Translated from German by Alexander Booth (2020)
Anton Stöver is not in a great place. His marriage has ended, and it looks like his university career is at a dead end. So when he is offered a life line to research into the prison notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, the foremost Italian communist of the 1920s and 1930s, he grabs it and flies to Rome.
Gramsci isn’t in such great shape either. His strand of the novel begins with him as a patient in a Russian sanatorium. Feverish and fragile, he is trying to recover his strength to return to Rome to save his countrymen from the ascendant fascists. But he gets distracted when he falls head over heels with Guilia Schucht, the sister of a fellow patient.
Stöver, too, gets distracted. Whether it’s love or lust with him is a moot point, for the mysterious Tatiana remains elusive. She has more sense than to get involved with an ageing lothario, for as Stöver’s story unwinds, he reveals himself to be a really despicable specimen of a man …
In contrast to Gramsci, who, regardless of your own political stance, had principles, foresaw the dangers of fascism and attempted to prevent the future tragedy. But he was on the wrong side of history. The Gramsci chapters, a fictional biography of Gramsci if you will, chart his life, from his time in the Russian sanatorium, through his return to Italy and his spirited conflict with Mussolini, to his imprisonment and death. His political courage cost him dearly. His wife remained in Russia and they saw each other only sporadically thereafter. He hardly had time to get to know his two sons. Bossong tells this from Gramsci’s point of view, so that the person, feelings and sacrifices come into full view.
The phrase “lives riven by history” describes Gramsci and his family; the phrase “lives riven by Stöver” his wife, Hedda, and his son, Lasse. It’s quite a mystery why Bossong choose such a lowlife for her main contemporary protagonist. It is impossible to sympathise with him as he remembers his marriage and manifold affairs while chasing Tatiana’s skirt in Rome. (I have to say I enjoyed the very life-like, almost spitting off the page arguments between himself and Hedda.) One thing’s for sure he’s going to experience prolonged estrangement from his family in future days. Again, it’s totally impossible to sympathise. His distress will be entirely self-inflicted unlike the time- and circumstance-driven tribulations of his research subject, Antonio Gramsci.