Love and Hate In Wartime Italy

Fiction

By Peter Orner

Published June 23, 2006, issue of June 23, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The Water Door

By Rosetta Loy

Translated by Gregory Conti

Other Press, 120 pages, $11.95.

* * *

The 5-year-old narrator of Rosetta Loy’s brief, death-haunted novel “The Water Door” is, to borrow Henry James’s graceful phrase, a girl upon whom nothing is lost. To read this book is to become immersed in the intensity of childhood as it is experienced, rather than nostalgically remembered. And yet the great success of the book is that it is remembered. An adult looks back with 5-year-old eyes and sees, missing nothing. “With my elbows resting on the tabletop I lean my face up next to hers; Ann Marie chews slowly, with attention, and from her mouth comes a kind of sweet, wild smell.”

“The Water Door” is a story of the unrequited love of an Italian child for her German governess, Ann Marie, who represents the universe to her. Throughout the book, the child watches Ann Marie’s every move with awe and rapture. The narrator’s perception of the textures of her day-to-day life is so acute that anything superfluous — even such a thing as knowing the day, the month, the year — would distract her from her far more significant observations. “Wednesday? What did I say about the days of the week?”

If the narrator is not concerned about time in a conventional sense, she is nevertheless attuned to what is going on beyond the confines of a childhood of “happiness beyond concessions.” Set in an upper-class Roman family in fascist Italy of the 1930s, racial politics, though rarely alluded to in any direct way, are ever-present. A mention of her mother’s Jewish friends having “dropped out of sight” indicates that the child is aware, at least in a vague sense, of what is happening beyond the confines of her world.

Thus, the novel may be read as a kind of act of contrition through memory. Many of the narrator’s recollections are preoccupied with thoughts about the fate of Jews. In fact, it is the narrator’s curiosity about a chance meeting with a Jewish girl named Regina in the park that causes an almost imperceptible, yet deep rift between her and her beloved governess. She asks Ann Marie if, since newborns are found in baskets outside the apartments of their parents, what might have happened if she too had been left outside the door of a Jewish house? “Ann Marie smiled, explaining to me that Jewish children were much different from me, more curls, darker skin. ‘So lockig, so braun,’ she said, and in German it was almost the sound of bells.” Still, the narrator’s doubts remain. But Regina is blond, she retorts.

This may be a child’s world full of love and strange, unexpected beauty, but it is also, given the context, a place of considerable threat. The fairy tales that the governess tells provide no respite. Early in the novel, the narrator becomes obsessed with the fate of a little girl named Paulichen who burns to death in a story. Later she has the prescient notion that the fortunes of the girl in the story and the missing Regina may very well have a link. It is here that the adult perspective sheds light on, but does not intrude on, the narrative. Children are burning — in books. Still, books are real, this child understands, and if it can happen in books, what is to stop it from happening in the apartment across the way?

While the book may give a reader a bird’s eye view of how children are indoctrinated to hate (Mother Superior tells her that “Jews had crucified Jesus and then bemoaned the fact that his innocent blood had fallen on their children”), this is not a book with a facile moral. There is no catachresis, and yet, by seeing only what is essential, this narrator exposes the flaws of a hypocritical adult world descending rapidly, and literally, into the sort of flames that engulfed Paulinchen.

The people around the narrator — the servants, Ann Marie, her mother — seem trapped and stagnated. Only the girl is to be able to experience life, in all its beauty, truth and terror. She is that rare child — person, for that matter — who attempts to internalize other people’s misery.

Roy creates a crystalline universe that, rather than being limited by the narrative perspective, is widened in often astonishing ways. It is the book’s aching and unanswerable questions that speak the loudest: “How could one bear the idea of such an atrocious punishment for the curiosity of a little girl left home alone? Why hadn’t her Guardian Angel come to the rescue, where was he?”

Peter Orner is the author of “Esther Stories” (Mariner Books, 2001) and of the recently published novel “The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo” (Little, Brown).






Find us on Facebook!
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.