Wednesday, March 19, 2008

He Never Asked Me If I Bowled Spin

More from War in Val D'Orcia. Even before the overthrow of Mussolini and Italy's subsequent occupation by the Germans, prisoners of war had been trickling through the writer's estate, and being given food, shelter and instructions as to getting back to the Allied lines in the South, but in the chaos that begins in the winter of '43, that soon becomes a flood. There are thousands of partisans hiding in the hills around, and both the Fascists and the Germans suspect more and more, rightly, that they are being supported by the population at large. What is striking about that support is the seemingly automatic sacrifice it involves, all apparently done on the basis of simple human need, which Denis Mack Smith rightly highlights in his introduction. Here, for example, is an entry from February '44, beginning with the return of three prisoners of war who had left the month before to try to get through to the Allies in the South:

A peasant from a remote farm on Monte Amiata, Fonte Lippi, came to see, bringing with him a letter from three of our p.o.w.s, who (after having lived for four months hidden in this man's farm) set off in January to try to rejoin their own troops. There were four of them, but when they got near to Cassino one of them was captured, and the other three have now returned, worn-out and ragged, to the same farm. Their note says: 'We realize that this man has robbed himself and his family to keep us', and begs me to help him in any way I can. The peasant's story is remarkable. He took in these four Englishmen at the beginning of October, when they were obliged to leave [the manor house], and fed and housed them - disregarding the danger as well as the expense - for over three months. Then the Fascist militia ... came to search his house and threatened to shoot him for harbouring enemy aliens. They came in the middle of the night and turned the hosue upside down, but della brava gente (some good folk) had given the warning two hours before, and the prisoners had escaped into the woods in time - returning again to the farm the next day. 'We couldn't just turn them out', said their host. 'They had become a part of the family - and when at last they left, my old woman and the children cried.' But meanwhile they had eaten up all the family's flour - everyone was going short - and at last, in January, they had set off - only to return again a fortnight ago... Finally, in despair, the peasant has come to us...
Surely this is a very creditable story... [H]ere is a man (and there are hundreds of others like him) who has run the risk of being shot, who has shared his family's food to the last crumb, and who has lodged, clothed and protected four stran gers for over three months - and who now proposes continuing to do so, while being perfectly aware of the risks he is running.
In The English Patient - in the film at least: it's longer since I read the novel - after his much-liked sergeant has been killed whilst celebrating VE Day by a German bobby-trap, Kip, a Sikh, says to his lover Hana, as evidence of the man's basic decency, that he never asked whether Kip bowled spin. Fittingly, it seems to have been exactly that acceptance of others merely because they were also human that provided shelter, food, and clothing for many of Kip and his sergeant's real-life counterparts in the Tuscan countryside where I think The English Patient was set.

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