History Morante

by Elsa Morante
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 922

History draws on the depth of Elsa Morante’s personal knowledge of and research into the lives of the common people in Rome during World War II. Following the lives of two presumably fictional characters, Ida Ramundo and her son Giuseppe, the novel depicts the toll of suffering, fear, and deprivation inflicted by war on its innocent victims. Though each section of the novel is preceded by a capsule summary of the year’s major events, the narrative concentrates with an attention bordering on moral outrage on the histories of ordinary individuals.

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The novel begins with a German soldier named Gunther walking along the streets of Rome. His encounter with an Italian widow, Ida Ramundo, is preceded by a detailed description of her past and family history. Ida has carried with her since early childhood, almost like a racial memory, a “sense of the sacred: meaning by sacred, in [this] case, the universal power that can devour them and annihilate them, for their guilt in being born.” In this immediate instance her foreknowledge is of being raped and impregnated by the German soldier, during the midst of which she suffers an epileptic fit. The soldier is never seen again and dies shortly thereafter in a plane crash.

The result of this violent encounter is Ida’s child Giuseppe, or, as he comes to be called because he cannot pronounce his own name, Useppe. Despite the war and Ida’s guilt over his birth, Useppe leads an almost idyllic existence described with the innocence of a child’s point of view. His great friend is his brother Nino who in between frequent adolescent adventures always seems to have time, at least initially, for his younger brother. Together with Nino’s dog, Blitz, who like Useppe is a bastard, as Nino points out to a horrified Ida, Nino and Useppe play and discover the joys of nature.

As the war progresses into the year 1943, the story becomes more bleak. Along with the air raids and wartime deprivation, there is Ida’s continuing worry over her other great secret in addition to her epilepsy—her Jewish ancestry. Nino enlists and disappears, while Ida and Useppe are left homeless by the bombing. They move to temporary shelter where the deprivations of war are felt all the more strongly. Nino returns, having deserted, with several friends. Carlo Vivaldi, one of these friends, tells the horrified refugees of his experience in the “antechambers of death” while awaiting deportation to Germany for political crimes. Ida, in one of the central events of the novel, witnesses, by accident, the roundup and deportation from the Tiburtina train station of the major portion of Rome’s Jewish population (of the 1,056 who leave, only fifteen will return). This event pushes Ida even further into a nearly paralyzing paranoia compounded of fear and guilt.

While Ida withdraws into her fearful isolation, Useppe’s contact with the outside world comes primarily through Nino, who by this point is active with a group of partisan Resistance fighters. Several of the engagements with the Germans are described in graphic detail, culminating in the destruction of the group and the violent rape and murder of Nino’s girlfriend, Maria. Particularly active in the Resistance action is Nino’s friend Carlo, who seems to be all the bolder for having suffered at the hands of the Nazis. As Rome is declared an open city, Ida and Useppe move into an apartment with a family, though Useppe’s health continues to suffer because of Ida’s overwhelming guilt and secretiveness.

Once the war is over Ida and Useppe move to yet another apartment and Ida resumes her teaching. Useppe begins having terrible nightmares of people burning, and Ida takes him to a specialist in neurological disorders. Nino’s postwar exploits take him from the Resistance to the black market, where he displays the same mix of street smarts, luck, and savvy. In one memorable episode, he gives Useppe a tour of Rome on the back of his motorcycle. They also receive a long letter from Davide Segre (the real name of Carlo Vivaldi, indicating his Jewish parentage), which contains a long discourse on his bourgeois background and subsequent rebellion against it. Nino brings Useppe another dog, Bella, to replace Blitz, who was killed in the bombings, but Useppe continues to have nightmares and—despite his precocity—trouble in school.

Ida receives the shocking news that Nino has been killed. After serving in the army and fighting the Germans as a Resistance fighter, he died when a truck he was driving overturned during a chase with police. Ida’s troubled interior state now includes hallucinations of Nino as well as increased concern over Useppe, who has begun to suffer epileptic fits of increasing frequency and seriousness. Useppe and Bella, however, take advantage of Ida’s work schedule to explore the city and meet with Davide, who has returned to Rome. Davide has become a drug addict and lives in a squalid room once inhabited by a prostitute, but he is Useppe’s great friend and the two of them exchange poems and conversation. Just before Davide’s death from a drug overdose, he yells at Useppe for the first time; soon, Useppe himself dies in his mother’s arms after a severe epileptic fit. The story of Ida Ramundo, her family and circle, has been one of suffering, fear, and deprivation, caused by the larger forces of history and brightened only by the childish innocence and exuberance of the doomed Useppe.

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