Life & Culture

Eternal review - The fate of Italy’s Jews made clear despite the froth

Legal thriller writer Lisa Scottoline turns her hand to historical fiction with well-researched wartime story


A picture taken on September 14, 2017 shows bottles of wine with pictures of Mussolini, Hitler, Lenin and Stalin at a shop in the center of Rome. Italy's lower house of Parliament voted for the introduction of an article in the penal code punishing "anyone who propagates the images or contents of the Italian former Fascist Party or the German former Nazist Party" affects production, distribution, diffusion or sale of goods depicting people, images or symbols, and increase of one-third of the punishment for the crimes committed through the web, the rectification of the law is now awaiting voting in the Senate. / AFP PHOTO / Alberto PIZZOLI (Photo credit should read ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP via Getty Images)

by Lisa Scottoline
Bedford Square, £9.99

Within a matter of months, we have had two fictionalised versions of life in wartime fascist Italy.

Earlier this year Joseph O’Connor published his magnificent My Father’s House, centring on the heroic real-life Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty. Now, comes Lisa Scottoline’s Eternal, a fat juicy read bursting with research.

It’s a little unfair though to compare the two. Scottoline is an unashamedly populist author, whose usual line is a hard-boiled thriller series featuring a group of female lawyers.

Great literature is not her forte, but she can ramp up the tension with brio. Eternal is essentially two books: the often little-known story of what happened to Italian Jews, first under Mussolini and his fascists, and then the drip-drip impact of the Nazi invasion.

Amid the known facts, in which we meet again, all too briefly, Monsignor O’ Flaherty, Scottoline bolts a somewhat frothy fictionalised plot to illustrate her account.

Centring on the relationships between a trio of three childhood friends — a Jewish student, Sandro Simone, and Marco, an ardent fascist, both of whom are in love with the somewhat saintly (and, of course, beautiful) Elizabetta — Scottline draws out the real-time effect of the Italian race laws, promulgated by Mussolini, and everything that flowed from that.

It’s not just the three young people who are friends as the novel opens. Their families are close, too.

Scottoline is very good on Sandro’s family, since many Jews were members of the Fascist Party and she shows us Sandro’s father Massimo, a Jewish community leader and lawyer, who is a hopeless and deluded optimist about Mussolini and cannot believe what is happening to him, even as, ultimately and horribly, he is on the train to Auschwitz.

She also draws on many real-life episodes, including an infamous Rome hospital scenario when Nazis are deterred from arresting Jewish patients by the presence of a completely concocted “Syndrome K” virus, which the hospital administrator tells them is life-threatening.

This genuinely happened and is just one example, reflected throughout the book, of how sympathetic many Italians were to their Jewish friends and neighbours.

Scottoline does her best to make a case for the Pope’s position as the Nazis invade, though I wasn’t wholly convinced.

Nevertheless, she tells us that despite the horror of the mass round-up of Rome’s 1,200 ghetto Jews in 1943, only 16 of whom survived, a further 10,000 of Rome’s 12,000 Jews survived the war “by hiding in the Vatican, monasteries, convents and homes”.

I can’t say this is a light read, but it certainly is an accessible way of learning what did happen to Italy’s Jews.

Anyone curious to know why Scottoline switched from legal crime to this historical genre might be fascinated to know that she was inspired by Philip Roth.

Roth taught a class at the University of Pennsylvania which the undergraduate Scottoline attended, entitled “The Literature of the Holocaust”. It introduced her to Primo Levi, the Italian Jewish chemist whose incarceration in Auschwitz led to his extraordinary Holocaust memoirs.

Levi, and what he had suffered, and the experience of Italian Jews, struck a chord with Scottoline. Eternal is the result. Scottoline is no O’Connor, but she’s worth a read.

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