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A Tenuous Transition to Paradise Lost

by Dalia Sofer
Jul 31, 2007 (All Things Considered)

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I first read Giorgio Bassani's The Garden of the Finzi-Continis on a summer afternoon, the kind that tickles you with thoughts of road trips and beach vacations but whose heat traps you in inertia. I found myself hooked from the prologue — an account of a day trip taken by the narrator in 1957 to the outskirts of Rome.

The excursion begins with a disappointing visit to a wet and windy seaside and ends with a stop at an Etruscan cemetery. The narrator begins unearthing his memories of the Finzi-Continis — MicÚl and Alberto, and their parents, Professor Ermanno and Signora Olga — during the years leading up to World War II. What follows this prologue is a chronicle of an insidious ending — unfelt and imperceptible — as the worst endings often are. The losses begin small, first with the weather — the warm days of October replaced by the brutal cold of winter — then accumulate, along with Mussolini's racial laws, leading to the disintegration of a way of life, love, friendship, health, and finally, life itself.

I lived through the revolution of 1979 in Iran, and I too am familiar with accumulated losses. But I also remember the months leading up to the fall of the shah, when for many of us denial was the order of the day. We carried on with our lives as if nothing exceptional were happening — swimming in the pool for long hours and drinking tea on the terrace as the summer afternoon slowly turned into dusk, discussion of politics, like the mosquito lamp, always in the background. It was only on the eve of my seventh birthday, in January 1979, when a blackout plunged the city into a sudden darkness and I sat in front of my unwrapped presents, waiting as the adults scrambled to find candles, that I realized that something terrible was about to happen.

For Bassani's Finzi-Continis, that moment of realization comes far too late. In the fall of 1938, because of the racial laws prohibiting Jews from attending country clubs, they open their doors to a select few for daily games of tennis. And so it is that within an increasingly fascist and frightening Italy, their lush garden becomes a refuge, a paradise of sorts, untouched by the external world and made more beautiful because of it. Inside their walls, the Finzi-Continis are collectors — of furniture, books, and letters from the celebrated poet Carducci. MicÚl, with whom the narrator has an ill-fated romance, is a collector of antique chalices and goblets. And professor Ermanno, who considers the Jewish cemetery on the Lido in Venice as "one of the most romantic places in Italy," had in his younger days collected and translated all the epitaphs in that cemetery. The Finzi-Continis are preservers of the past — rescuing objects, people, memories, and even the dead. In the end, however, they cannot rescue themselves.

As often is the case with tragedy, people can imagine neither the extent of it, nor the possibility that it could actually happen to them. Bassani's book perfectly captures that small, tenuous transition from paradise to paradise lost.

I've been drawn back to this book five times already — and each time I re-read it, I'm struck by the way it depicts the sudden shift in a way of life.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

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