The whole time I was listening to this, I just kept thinking, I can’t believe this is a true story. Everything fits together so perfectly, it almost feels like it had to have been plotted out–and it would have been spectacular, even if it had been. But the fact that the story actually happened makes it seem more like a study in fate.
The story follows 17-18 year old Pino Lella (it spans both years), an Italian boy from Milan during WWII. When he’s 17, too young to get drafted by the Nazis, his father sends him to a boys’ school for much younger boys than he is. There, Father Rey has him train to mountain climb. In short order, once Pino knows the mountains well enough to hike them in the dark, blindfolded, and without leaving a trace, Father Rey enlists him to help smuggle Jews over the border to Switzerland. He also meets Alberto Ascari while at that school, who teaches him to drive like a maniac. Both skills become critical later.
When Pino turns 18, old enough to be drafted and sent to the front lines of the war to die for the Germans, his parents force him to enlist as a Nazi. That way he will be assigned to less deadly tasks, and can wait out the war. He resists, but is overruled. As fate (or God) would have it, though, Pino happens across a frustrated driver, attempting to fix a car. Having been taught a great deal about cars by Ascari, he fixes the car–only to discover it belongs to General Leyers, of Nazi high command. Leyers makes Pino his personal driver, and his close contact with Leyers makes him a perfect spy for the Resistance. Leyers is also a fascinating character. Even Pino wondered throughout the story, and for the rest of his life: who was Leyers, really? Was he evil? Or was he actually a hero and a spy, just like Pino himself?
The story is heartbreaking, of course, because it’s WWII — but also exhilarating. It’s also very different from almost any other WWII account that I’ve ever heard, since (as the book points out) the Italians just didn’t talk about the war. This rare look at the Italian front shows the multiple conflicts, not just between the Nazis and the Resistance, but also between the Resistance and the Fascists. The hatred runs deep on all sides, and no one is entirely without blame. I do like stories that end happy, and while there was a hefty share of tragedy in this story, the ending is still bittersweet.
Dystopian stories are still so popular these days, but it’s even more fascinating to read about a real dystopia, not so very long ago.
My rating: *****