How I Lost the War, By Filippo Bologna, trans. Howard Curtis

Reviewed,Daniel Hahn
Friday 01 April 2011 00:00
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How I Lost the War is award-winning screenwriter Filippo Bologna's first novel. Set in Tuscany, the book is Bologna's antidote to the sun-drenched terracotta loveliness of the area so familiar to British expats and readers of Under a Tuscan Sun. This Tuscany is not rural and unspoilt. Indeed, his story is about the spoiling of it.

Young Federico lives with his family in a castle in an unnamed village that sits on top of a hot spring. He is the last heir to his line, with the pressures of history heavy upon him. Propagate the family name; live up to the memory of the other Federico, a great-uncle who died tragically young; measure up to the recurring destinies of the generations that have preceded him, right back to great-grandfather Terenzio, "the one who whipped the peasants".

So when Aquatrade tycoon Ottone Gattai moves into the village to exploit the local waters – this, apparently, is development, progress – Federico takes it upon himself to stop him. The consequences, as the book's title suggest, are not good - the battling Federico and his story will see wave upon wave of disappointment break over them before the book is up.

The brilliantly-drawn Gattai, a giant of a character with his concrete and his brutal, unforgiving modernity, is a man with money and influence – two things you don't want in an enemy. He's clever, too. Soon, practically the whole village is in his employ, the square is being drastically re-landscaped to his grim specifications (complete with a fountain shaped like the Aquatrade logo, a clawed serpent). Federico and his friends are forced to contemplate ever more drastic measures to thwart his plans.

Bologna draws a vivid, sometimes nostalgic picture of village life, with all its affections and petty competitiveness. He mixes in a love story and one of a boy's abrupt growing-up ("If it were up to me, Contessa, I'd wish a decent war on everyone.") with a plot that's particular in its setting and time but also allegorical, and with sharp satire (often very funny).

The result is a constantly surprising book, with stylistic twists that wrong-foot a reader slightly with each change of current. Howard Curtis's translation makes Bologna's language – sometimes archaic, sometimes regional, sometimes technical – work effortlessly in English, with beautiful descriptions of the setting, a well-paced narrative voice for Federico and an easy, light touch to the humour. Appropriately enough for a book so concerned with water, this writing is all about flow, and all its twists and turns won't stop you being carried helplessly along.

Daniel Hahn is joint interim director of the British Centre for Literary Translation, Norwich

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