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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

Book review: Iris Origo's A Chill in the Air proves strikingly attentive

Her latest novel tells of how the golden fields of Tuscany darkened as Italy took its first steps to war

A Chill in the Air by Iris Origo.
A Chill in the Air by Iris Origo.

In 1947, Iris Origo – a writer and biographer born in England in 1902 who made Italy her home after marrying an Italian – published War in Val d’Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943-1944. The wealthy Origos purchased their Tuscan estate, La Foce, back in the mid-1920s when it was little more than “a half-ruined fifteenth-century villa” in “a spectacularly wild and desolate valley”.

Their plan, as their granddaughter Katia Lysy explains in her afterword to the recently discovered prequel to War in Val d’Orcia, that which details Italy’s road to war, published now for the first time as A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary, 1939-1940, was to turn “the arid clay hills, where only wild broom blossomed, into fertile pastures and rippling wheat-fields, neatly groomed olive groves and new vineyards.

“They imagined bringing roads and schools and medical care to the destitute, largely illiterate farmers of the Val d’Orcia. La Foce and its people would become a shining example of bucolic peace and prosperity, the revival of an ideal community from a classical Golden Age.” This was no pipe dream. With the help of incentives and loans from Italy’s Fascist government – “in which agricultural policy played a major role,” Lysy reminds us – between 1925 and the Second World War, “La Foce became the heart of a land reclamation project of truly epic proportions”.

Origo’s account of what happened thereafter lies in War in Val d’Orcia (also recently reissued by Pushkin Press). She and her husband offered food and shelter to those in need, whether partisans, deserters or refugees, as well as evacuees. Then, when they were thrown off the estate by the Germans, Origo led everyone under her care in what Lucy Hughes-Hallett in her introduction to A Chill in the Air describes as “a hair-raising march across countryside that was being shelled from the air by the Allies,” to refuge in the hilltop town of Montepulciano.

Although A Chill in the Air doesn’t offer anything as dramatic as this, it’s no less interesting. It gives us an invaluable account of the dark days during which Italy stumbled blindly into a war that, as far as Origo could tell, was unwanted by most Italians.

One of the most intriguing elements of the diary is just how impersonal it is – we only learn Origo is pregnant with her daughter shortly before the birth, via information that Rome is unsuitable for her “accouchement” due to increased air raids. Origo has no desire to find herself living in a country at war with that in which she was born, but for the most part what she writes is a remarkably objective account that premises the views of those around her – a circle that’s impressively broad. From local peasants to the United States ambassador William Phillips (Origo’s godfather), the thoughts of each are given equal attention.

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Visiting the farms on her estate at the end of August 1939, one old man – the father of four sons – puts a “shaking hand” on her arm and begs her for comfort: “Please say something to cheer me up! If they all four go, I might as well throw myself into that ditch. Who will work the farm? What shall we give our children to eat?” he asks her.

Three days later when Britain declares war on Germany, the response of two of her friends (one American by birth but, we infer, married to an Italian; the other half-English, half-Italian) is heartbreaking.

“If Italy comes in now on the German side, I shan’t be able to bear it!” the American declares, tears in her eyes. “I would have let my boys go, to fight for something they believed in; but now – not against civilization.”

Origo is in a uniquely precarious position, as is illustrated by an encounter on a train to Florence. A colonial officer takes offence at her reading material – L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican paper, that which “prints full and impartial foreign news” – asking her why she reads such “poison”.

Somewhat unexpectedly, the other occupant of the train compartment, an elderly man wearing the Fascist badge, comes to her defence: “a small drop of poison may act as an inoculation!” he says helpfully. The officer lets the matter go.

The man whispers to Origo that he too reads the same paper but then she admits to having something even more damning in her reading material – the Daily Telegraph – and the mood changes. “A great deal of that poison is needed,” the man says “grimly,” bringing Origo up short, recalling “stories of agents provocateurs”. The two continue the journey in silence, exchanging “alternate glances of mutual suspicion and sympathy,” unsure of having said too much.

Whether you’re fan of War in Val d’Orcia or are just discovering the work for the first time, A Chill in the Air proves Origo a strikingly attentive and perceptive chronicler of ordinary people and everyday life during extraordinary times.