It is in the nature of many great novels to create worlds of their own, entire ecosystems that may be wildly different from the reader's own experience and are yet so vivid as to become real. The Garden Of The Finzi-Continis is one such.
I have never lived in Ferrara, although I have visited a couple of times, and certainly not in the Thirties and Forties of the last century, and not in the company of the Ferrara Jews.
And yet, reading it, I'm there. Or at least – which is perhaps an even cleverer trick – I'm there inside the mind of the anonymous narrator as, almost reluctantly, he goes over his memories of those times. Memory and imagination are deeply entwined, never more so than in writing. History becomes fiction, fiction becomes history.
So it is with Giorgio Bassani's novel. Blown by the swirling winds of the Fascist racial laws, young Ferrara Jews are gathered like leaves into the urban park that makes up the Finzi-Contini garden. Rejected by their tennis club, they have the idea of resurrecting the old grass court hidden among the trees. And when you follow Bassani's narrator into the garden with them, you don't know whether you are reading fact or fiction, his memory or your own.
Alberto – effete, brilliant, tragic – is there for you to recall; and the wise and austere Professor Ermanno; and the beautiful and elusive Micòl, whom the narrator loves but never possesses.
But then, when I first read the book I was in the grip of an affair with a Micòl. The book took my own life and showed me how, in a different place and a different time, it might have been. The moment when the narrator failed to make love to Micòl stays in the mind as though it was a personal inadequacy. Thus the characters haunt the reader. They meet in the garden, play tennis, talk, flirt, while all around their Eden the rough winds are blowing, and far away, further even than they can hear, the storm of the Holocaust rages.
This is the most oblique of Holocaust books. These Jews are affluent, educated, assured, assimilated. They are part of the fabric of Ferrara life and have been for centuries. And yet you know. That's the saddest thing of all: right from the beginning, you know because the narrator knows. You know they will all be blown away "light as leaves, as bits of paper"; while they don't. And at the end you, like him, will be bereft.
Simon Mawer's 'The Girl Who Fell From The Sky' is published by Little, Brown