensions of the Edge of Europe and the problematic relation of Bianchini's protagonist to her Jewishness. Jeannet introduces a vague notion of "Judaic indeterminacy" derived from Thomas Harrison, but does not describe how the heroine's weak sense of Jewish identity affects the character's development. And when Jeannet explicates a key passage in the novel in which the protagonist declares that she now knows that Diaspora is "the moment of the lights' dimming the loss of all love and safety" (83), she fails to explain that the "ragazza" is coming to terms with her previous refusal to acknowledge that despite all material comforts in living in Rome, there too she was an unloved, unsafe member of the Jewish Diaspora, the people unwelcome in anyone else's homeland. When she and Juan Ruben return to her room on the night before her departure, their kiss can be seen as the protagonist's passionate metaphorical acceptance of Diasporic uncertainity.
The translation by Angela Jeannet and David Castronuovo is highly accomplished and in most cases captures the beauty of the novel's impressive descriptive passages. A good example of the power of the translation is the moving "Edge of Europe" chapter (57-61). The careful and sensitive translation shows to an English-speaking world that Bianchini's fiction is worthy of the attention of general readers. But apart from the translation, there is a significant problem both with the "chronology" section (vii-viii) and the glossary (139-40). Both sections are not only too brief, but also contain explanations that can confuse or mislead those not familiar with the history of the fascist era and with World War II. For example, in the chronology section under 1938, the entry lists only three of the dozens of specific provisions of the anti-Jewish "racial laws" and chooses as the first of the three the relatively minor provision that "Jews are forbidden to participate in any international congress or event." And in the glossary there is a bizarre entry for Winston Churchill. Churchill should be defined in a manner similar to the way in which the glossary refers to Charles De Gaulle, as the man who "launched a massive appeal to the French people asking them to resist the occupying Nazi forces" (140). But rather than refer to Churchill's inspirational leadership in the fight against Nazi Germany, the glossary introduces Churchill as a "British politician who went so far as to predict the possibility of world conflict due to Germany's rearmament." In addition to these sorts of errors, the chronology and the glossary fail to explain a number of points referred to in the novel that should be explained to non-Italian readers. For example, Bianchini's narrator refers to her family's "patriotic merits" (22), but there is no attempt in the chronology or glossary to explain about the exemptions (called "discriminazioni") that were granted to about one in five Jewish Italian families.
Wiley Feinstein, Loyola University of Chicago
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|Title Annotation:||ITALIAN BOOKSHELF|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2004|
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