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FICTION : MEN AND NOT MEN by Elio Vittorini; translated by Sarah Henry (Marlboro: $16.95).

May 11, 1986|Eric Sigg

Elio Vittorini's strangely apolitical novel describes how German military rule over Milan late in World War II suspended the decencies of normal life, substituting power and force in their place. In an ugly, bitter contest, where foul play has become fair, the Italian Resistance challenges that substitution, but at the cost of borrowing the Nazi's own random, violent tactics. When in Nazi Milan, a partisan must do as the Germans do.

Vittorini's protagonist, a partisan code-named "En 2," resolves this dilemma sacrificially, that ordinary life might resume once Nazism collapses. Like everyone in the Resistance, he suffers, from the nagging knowledge that partisans do right and wrong in one act of violence: They become both men and not men.

This marks the first English translation of Vittorini's 1945 novel. Its brief chapters, cryptic and repetitive dialogue (occasionally declining into unintentional parody of Hemingway), and shifts of perspective make this short book seem less coherent and important on a first reading than it ultimately proves to be.

Besides his vivid, blow-by-blow account, Vittorini offers an unsparing analysis of the moral ambiguities inherent in political violence. Most poignantly, his characters reflect the partisan's dual struggle with tyranny outside, and with a conflicted conscience within.

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