My two grandfathers fight
The War in Snow and Ice.
It’s not The Great War.
It’s not The First World War—
they don’t know
there’ll be another.
Creating the Centena
For several years I’ve been deep in a historical novel—dreaming it up, researching it, writing it, editing it. The novel spans three decades, and it starts with a young woman’s betrothal to a veteran of the First World War.
She calls it The War in Snow and Ice, the name given by Italians to the horrific years (from 1915) fighting Austrian invasion in the Alps. Thousands of men were stationed on high-altitude peaks and glaciers, in all seasons. They engineered roads, cable-car systems and underground bases. They fought in snow 40 feet deep. They blew up mountains. They died in avalanches. If the snow and ice didn’t kill them, the men killed each other with technology.
Both of my grandfathers—locals—served in this war. One was too young to enlist, so he lied about his age. My other grandfather contracted near-fatal diseases. But they both survived.
My novel was published this year, and yet the research continues. I can’t stop now. Why? I’m ignorant (I’m not a historian), I’m fascinated, I’m tapping into my roots—but there’s something else.
The story I wrote is that of an ordinary Italian country-woman and her family: someone who survives two world wars, someone who doesn’t have the education to analyse ideology, nor the heroism to overcome pragmatism. In conventional historical texts, such people—ordinary women—are given no voice. It’s much easier to research fighters, resistance heroes, public figures (or their lovers).
I don’t underestimate the suffering and mortality of men in war, not for a second. But what are the stories we tell?
When we say history is written by the victors, we are also saying that the victors are men, because history is written by men. The feminisms of recent decades have gone some way towards replenishing our imbalanced cultural stocks, but still… Men’s war stories are told more, and honoured more, by historians, poets, novelists, journalists, film-makers, politicians, educators and institutions of all kinds.
When I think of war movies, say, no matter how brilliant, they are male stories. Women, if represented, exist for the men—as nurses, sweethearts or whores. This is the norm.
The Soviet era posterised women soldiers alongside men but, as Svetlana Alexievich documents in The Unwomanly Face of War, women soldiers who returned from the front were punished—and silenced—whereas the men sported medals. “Men were victors, heroes, wooers, the war was theirs, but we were looked at with quite different eyes… they robbed us of the victory.”
And so to the Italian medal which I possess, a memento of the War in Snow and Ice. I write about it in the present tense, because my poor grandfathers don’t know what wars are coming next. I’m alive in the present because they survived. I’m writing now.
On one side of the medal, there’s a military man’s head. He wears a helmet. On the other side, there’s a woman. She’s naked but for a gossamer veil and the wings of victory.
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