Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Highbrow fiction whopping good yarn

  • Print
Dante's War

By Sandra Sabatini

Key Porter, 360 pages, $28

Dante's War is what's known as literary fiction -- highbrow stuff, as opposed to "popular" fiction. But it's also a whopping good yarn.

Guelph resident Sandra Sabatini's debut novel -- her earlier works of fiction were short-story collections, The One with the News (2000) and The Dolphins at Sainte-Marie (2006) -- fairly revels in telling a story, and telling it well.

And though it adroitly mixes history and romance, none dare call it historical romance.

What it is, is a realistic portrayal of the intersection of private lives and public events.

The Dante of the book's title is Dante De Angelis. Son of an abusive minor Fascist functionary in Mussolini's pre-Second World War government in the northern Italian town of Spoleto, Dante's a good kid (aptly named, his surname translates as "Of the Angels").

Not daunted by his upbringing, he turns into a fine and resilient young man, though his childhood and adolescence render him constitutionally rebellious against arbitrary authority of any stripe.

Still, beguiled by Mussolini's imperialist visions and, just as critically, bored with small-town life, Dante and his childhood friend Sabino enlist in a military academy that grooms them to be, and graduates them as, soldiers of Il Duce's ill-fated would-be second Roman empire.

On leave in Rome on the eve of his deployment, the young soldier meets and falls in love with Angelina. She, a fellow child of rural Italy, temporarily in the big city to help out in a relative's store, reciprocates.

On a subsequent leave, he journeys to her village and meets her family.

On the basis of these two brief encounters -- and letters to and from the various fronts Dante is posted to -- a firm but chaste courtship is cemented.

That skeletal outline does little justice to Sabatini's ability to tell a charming and even lyrical love story, but without the affectation that sometimes infects lyrical writing.

The balance of the novel unwinds as a tale of the small, medium and large savageries that govern both military and civilian life during a war.

Alternate chapters detail Dante's variously funny, sad and tragic experiences of combat and Angelina's trials in Nazi-occupied Italy.

(Italy's government and king Victor Emmanuel III forced Mussolini to resign, and signed an armistice with the Allies in 1943. Hitler subsequently rescued Mussolini, and reinstated him as a puppet dictator in northern Italy.)

All the ingredients are here -- good plot, great narrative pace, solid three-dimensional characters and mesmerizing evocations of times and places.

Ultimately Dante's War is a nifty example of the versatility of writing that aspires to be art.

Douglas J. Johnston is a Winnipeg lawyer and writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 15, 2009 B8

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Winnipeg Cheapskate: Cheap summer weekends

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • MIKE APORIUS/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS BUSINESS - cow on farm owned by cattle farmer Lloyd Buchanan near Argyle Wednesday afternoon -see Larry Kusch's story  January 04/2006
  • Young goslings are growing up quickly near Cresent Lake in Portage La Prairie, Manitoba- See Bryksa 30 Day goose project- Day 11- May 15, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

Should Winnipeg control growth to deal with climate change?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google