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Blood moon over Milan

Sumitra Kannan, Dec 9 2017, 21:41 IST

When tales of truth are narrated as fiction, they turn out to be stranger than fiction. Mark Sullivan's Beneath A Scarlet Sky deals with the jaded topic of World War II. When everything imaginable has already been said about it, here appears a story with a twist and the twist is - that it is true.

The novel has the makings of a great war story - of a life lived on the edge of danger, of youth, daring, ardour and passionate love. The story focuses on the closing years of World War II in Italy, the perilous lives of the Italians, the desperation of the Germans, the fascist army of Black Shirts and the Partisans at each other's throats, with the Allies waiting in the wings and the pivotal role of the Catholic church in this.

Seventeen-year-old Pino Lella, interested in girls, music and food, is drawn into this war in a most unintentional way. Playing in the byways of life, he stumbles upon a great adventure and begins a hero's journey. A journey that entails bravery and demands sacrifice.

In a chance encounter, Pino meets Anna, "a tawny-blond woman," and like dry kindling, his willing heart catches fire.

It's the summer of '43 and the Allies are bombing Milan, to weaken the German hold in Italy. When the bombings begin in earnest, Pino is sent to Casa Alpina, a school in the Alps, under the watchful eye of Father Re. Pino's destiny is set. This encourages a fortunate friendship with Alberto Ascari, a racing-car driver who promises to teach Pino driving. This skill would, in turn, be vital to Pino's life. At the Casa Alpina, Father Re puts him on a punishing schedule of exploring specific routes on the Alps.

Weekends are taken up with driving lessons on treacherous mountain roads. It is with three visitors to Casa Alpina that Pino's future as a facilitator begins, helping persecuted Jews flee through the hazardous mountain pass into the neutral ground of Switzerland.

Pino figures out that with authority and coaxing, he can get his group over the sheer face of the cliffs into Switzerland. As a guide, Pino becomes an expert, learning to fine-tune into emotions and fears, and plays with desire and memory to arouse their instinct for survival, as he leads the hapless people into safety. Although his mind is still of a 17-year-old, dreaming of girls and love, his body is a highly coordinated machine, flawless in what it has trained itself to do.

As Pino reaches the eligibility age for being drafted, he is faced with a dilemma. To be drafted meant being sent to the Russian front as "cannon fodder."

The only way to survive is to voluntarily enlist with the Germans. His youthful idealism rebels at the idea of working for the enemy, but his instinct for survival persists. Again, it is through sheer coincidence that Pino becomes General Leyers's personal driver. Pino's Nazi uniform allows him to move freely, but friends and family turn away in disgust from him.

On his very first assignment to pick Leyers up, the door is answered by the maid Anna, the woman of his dreams. From there, their love story starts to pick up. As General Leyers's driver, he sees truckloads of Jews being unloaded, graded like animals, destined to life or deported to death. He sees men killing in cold blood. Like much in his life, he simply slips into the next stage into his role as a spy.

As his love life gains momentum, so do his spying activities. He and Anna, with the foolhardiness of the young, trick the Nazis and spy on them under their very noses.

Just when the tides of the war are turning, Pino is assaulted by an enormous tragedy. His beloved Anna is falsely suspected to be on the wrong side and must pay for it. Pino is left numb, with a crushing sense of guilt. Nothing in his young life has prepared him for this. Milan is bathed in blood. And once again, Pino's help is enlisted, but this time General Leyers is not a hated Nazi. General Leyers is travelling to safety with the protection of the Allies. And the world stops making sense to Pino.

War has nothing to do with winning or losing. But has everything to do with how cleverly one falls on one's feet, at the end of it. The war has been won by the Allies, but Anna must die tragically, in the prime of her life. General Leyers, however, survives and lives to a ripe old age. At the end of the book, Pino's and our picture of the world hangs awry. Truth, they say, is stranger than fiction.

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