Andrea Molesini’s debut novel roars into life from the get-go. One night in the fall of 1917, German troops turn up in trucks and on motorcycles at the grand estate of the Spada family in a small town north of Venice and start breaking down doors, emptying cupboards and smashing furniture. One soldier drives right into the dining room on his motorbike. After gate-crashing the place they requisition it. As if war raging nearby were not troubling enough, the Spadas must now share their home with the invading forces.

A bestseller in Molesini’s native Italy and winner of the country’s Campiello Prize, “Not All Bastards Are From Vienna” unfolds to become a riveting tale of courage and resistance. The deeper we get, the more we learn about the allegiances of each member of the household, both in terms of their relationships to one other and their individual decisions to cooperate with or confront the enemy within.

Molesini’s narrator is Paolo, a 17-year-old orphan who, since the death of his parents in a shipwreck in 1914, has been brought up in the Villa by his formidable Aunt Maria and his grandparents. Grandma is a strong “white-haired panther of a woman” who has enjoyed one or two “paramours.” Grandpa spends his days holed up in his Thinking Den, where he attempts to write a novel. Also under their roof is the ravishing Giulia, “chaos personified,” who has gone from being the subject of a scandal in Venice to the object of Paolo’s desires; and three members of the staff, including steward Renato, who has a mysterious past.

Life goes on in the occupied house. But in town, marauding soldiers rape and pillage, and the only remaining figure of authority is the parish priest. When Paolo is taken out on a daring nocturnal adventure by his grandfather and Renato, he discovers that his family is involved in covert operations to thwart the Germans and the Austrians. In time he is entrusted with a mission of his own, one which turns out to be a baptism of fire that introduces him to the visceral horrors and tragic injustices of war.

Molesini’s novel — smoothly translated by Antony Shugaar and Patrick Creagh — is full of light and shade. There is humor as the family rails against the “misbegotten mangel-wurzel mashers” occupying the Villa and the country, but also great tension. We never know what menace lurks beneath both Captain Korpium and Major von Feilitzsch’s thin veneer of charm. While the most memorable scenes are those in which lives are threatened or cut cruelly short, there are protracted bouts of pleasure, such as Paolo’s blossoming romance with Giulia and the family’s efforts to assist a daredevil English pilot.

Gripping, harrowing and touching, Molesini’s novel illustrates the importance of family bonds and national pride while also revealing that divided loyalty comes at a price.

 

Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.