Voices From a Time By Silvia Bonucci, Translated by Martha King
Steerforth Press, 180 pages, $12.95.
Although there has been a Jewish presence on the Italian peninsula for more than 2,000 years, it would be inaccurate to speak of a single Jewish identity. The community of Rome is as distinct from that of Ferrara as the community of Turin is from that of Milan. Silvia Bonucci’s “Voices From a Time” — a recipient of the Zerilli-Merimo Prize, which advances the translation of outstanding Italian works into English — examines the declining fortunes and tragic fate of family from Trieste, in the extreme northeast of the country.
Before the First World War, Trieste was a cosmopolitan, polyglot melting pot of nationalities, ethnic identities, religions and political allegiances. An appendage of the decrepit Austro-Hungarian Empire, it was proud of its commercial and intellectual prowess. It was not a coincidence that it was the first Italian city to welcome Freudian psychoanalysis, or that it hosted two writers, Italo Svevo and James Joyce, who experimented with the “psychological” novel.
Bonucci’s first novel centers on the Levi family — “pillars,” one might say, of the commercial, religious and cultural life of the Jewish community. Sandro Levi, the patriarch, is a man immersed in shady business transactions that will leave his family bankrupt; his wife, the irrepressible and immature Gemma, is a beauty who cares more about her salon than about the emotional welfare of her children; Marcello is the firstborn son, addicted to morphine and opium, with a morbid attachment to his mother that will push both to visit the famous doctor in Vienna and try the new “talking cure” of psychoanalysis; Dolly is the independent sister desperate to divert — or at least avoid — her family’s precipitous decline; Titti is the adored younger son, blessedly ignorant of much of what is transpiring.
The book is divided into three parts, each devoted to a family member — and each part is further divided into chapters written in the voice of particular family members, with Dolly, Gemma and Titti narrating chapters on Marcello, Sandrin and Castaldi, respectively. Bonucci pulls off the shifting registers of daughter, mother and son with perfect pitch.
Although originally from Trieste, the family traverses much of Europe and its empire, seeking financial security or fleeing its own demons. There are stints in Cairo and Paris, boarding school in Florence, a villa in Genoa, summer vacations at seaside resorts in “Grand Hotel” fashion and the de rigueur trip to Vienna to meet with Freud (with a detour to a private box at the Vienna Opera House). The “magician of psychoanalysis” fails to cure Marcello, something that the family pins on the good doctor rather than on the patient, in an all-too-familiar refusal to accept responsibility. In short, we have a common prewar existence for a fading aristocracy that is either unable or unwilling to contemplate its decline.
When the family can no longer deny Marcello’s morphine and opium addiction, brought on by a childhood bout with meningitis, mother and son repair to a “sanitarium” in the Italian countryside that specializes in the detoxification of the aristocracy. There, Gemma meets Augusto Castaldi, parvenu and one of the up-and-coming young men of that new political movement, fascism. This sets in motion the final tragedy with an inexorable necessity that the Greeks would have found both credible and expected.
The irony, of course, is that each member of the family perceptively spots the faults in the others but fails to recognize his or her own shortcomings. Thus Dolly recognizes that her mother’s beauty was “almost offensive” and that Marcello, far from being arrogant, was suffering from “an exasperated form of melancholy, in inner sadness that kept him from laughing, from letting himself go freely, from simply being a child.” But Dolly fails to appreciate the damage that comes from her withdrawal from the family, which is the only way to save herself from its destiny. Gemma recognizes and then comes to despise her husband’s weak character but refuses to acknowledge her role in the family’s destruction. And through it all, the subterranean current of Judaism flows like a quiet stream, occasionally turning into a whitewater rapid. In Trieste, a gang of Black Shirts taunts Marcello and Titti, and the older brother suffers a humiliating beating in front of his adoring younger sibling; in Paris, a group from Charles Maurras’s Action Française marches through the city, with effigies of Jews dangling from improvised gallows. At a time when the most highly decorated officer in the Italian military was a Jew (Emmanuele Pugliese, a general), France was tearing itself apart with the Dreyfus Affair.
“The press has a campaign against us,” Marcello solemnly tells Titti.
“The Jews in general,” responds Marcello.
“Why? What have we done?”
“Nothing. That’s just the point.”
And the ancient wisdom of the prophets is passed down from father to son. When Titti and his father are on the wharves of Trieste, the young boy spots exotic Hasidic Jews with their “tangled locks of hair.”
“You mustn’t laugh at them.”
“But they’re so funny.”
“If you were one of them you would find us funny.”
“But there are more of us.”
“Being in the majority doesn’t mean you’re right.”
But even this strong ethical tradition cannot save the family from disintegrating into a haze of opium smoke, financial and sexual scandal and suicide. “Voices From a Time” captures both a fleeting moment in history and the particular dynamic of a family with honesty, simplicity and beauty. As such, it is one piece in that dazzling mosaic of light and color — not lacking though in subtly and shadow — that is the history of Italian Jews.
Stanislao G. Pugliese is a professor of history at Hofstra University. He is the author of “Carlo Rosselli: Socialist Heretic and Antifascist Exile”(Harvard University Press, 1999) and editor of “The Most Ancient of Minorities: The Jews of Italy” (Greenwood Press, 2002) as well as “The Legacy of Primo Levi”(Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).