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mardi 4 novembre 2008

A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell

When I was in Boston this last September, an old friend presented me with this book knowing full well that it touches on all my sensibilities.  Thus, even though the Red Wheelbarrow does not as yet stock the book, I will tell you about it and then  when it does arrive at your favorite bookstore on rue St Paul, you will rush to buy it.
The book handles all the subjects of interest to me: The time is the last couple of years of the war, 1943 to 1945, the place is North-West Italy, the Italian regime is in collapse, the Germans are pursuing Jewish refugees who are looking for safety in the villages of Italy. The story plays in a “village snug in a ravine”.  Its characters are multiple: Germans, Jews, Nazis, Catholics, Italian Jews and Italian Catholics, a priest and a rabbi, a German doctor experienced in exterminating undesirables, a soldier from Calabria; the military swarm about everywhere, Germans, Italians, Americans even the Brits are present. Have I forgotten someone?
The title is taken from a Hebrew saying: No matter how dark the tapestry God weaves for us, there is always a thread of Grace.
From the general to the a little more specific: 43,000 Jews, both native and foreign, were saved in Italy by ordinary people and the author has created this fictional account in an equally fictional village, to show us how this was done.  We get to know the chief rabbi, Iacopo Soncini and his wife Mirella, Renzo Leoni the former pilot and his mother Lidia, an infantry soldier who falls in love with a Belgian refugee whom we first meet when she and her father flee across the Alps from France under dire circumstances.  There is Werner Schramm, the German physician who says he personally is responsible for the deaths of 91,867 people whom he killed in the camps.
I have given you a brutally cut version of a book slow and long and thoughtful, which presents moral choices and offers no way out. When Schramm, at the beginning of the book, tells the Catholic priest his story to ask for absolution, the priest replies: “ God forgives you.  I can’t.” Whereupon he suggests the man shoot him self. Moral ambiguities have no solutions.
This is not a sentimental book.
The reader is offered a coda at the end.  It is 2007, North Toronto, Canada.
Claudia whom we had met as a teenager fleeing across the Alps, later married to the infantry man, mother of three children, has died, her children sit at the death bed.  Not one has forgiven the mother who would not talk about the past.

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