The Army of Lost Rivers
In the midst of senzapatria (a state of rootless disenfranchisement), the characters of Sgorlon's bleak and brilliant novel know only the ""dark Babylon of war."" In the final hours of WWII the Nazis ""give"" Friuli, a region of Italy bordering on Austria, to the Cossack bands who have collaborated with them on the Eastern Front against the Soviet forces. Marta is the Friulian housekeeper for a Russian Jewish refugee named Esther. When Esther is deported by the Germans, Marta keeps the villa, sheltering a partisan soldier, Ivos, and refusing to accept Esther's death. As the expatriated Cossacks arrive in 1944 ""like a plague of grasshoppers,"" the commander of the local Cossack division, Gavrila, quarters himself in Marta's villa. Entanglements, romantic and otherwise, occur. The truce established by Urvan, another commander and Marta's lover, with the Friuli villagers is broken when some Cossacks rape and kill a peasant beauty. As the atrocities multiply, it becomes clear that Cossack culture cannot long survive in the Friuli valleys. Sgorlon's (The Wooden Throne) sympathy, like his point of view, is divided evenly between the terrorized (and emotionally torn) indigenous people and the bewildered, aggressive Cossack refugees. Neo-realism may at times sit uneasily with a sort of swollen romanticism--Urvan's Slavic soul is ""vast"" and Marta is the eternal feminine principle--but these moments are quite easy to ignore in this grave and intelligent novel. (Apr.) FYI: Army of the Lost Rivers won the Premio Strega when it was published in Italy in 1985.