Sunday, January 12, 2020

Beneath a Scarlet Sky an eye-opening tale of World War 2 in Northern Italy

I’ve read at least a half dozen books that describe what it was like to live in Italy during World War 2—but none quite as compelling or eye-opening as Under a Scarlet Sky, by Mark Sullivan and published in 2017.
Author Mark Sullivan with Giuseppe "Pino" Lella.

The book is based on the true story of Pino Lella and covers the years from June of 1943 to the end of the war in September of 1945. Lella was a happy-go-lucky 17-year-old Italian boy whose family home in Milan was destroyed by Allied bombers. When his parents sent Pino and his brother into the mountains for safety, they worked under the direction of a Catholic priest to smuggle hundreds of Jews to neutral Switzerland.

Pino Lella at age 17.
Photo provided by Lake Union Publishing.
When Pino turned 18 and was required to enlist in the Italian army, he became the driver and translator for one of the most powerful and mysterious officers in the German High Command. Lello also became a vital spy for the Partisan resistance.

Lella risked his life to pass along information about German plans and the location of vital weapon-producing factories. He also witnessed important events and conversations, met Benito Mussolini and Clarina Petrarci, lost friends and extended family members and fell in love with a woman who would haunt him the rest of his life.

Beneath the Scarlet Sky is an extensively researched novel of biographical and historical fiction that reads much like a work of narrative nonfiction. In an interview with author and blogger M.K. Tod in May of 2019, Sullivan describes some of the efforts he took for accuracy: “In late March 2006. I spent nearly three weeks with Pino, who was 79 at the time. We went all over northern Italy so I could see where many of the incidents he described had occurred. We drove high into the Alps and visited the site of a Catholic boys’ school that served as a staging facility for Jews escaping Nazi-occupied Italy. I climbed and skied the escape routes myself. In Milan, we met with a retired priest who’d been a forger in the underground railroad that led Jews out of Italy, and we walked the streets of the fashion district where Pino had grown up. We talked to Holocaust historians, war historians, and old men who’d been part of the partisan resistance.”

Pino after the war in 1949.
Ironically, a few readers have given the book mediocre reviews because they find it unbelievable that one teenager could have experienced and seen so much in such a short time (see note below*). I tend to believe that while dialogue and descriptive details were added, the major events truly took place. Sullivan spent extensive time with Lella, so why would he have to invent incidents? Pino’s story is a great example of the axiom that truth is stranger than fiction. Life experience have shown me this can be the case at times.

Another criticism is that the writing is simplistic and not especially literary in tone. For me, the action, intrigue and historical value more than make up for that minor shortcoming. In fact, the movie rights to the story have already been purchased and Tom Holland has been selected for the lead role.

Tom Holland
Photo courtesy Gage Skidmore.
What makes this book stand out from the other stories I’ve read about Italy during war times? First, Pino’s position as a driver and translator for a general in charge of operations in Northern Italy gave him unique insights on the machinations of the war. He was able to see both the daily lives and sufferings of Italian citizens and the inside operations of the German army.

The second intriguing aspect: the descriptions of the acrid relationships between Fascists and the partisan resistors. In books I’ve read about the war in Southern Italy, the Fascists lost the support of the Nazis in autumn of 1943. In Northern Italy, the Fascists maintained a semblance of power for two more years, which they used to help the Germans dominate the citizenry, rob factories and farms, and create a labor force of Italian slaves.

Having read mostly about the experiences of Southern Italians, the bitter animosity that developed between opposing sides in the North surprised and saddened me. Lella witnessed unspeakable brutality and witnessed grievous losses because of conflicts among fellow countrymen. As the war ended, mobs of otherwise ordinary citizens became blood-thirsty avengers, executing anyone suspected of being Fascists or associating with the German occupiers.

“The WW II era was a time when courage was common,” Sullivan said. “There were also clear and defined enemies who forced one person after another to decide who they were going to be and how they were going to act in the face of evil.

Other books on the Second World War in Italy that I’ve reviewed:
Bicycle Runner provides a compelling look inside war-shattered Italy
Franca’s War tells tragic saga of Italian suffering . . .
And here’s one about a movie that depicts war times:
L’Uomo che VerrĂ 

*Footnote: Because some of the (very few) negative reviews of this book on Amazon questioned whether the events in the book were true, I wrote to the author. Here is the answer, direct from Mark Sullivan: “As I indicated in the preface to tell the story I had to do things like create composite characters and stitch lines of plot in a way that tell the story more efficiently. For example, I couldn’t tell the story of the thirty or so escapes that Pino Lella led in the winter of 1943-44, so I put together two escapes based on the parts of others. Mrs. Napolitano is based on three different women who Pino helped into Switzerland. One of them was a violinist, one was an older woman, and one was pregnant. Out of those three, the character of Mrs. Napolitano came to life. Did Alberto Ascari teach Pino Lella to drive? He did. Just not in the way I portrayed it. But, from a novelist’s point of view, I had to show you that Pino Lella could drive the way I described, and that is unequivocally true. I have driven in cars with him, and it was hair-raising. Did he actually get the job of driver to General Leyers by fixing his car? Yes. According to Pino, that’s exactly why he got the job.”
In addition, I listened to a presentation by Sullivan at Wagner College, and someone asked about the love story between Pino and Anna. Absolutely true, Sullivan said. He had to pry the information out of Pino, and it was an extremely personal and emotional experience for both Lella and Sullivan.

1 comment:

  1. While you don't share the exact question posed to the author, rest assured the answer was designed to mislead/divert. He's a deceitful fellow (at least when it comes to this novel and what he did. It isn't as though he'd admit "It's almost entirely fiction; I made most of it up."

    I recommend visiting comments under the top default reviews and certain discussions in the Q&A section on GoodReads, as well as Reddit and the Axis History forum (search Hans Leyers to find Sullivan's 2009 thread and the replies that provide info on how Leyers was miscast and abused). You will learn about a 1985 Lella interview in which he paints a wildly different, almost recognizable picture of himself and his wartime activities and experiences.

    Were it not for Sullivan's compulsion to go out of his way to help convince folks believed the novel represents a story that "hews closely to what happened to" Lella, I'd not likely stumble across the record of that interview and ultimately listen to it. (The topic of an interview as described by the author on p. 501 of the novel is materially false in almost every respect. Thankfully, The Altruistic Personality and Prosocial Behavior Institute donated/dumped a cache of records on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2007, and the interviewer-completed questionnaire and interview recording were part of that donation/record dump.)

    By the way, the Oct 2017 Wagner College presentation includes a number of fibs not present in the book, along with other informative clues. And it's too bad the video of it didn't capture the photo slideshow, in which you'd see two photos of then almost 12-year-old Franco Isman at Casa Alpina being passed off as a much older Mimmo Lella. Franco was very surprised to see himself appear in the slideshow, captured in the video of Sullivan's April 2018 New Canaan library presentation (also on YouTube). The photos were obtained by the author either from Franco's 2003 and 2008 articles about his childhood experience. ... clearly found by Sullivan after the book manuscript was out of his hands. (I figure had he discovered them during his online research process, he'd surely not fail to (mis)use in the novel a number of authentic details about the people and place.)

    Among other things, Franco and another man who lived at Casa Alpina from Sept 1943 to April 1945 know quite well that the Lella boys didn't live there with them and the (relatively few, not dozens) of other people.


Comments welcome.