World War II is a popular theme in fiction at the moment but I haven’t seen many books about Italy at that period. So I was intrigued to hear about The Partisan Heart.
Here Gordon Kerr describes how the people and landscape of Valtellina, and their pivotal role in the Italian Civil War, inspired his novel.
When we first travelled to the Valtellina almost forty years ago, I had no idea how important this ruggedly beautiful valley would come to be in my life. My sister-in-law had married an Italian from the valley and was now making a life there. But back then the place seemed backward, somehow. The grey, stone buildings in her village appeared to be crumbling into the ground and the people, too, had an air of defeat about them, especially the dark, stooped old men in their grey, crumpled suits and trilbies. They had a distant look in their eyes and seemed to be always at the edge of things at family gatherings and funerals. I wondered about these silent, living ghosts.
Over the years as they began to disappear from our lives, beaten by years of toil on the land and especially by the horrors of war, I began to pick up stories, hints of the lives they had been forced to lead thirty-seven years before. My brother-in-law’s father, for instance, had been sent to Germany to be used as forced labour, a slave, in reality. He survived, but was ill for the remainder of his life, another silent, brooding presence at funerals and weddings.
The others, those who had not been sent away, took to the mountains and fought as partisans in the brutal conflict known as the Italian Civil War. They made life as difficult as possible for the occupying Germans and the fascist forces that had taken root in the northern part of Italy after Mussolini had been freed from captivity by Hitler and had been allowed to set up a puppet state, in an insolent pretence of power. Eventually, the partisans gained dominance in their valley and the mountains surrounding it, even as Mussolini pleaded with the Germans to allow him to make a last stand in the Valtellina as the Allies forged northwards in their relentless advance on Berlin. They forbade it, realising it would be little more than a typically grandiose gesture and Il Duce was forced to try to escape, finally being captured, hiding in a convoy in a little town on the side of Lake Como. His capture led to his death and the gruesome images of his body and that of his mistress, Clara Petacci, hanging upside down in Milan.
I felt, on my many trips to the Valtellina, that I was surrounded by history. It oozed from those old, crumbling buildings and it hung over the brooding peaks that delineated the valley. If ever a place should be written about, I thought, this was it. It even felt very isolated back then, a winding road alongside the lake – a nightmare in holiday traffic – was the only way in. Now there is a dual carriageway scything through the mountains and from Lecco at the foot of the lake, to Colico at the top, no fewer than twenty-three tunnels are cut into the mountains. I know this because when my children were young, we used to count them, getting more excited as our car got to the last one before we were spewed out into the long sigh that is the Valtellina.
Everything has changed in the valley now. There are supermarkets and shopping malls just like everywhere else and a motorway knifes its way across the centre, a blight on the magnificent view and a constant thrumming noise where there was once just the silence of the clouds and the birds. The crumbling houses in the villages have been restored and re-furbished, quaint weekend getaways now for the well-off from Milan, ninety minutes to the south. When you do come across a ruined building that has not yet been re-worked, it takes your breath away and breathes the history of the Valtellina.
The story of my novel, The Partisan Heart, arrived almost fully formed, having been percolating in my head for a number of years. George Harrison once said of song-writing that songs find their writer, not vice-versa, and so it seems to have been with my novel – the story found me. But, given the lives and the dark times about which I was writing, I was very conscious of not trivialising them, of respecting them and honouring them. These were lives hard won many decades previously. I hope I have achieved that and that I may have exposed the beauty and dark mystery of this little-known valley to those who pick up my book
I’ll soon be counting those twenty-three tunnels again. My kids are grown-up now but I still experience a frisson of excitement as I emerge from tunnel number twenty-three at Colico and the air shifts a little.
Gordon Kerr worked in bookselling and publishing before becoming a full-time writer. He is the author of several non-fiction history titles but this is his debut crime fiction. He was born in East Kilbride and went to Glasgow University. Having worked in London for many years he now divides his time between Dorset and Southwest France.
About The Partisan Heart
The death of his wife has left Michael Keats bereft and the subsequent discovery of her adultery devastates him. Michael resolves to discover the identity of her lover. That journey leads him from London, to rural Scotland and back to the Italian Alps where stories from the present intertwine with another illicit love affair between a partisan and a villager during the darkest days of World War II. It marks the unravelling of a complex story of treachery and revenge as he uncovers five decades of duplicity and deception.