Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 24, 2015

Between Enemies, by Andrea Molesini, translated by Antony Shugaar and Patrick Creagh

Between EnemiesThe anniversaries of the First World War have been a catalyst for numerous books but Between Enemies is the first I’ve come across that explores the topic of collaboration during the German/Austrian Occupation of Italy.  Since its publication in 2010 as Non tutti i bastardi sono di Vienna (which in the original Italian means ‘Not all are bastards in Vienna’) , the novel has won a swag of prestigious literature prizes, including the Premio Campiello, Premio Comiso, Premio Citta de Cuneo and Premio Latisana, and the book has been widely translated.

Today when we visit Italy it is hard to imagine its charming villages bristling with troops and its beautiful landscapes ruined by trench warfare.  Certainly in Australia, Italy’s part in this war gets very little attention, and I suspect that many would assume that the Italians were allies of Germany.  Military buffs can explore the details at Wikipedia but for the purposes of reading this novel all you need to know is that Italy had (belatedly) joined the allies, were fighting in the north, and – when the novel begins – had been routed.

Molesini (who teaches comparative literature at the University of Padua and lives in Venice) has created a microcosm of village society to show a spectrum of reactions to occupation by the  enemy.  The novel is narrated by Paolo Spada, seventeen years old and coming of age at a time when his family is humiliated and they are all trying to adapt to the new situation.  He sees his world through the perspective of an adolescent becoming interested in girls, and of wanting to have adventure and join the covert fight against the enemy.

Paolo’s parents are dead, so he lives with his eccentric grandparents, Signor Gugliemo Spada and Signora Nancy, and his Aunt Maria.  Although not titled, they are the aristocracy of the village, and until the occupation, they lived a gracious life, their comfort and their ‘standards’ maintained for them by their devoted servant Teresa and her resentful daughter Loretta.  As part of the household there is also an enigmatic steward called Renato, and an attractive woman called Guilia, who is in her mid-twenties.

Don Lorenzo administers to the spiritual needs of the town and runs the school with an iron rod, but the occupants of the villa mostly have no time for priests.  Grandpa fancies himself as an author and quotes the Buddha; Grandma takes lovers who are referred to by number – The First Paramour, the Second, and the Third.   Paolo himself would like Guilia to be his lover, but she mocks his youth and appears to be having a relationship with Renato.

But in a novel of occupation, it’s the relationship with the occupiers that is transformative.  The Germans arrive first, announcing that they are requisitioning the villa.  Although superficially polite, they displace the ordered life of centuries, and they loot without restraint.  Teresa, the devoted servant, is outraged on the family’s behalf.  She is a snob, and she resents having to serve people who are not of the same class as her employers.  But not everyone is unhappy about the family’s humiliation: Loretta takes grim satisfaction in seeing the family reduced to eating the same food as the servants, and she takes delight now in petty acts of contempt such as careless ironing of their remaining linen.

As for Paolo, well, the war brings the adventure that he craves and the secret prestige of being asked to join Renato’s resistance activities, helping to rescue a British airman called Brian.  He has always loved Grandpa and his stories and he enjoys the bickering between his grandparents, but part of his coming-of-age is to recognise that Grandpa’s cynicism is a mask for impotence.  It is Grandma who stands up for family values, not the old man, an irony which becomes more poignant in the tragic conclusion of the story.

At first the war is far away, and one of the main combatants is the river Piave, which is impossible to cross when it’s in flood.  For the village, there is a sad moment when the Germans loot the ancient church bell, which is not just the voice of the church, but also the village voice which has announced births, marriages and deaths for as long as anyone can remember.  But (as a consequence of military/political events far away) when the Austrians replace the Germans, war suddenly arrives on their doorstep and the cast of characters are confronted by the cruel reality of ruined men and their appalling injuries.  At first Paolo wanders about in the carnage, viewing how others rise to the occasion, or don’t, but eventually he too lends a hand with the wounded who fill the church, the grounds, and eventually the villa itself.

It is at this time that resistance activities become more serious, and the family has to decide whether to heed the warning of the Austrian Baron in command.  He knows that the family is involved in covert activities, and although he and Aunt Maria are attracted to each other, his values demand that he does his duty.  The penalty for helping the allies is hanging, and the family learns just how little their social position means when their pleas for a dignified death for a deserter fail.  Knowing what the likely penalties will be for themselves, they then have to decide what their values really mean.

All of us reading this novel now know that the First World War changed societies across the globe.  In Europe and Britain part of that change meant a loss of power, money and status for aristocracies.  Through Paolo’s coming-of-age, we can see the future coming.

Author: Andrea Molesino
Title: Between Enemies
Publisher: Atlantic Books, 2015
ISBN: 9780857897954
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin


Fishpond: Between Enemies



  1. I only know the rest of the world through books, but quite often you will see Italians at the time of the Second World War bemused to be on the side of the Germans and against the British when the opposite was true during the Great War,

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I discovered that from reading Captain Corelli’s Mandolin!


  2. A very interesting review Lisa. As I understand it, Mussolini was supported by only a section of the population and there was general rejoicing when he met his end. I read that the Italian troops were often quite relieved when taken POW by the British and many of them stayed on in the UK after the war.


    • Some of these WW2 POWs ended up here in Australia too (which is bizarre when you think how far away we are and the expense & danger of transporting them here). There’s a book called The Bread of Seven Crusts which explores the way the POWs came to love the freedom here (which is ironic) and the weather and the way of life. They didn’t want to go home afterwards either.
      As my mother used to say, ‘it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good’.


  3. […] Molesini in Between Enemies explores the sense of desperate humiliation in an Italian village under the […]


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