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Love and Hate In Wartime Italy

The Water Door

By Rosetta Loy

Translated by Gregory Conti

Other Press, 120 pages, $11.95.

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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).


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