Army of the Lost Rivers
A novel by Carlo Sgorlon
Publishers Weekly, March 1999
IN THE MIDST of senzapatria (a state of rootless disenfranchisement), the characters of Sgorlon's bleak and brilliant novel know only the dark Babylon of war. In the final hours of WWII the Nazis give Friuli, a region of Italy bordering on Austria, to the Cossack bands who have collaborated with them on the Eastern Front against the Soviet forces. Marta is the Friulian housekeeper for a Russian Jewish refugee named Esther. When Esther is deported by the Germans, Marta keeps the villa, sheltering a partisan soldier, Ivos, and refusing to accept Esther's death. As the expatriated Cossacks arrive in 1944 like a plague of grasshoppers, the commander of the local Cossack division, Gavrila, quarters himself in Marta's villa. Entanglements, romantic and otherwise, occur. The truce established by Urvan, another commander and Marta's lover, with the Friuli villagers is broken when some Cossacks rape and kill a peasant beauty. As the atrocities multiply, it becomes clear that Cossack culture cannot long survive in the Friuli valleys. Sgorlon's (The Wooden Throne) sympathy, like his point of view, is divided evenly between the terrorized (and emotionally torn) indigenous people and the bewildered, aggressive Cossack refugees. Neo-realism may at times sit uneasily with a sort of swollen romanticism-Urvan's Slavic soul is"vast" and Marta is the eternal feminine principle-but these moments are quite easy to ignore in this grave and intelligent novel. (FYI: Army of the Lost Rivers won the Premio Strega when it was published in Italy in 1985.)
Midwest Book Review, August 1999
IN THE SUMMER of 1944, a Cossack army complete with its dependents (women, children, the aged, horses, camels, tents and icons) descend on Friuli. In exchange for supporting the Germans against the Communist Red Army, the Nazi's promised them this mountainous region of northeastern Italy as a new homeland. Then the Germans abandoned both the invading Cossacks and the native Friulans to a terrible fate. Carol Sgorlon's Army of the Lost Rivers is based on this little known tragedy of World War II. Set against a winter alpine backdrop, beneath the nightly bombing flights of the Allies' Flying Fortress bombers, and between the retreating Germans and the advancing Americans, the Friulan townspeople, partisans, and Cossacks are caught up in the lethal realities of war. Originally published in Italian in 1985 (and winner of the Premio Strega Award), Army of the Lost Rivers is capably translated for the English reader by Jessie Bright. A fully engaging story, written by a nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Army of the Lost Rivers is an impressive and truly memorable novel.
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