Themes and Characters
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 599
Roberto and Samuele/Enzo are the central figures in Napoli's extraordinary novel, which though written for young adults will appeal to a wider audience. Roberto is the "everychild," the boy who, because of adversity, grows from childhood and ignorance into adulthood. Samuele/Enzo, who in the beginning of the story is a Jewish boy relatively untouched by the happenstance of his birth, grows symbolically and truly into the Victim of all his people throughout time.
Napoli's novel is outstanding. Of all her works, of which many have been translated into other languages, this story most deserves to be shared worldwide. The inhumanities of war are flashed daily on screen and in print. Yet seldom do children feel the awfulness of war. Napoli's story, while short in length, is long on lesson. The reader cannot fail to be moved by her words. The novel is simple enough for a pre-teen to read and devoid of sensationalism; yet it is heartrending in its truth, simplicity, and horror. In Napoli's story, love supersedes inhumanity: the love of a Catholic boy for a Jewish friend; the love of a Ukrainian orphan for the boy who saves him; the love of an Italian deserter for an escaping child he hardly knows; and the love shown by Roberto when, at the story's end, he vows to join the partisans. He vows never to kill, but to help other Jews, like his friend Samuele and the little Polish girl in the enclosure, find freedom from the sure death that awaits them in the camps.
Napoli has created children who deserve to be remembered in literature. Roberto is first seen as the gullible younger brother and friend of Memo, the street-smart Romeo who trades the price of a movie ticket for the promise of a gondola ride with his new girlfriend. After their capture, it is Roberto who seems numbed by the situation. It is quick-witted Memo who warns Samuele to hide his circumcision from the German guards; it is he who in a second changes Samuele to "Enzo." Memo remains a presence in the novel despite his early separation from the other two boys for his ploy to keep the three of them together.
Samuele, the Jew, is different from Roberto in his youthful sophistication. Roberto would be content to be a Venetian all his life—his only regret is that as a second son he will be unable to inherit the license of a gondolier when his father retires or dies. He is a true son of the water that is the soul of Venice. Samuele, though also a Venetian, holds in deepest being the knowledge that to be a Jew is to be at risk—always at the whim of History. He is the better student, with knowledge of the world's history and geography. He knows the places from which his people once came and the meaning of the tides that swept them from one end of the world to another. He is privy to the fears the Jews are experiencing as they hear tales of what is happening to their counterparts in other parts of Europe at this, the beginning of World War II. Samuele's pretty ghetto (neighborhood), no matter how quaint and charming, is still a place of separation, and his circumcision is a uniqueness that could cause his death. Samuele's spirit is weighed down by the sure knowledge that his people are once more marked for extinction. It is only Roberto's enduring friendship and love that sustain him until he can no longer fight the cold, the privation, and the hate.