How do two people from different worlds end up sharing a crumb of bread through a barbed wire fence, far from home, and yet both enemies and friends? This is the puzzle at the heart of Christopher Jory’s visceral novel of the Second World War, The Art of Waiting.
This is a novel about untold stories that many people would prefer were left forgotten. We follow the fortunes of its anti-hero, Aldo Gardini, a young Venetian whose life is dogged by bitter misfortune. Throughout his long travails, Aldo retains a flaming urge to survive, whatever life throws at him. It is his determination to keep on going and his sardonic wit that keeps the book bubbling along even in the harshest of environments:
The roofs of the bunkers were made of branches and packed earth and the walls were solid concrete. There was no light and no ventilation, and when Aldo lay there at the end of each day and looked up into the pitch black, he felt as if he had been buried alive. The nights were hell – the cold and the damp, the lice, the jabbering of the men who had gone mad, the stink of the ones who were dying. Typhus did for most of them, a rampant epidemic, and in the morning you’d often wake up next to a dead man. That got the day off to a bad start, and it usually went downhill from there.
The Art of Waiting partly covers the Italian involvement in Operation Barbarossa when Mussolini invaded the USSR alongside Nazi Germany. The Italians were decimated, with over 90% losses. Many of their bodies simply disappeared off the face of the earth. Even today, volunteers are still finding and collecting remains from the Second World War in the deep forests of Russia.
Venice here is also far from La Serenissima of tourist dreams. It is a seedy place, riven by corruption and internecine struggles. Funerals deal their financial blow on the survivors, leaving them blind to the beauty of their city:
instead she sat motionless and watched the bow of the boat as it cut through the drizzle, the brass eagle on the prow coated with fine drops that slid along its outstretched wings and slipped one by one onto the waves of the lagoon.
It will be difficult to wander around the alleyways of Venice again eating an overpriced ice cream without thinking of Aldo’s tatterdemalion figure skulking in the shadows.
So earthy is some of the language of the working class Venetians that I wondered how a translator would go about turning their conversations into Italian. It’s a common problem for translators, but one in which they often shine. The Roman legionaries in Asterix for example, speak in Roman dialect in the Italian versions of the comics.
When they came to translate Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden into Japanese, they had to track down a real geisha to help them because the women spoke in a particular dialect all of their own. Likewise, one imagines that Aldo and his friends would speak a fruity version of Italian in a choice Venetian accent.
The Art of Waiting is not really a tragedy. Rather it is a story of the human capacity for persistence in the face of desperate misfortune. Its main theme is how the course of our lives is dictated by forces beyond our control, forces which we would often not even guess existed.
Fortunately for Aldo, he does have some allies along the way: his mistress Isabella and kind, lost Katerina, the girl who seeks to help him when she spies him waiting disconsolate behind that prison camp fence of barbed wire.