California Literary Review

Book Review: How I Lost the War by Filippo Bologna

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July 18th, 2011 at 2:44 pm

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How I Lost the War by Filippo Bologna
How I Lost the War
by Filippo Bologna, trans. by Howard Curtis
Pushkin Press, 272 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★☆


Globalization Comes to Tuscany

If your family’s modern castle were built on a natural spring, for example, you’d expect other people to think you were lucky. Or, at the very least, compliment you on your spring. Even more so, though, if you lived in Tuscany, under the constant heat of the Italian sun. You’d expect the locals might eye your spring with envy.

Not so if you’re young Federico Cremona.

In Filippo Bologna’s How I Lost the War, the simple lives of Federico’s family and the inhabitants of the rural town they live in are made dramatically more complicated as thermal water, olive groves, and everything in-between falls inexplicably under control of ‘aqua baron’ Ottone Gattai.

Strangely, war ensues.

Far from painting an image of Italy with horizontal, sun-browned pasta farmers, Bologna pulls away from being a tourist in his own country and draws a more subtle image. Federico’s family, the Cremona, are landed-gentry, which seems to mean their house has turrets and that they shout louder in the fields.

Other than this, life is limited by the height of the sun and the length of the day.

Once there was interference from Mussolini’s local gang of Blackshirts, but although criminally cruel-minded, these pig-bellied gentlemen simply enjoyed bossing others around when previously they were the ones under the boot.

But in a place where the tractor’s ploughshare regularly strikes a Roman column, those political upstarts had an entire history of citizenry to contend with. They mostly fizzled where elsewhere Mussolini burned. The real war that’s lost in this town in Tuscany, however, is against Gattai.

Influenced by ‘external funding’ and ‘capital investment’ the local council regularly give court to scam artists and fast-talkers. Even a monorail scheme is discussed – where’s Marge Simpson when you need her? But nothing is transformed and forgotten more often than the hot springs; renovated and reduced to rubble in decade-long cycles, entrepreneurs slink through town one after another.

The damage is done when a scheme finally succeeds.

Ottone Gattai brings ruin to the town by making the thermal waters financially viable, dangerously involving takeover bids, efficiency cuts, redundancy buyouts and capital resource redistribution in sleepy provincial life. In other words, he buys the town’s water rights from the council.

Quite literally. All water sources in the vicinity of the hot springs become Aquatrade property. Including taps.

Nobody is envious of the Cremona springs, because they, like every other spring, stream and fountain in town, systematically become property of the administrative wing of Gattai’s growing business. Federico’s grandfather, who even receives meals in his thermal bath, is bodily extracted from the waters, soggy cigar and all.

Aquatrade deals in a commodity devoid of the usual ethical implications. There are no appeals in sub-Saharan Africa naming Aquatrade as the cause; there are no seals on Alaskan coastlines slick with Aquatrade oil.

Yet in Federico’s town, pools are pumped and wells are closed. They remove centuries old trees in the square and install a serpent-shaped fountain; they provide more jobs as the spa complex grows, at the same time bulldozing vineyards and cobblestone streets.

Federico’s response is extreme but at the sight of his parched land perhaps understandable. He goes guerrilla.

Forming a rag-tag group of former-school friends, ambivalent sailors and border-hopping revolutionaries, Federico sets about resisting further decrees by the ‘thermal baron’ Gattai. Hiding in dusty brushland, antique rifle in hand, they wait and wait, and wait, for a time when they can return their town to what it previously was.

How I Lost the War is not a manifesto for rural Italy though.

Bologna’s fight, and Federico’s fight, is not with the changing times. An old Fiat may crouch in the Cremona yard packed with brooding chickens, tires loose and punctured, but Federico is no backwater cousin scared-off from the city. Federico was at the university: he wasn’t meant to be the one to look after the family estate.

Bologna’s writing describes wave after wave of detail, thick and steeped with the people of the town, with trees and benches notched with generations of lovers’ names and children’s comments. Federico fights for the memories of everyone who lives and has lived there.

Aging, gaping church doors are replaced with exact, manufactured replicas that swing seamlessly without catching roughly on the floor anymore. How I Lost the War is a caution against cultural crudity. Before the Aquatrade renovations, light eased its way through the square, allowing couples to hole up in a corner all evening or gentlemen to hide from wives in the smoke outside bars.

Gattai does away with this when street lights are installed, so bright that when the drunks stagger out at closing time, they’re unsure whether it’s time for work or time for bed.

Neither fast-paced nor startlingly exciting, this book doesn’t even simmer, but quite uniquely Bologna manages to make you care, and with only a description of where a character stands or which direction they blew their cigarette smoke. Federico does not grow, he spreads, and as How I Lost the War goes on, suddenly an entire life has been laid bare without discussion of birth or death, or first grade teacher’s names; you just simply know him.

What is startling, though, is that it manages to inspire without effort or intention. Subtly and without ceremony it ends and you feel as if someone has died.

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