A Plaque on via Mazzini (Una Lapide In Via Mazzini)
A PLAQUE ON VIA MAZZINI (Una lapide in Via Mazzini)
Novel by Giorgio Bassini, 1952
A Plaque on Via Mazzini was first published in 1952 and appeared in Five Stories of Ferrara in 1956. All of the stories in the latter examine the relationship between the Jewish community and the rest of the people of Ferrara. Many refer to the impact of Mussolini's "racial laws" of 1938.
As in most short stories the attention is focused on one person—in this case the sole survivor of the 183 Jews carried off to Germany in autumn 1943. There is an unobtrusive first-person narrator who is worried about the reality of his tale, set as it is in an ordinary street like Via Mazzini, though the street runs along the top of the old ghetto. Geo Josz appears in August 1945 while a builder is putting up a plaque on the synagogue commemorating the deportations. Geo says his name should be removed now that he has returned. The gathering crowd can see he is so fat that he looks like a drowned man; showing clearly on his right wrist are tattooed numbers preceded by the letter "J."
Bassani often conveys important elements of his narrative by describing emblematic objects such as the tattoo of the concentration camp inmates. Geo's fur hat and jerkin are the uniform of the escapee, the calloused hands the sign of the forced labor in the salt mines. There is much play on the beards that the men sport—from the little goatee of the early fascists to the full beard of the returning partisans—that are eventually shaved off as normality returns. The story has the task of chronicling the political events from Mussolini's fall to the elections of May 1948, which decided the fate of the partisans, forging the political shape of Republican Italy for decades to come.
Geo claims back his father's house, bought in 1910 from an aristocratic family. It had been used as the headquarters of the Fascist Black Brigade and then passed to the partisans, who after the 1946 elections and the disappearance of the Action Party would move to three rooms in the old Fascist headquarters in the main street. A house can be a comment on political history.
Geo and his uncle take up residence in the Ghibelline tower of the old house. Ferrara's medieval legacy thus gives him a lookout where he can survey the partisans and monitor any vengeful excesses they might have contemplated in the old prisons below. These were times of civil war.
Once installed Geo declares his Jewishness by wearing an olive "gabardine," italicized in the Italian, and maybe reminiscent of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. The people in his favorite cafe are eager to hear Geo's story and have a spirit of hope for the new democracy. But his uncle Daniele, another returner but from the ranks of the partisans, who lodges in the room below in the tower, hears his slippered tread at night and knows that his room is covered with photos of his lost loved ones. On the day of Geo's return they had visited another uncle, a lonely example of a Jew surviving in the city because he had espoused the Fascist cause from the start, as many had. He had paraded his black shirt until 1938 and still wore a goatee.
In May 1946 Geo meets yet another elderly survivor, Count Scocca. He represents the Fascist machine, a paid spy of the secret police, sporting a black dyed Hitler moustache. Geo goes up to him and slaps his face twice like a Fascist bully. The count replies by whistling "Lili Marlene," the German army song. People see the assault as unmotivated. Others assert that the count had asked Geo if he was Ruggero, poor Angiolino's son, and inquired about his father's death, mentioning how he had always asked after his father and his little brother.
So everything changes. Geo puts on his fur hat and jerkin and neglects his new gabardine. In the cafe he sits beside the torturers, telling stories of Germany and Buchenwald, his father's last words on the way to the salt mines, his mother's farewell wave, and his little brother's disappearance in the dark. But now it is too late. People are bored and unbelieving. In August 1946 he appears in rags at a new dance hall opened near where five members of the resistance were shot two years before. Because he had agreed with the partisan secretary over his father's house, people think he has turned Communist. In February 1947 he is excluded from the club restricted to top people, both Catholic and Jewish, and also from the brothel, whose owner exercises her democratic right to exclude people from her own house. The outcome is that Geo disappears rather as he had come, and no one knows if he has gone away or killed himself. They are sincerely sorry for not having been more patient.
The epilogue explains that in the May twilight one wonders why one is playing someone else's game. The slaps were Geo's reply to the count's polite but patronizingly hypocritical questions. They were Geo's revenge. The crowd thinks he was mad. (Now this might be described as post-traumatic stress.) Ferrara returns to its closed and provincial ways. And Bassani has captured some conflicting moods of desperate and bitter times.