The cover of Marco Belzano’s novel, I’m Staying Here, shows a bell tower poking out from a lake. While tourists come to visit what was once the town of Curon and view the tower (one online site calls the view, “simply beautiful,” especially in the winter when the lake freezes), there’s a darker tale about the people who once lived there. Sitting on the border between Italy and Austria, many of Curon’s residents spoke German. But after Mussolini came to power, they were forbidden to speak their native language. When the Nazis took over, those who failed to support the Third Reich were hunted down, many killed. The end of the war didn’t bring an end to the village’s sufferings. A hydroelectric dam planned by Mussolini was in the works and all efforts to stop its construction – even an appeal to Pope Pius XII – failed. Curon was flooded, 200 hundred homes destroyed, the families displaced. What was left was the striking image of the bell tower rising from the lake.
Belzano’s novel, translated from the Italian by Jill Foulston, is beautifully written yet heartbreaking. The narrator, Trina, is a young woman who speaks German and along with her two friends, Maja and Barbara, hopes to become a teacher. But in the spring of 1923, Mussolini comes to power and the political landscape begins to change. The three young women try to learn Italian, but soon join a secret movement to teach students in German. Locations change daily to avoid detection by the police. Trina encourages Barbara to join the underground teachers and is devastated when her friend is captured and disappears.
While Trina doesn’t particularly like men, she is attracted to Erich. They soon marry and have two children, a son and a daughter. Both will bring Trina grief. When the Nazis march into Italy, German communities are offered “the Great Option” to leave and join the Reich. Those Germans who stay are regarded as traitors and spies. Trina’s son, Michael, enamored of Hitler, joins the German army, while her daughter, Marica, opts to go, leaving behind a note rather than saying goodbye to her parents.
Erich is drafted, but ends up deserting, returning to Curon and placing Trina and those around her in danger. Their days and nights become a series of running and hiding, hoping they won’t be discovered. The stories of what happens to those the Nazis do find are horrific. Food is scarce and hunger constant.
The narrative, in Trina’s voice, takes the form of a letter written to Marica. She never loses hope that her daughter will return, while Erich tells Trina, “I think about her without thinking about her.” Trina later finds Erich’s notebook filled with drawings of Marica, as a little girl, and then when she was older before she left.
When the Americans finally liberate Italy, there is hope that life will improve. Construction of the dam, however, brings another tragedy to Trina, Erich, and the families that are left. At first, the residents are told that the water won’t rise and flood the village, but that turns out not to be true. A program to compensate the home owners or relocate them never materializes.
“The story of the destruction of our village is summarized in a wooden display case in the car park for tourist buses,” Trina writes. “There’s nothing left of what we once were.”
Top Bigstock photo: The bell tower of the sunken church in Curon, Resia Lake, Bolzano province, South Tyrol, Italy.
I’m Staying Here