A House in the Mountains by Caroline Moorehead review – a riveting tale of resistance in Turin

A gripping narrative of four extraordinary women who delivered intelligence, letters and weaponry in the cause of resisting the German occupation of Italy

The story of the Italian resistance is one of the epics of 20th-century history: from September 1943 to April 1945, Italian partisans in the north fought a guerrilla war against German occupiers. Nazi troops had rushed south to occupy Italy when, after Mussolini’s arrest in July 1943, the new government declared that it was now siding with the allies, not the axis powers.

The German reaction was ruthless: they killed 6,000 Italian soldiers of the Acqui division in the Cephalonia massacre and more than 1,000 men in sinking the Roma battleship. Nazi paratroopers rescued Mussolini from his mountain-top prison and installed him as a puppet head-of-state in the so-called Salò republic on the shores of Lake Garda. That meant the partisans weren’t only fighting a war of liberation against foreigners, but were one side of a brutal civil war between Italians: as the allies laboriously advanced from the south, the partisans – poorly armed, ill fed and often freezing in mountain hideouts – were taking on the die-hard followers of il Duce.

Although it’s a well-known story, it has rarely – outside Italy – been told from the viewpoint of the women involved. Caroline Moorehead does so through the intersecting lives of four female friends in Turin who became staffette (couriers) in the resistance, delivering intelligence, letters and weaponry: Bianca (a communist law graduate and factory agitator); Silvia (a doctor); Frida (a literature graduate); and Ada (the widow of the anti-fascist Piero Gobetti).

Two of the women were from the Waldensian community (Italy’s centuries-old Protestant minority) and two were in stable, but unmarried, relationships. Ada and Silvia were both mothers. They had strategic advantages over male partisans: used to being invisible or underestimated, the women were in some ways natural clandestines. “You could be anybody. You were a fire without smoke or a flame,” one recalled. Troops at checkpoints often ignored prams or shopping as women’s natural baggage, not realising they could be the disguise for contraband. Their transformation from studious, dutiful daughters into daring, scruffy, exhausted combatants is brilliantly and subtly told.

Caroline Moorehead.
Caroline Moorehead. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian

Turin was arguably the most important city of the resistance: because of the Fiat factory, it was a centre of arms production and sabotage, and strikes became essential to disrupt the German war effort. It had sizable Jewish and Protestant communities which, for reasons of self-preservation and piety, were obviously opposed to the Nazis and fascism. It was close to the French and Swiss borders and thus a hub for Jews, allied escapees and partisans who needed to head abroad. The result is that the book has a huge supporting cast: some are familiar because of later literary exploits (Primo Levi, Natalia Ginzurg and Oriana Fallaci), but even the minor characters – like the stubbornly kind nun of the city’s gruesome prison – are memorably portrayed.

Moorehead contextualises the women’s stories within the wider war. The partisans were constantly frustrated by tepid support from the allies, who were alarmed by the current of communism within the resistance and had prejudices about the Italian character: one foreign office dispatch said Italians were “expert at dissimulating and sail trimming, hot tempered and generally more amenable to persuasion than to coercion”. The tepid relationship went both ways. For many Italians it was hard to see the allies as liberators after they had in one single day dropped 702 tonnes of explosives on the country, killing 792 citizens. Few Italians even understood which was their legitimate government: Mussolini’s in Salò, Pietro Badoglio’s in Bari (on the spur of the boot), or the “committees of national liberation” in Rome.

The narrative is told with such verve that I frequently had goosebumps: the men and women known from much drier history books come alive, only to be captured, tortured and killed: Duccio Galimberti (the son of a senator), Willy Jervis and Jacopo Lombardini (both devout Waldensians), Vanna Maestra (a Jewish friend of the four female leads) and the Arduino sisters (both teenagers) all die. It was, of course, a time of astonishing cruelty: Pietro Koch, an Italo-German sadist, created a debauched torture chamber in Villa Triste where Lisetta, another staffetta and fiancee of leading anti-fascist Vittorio Foa, was held while pregnant. One of the constant tensions of the book is whether Ada’s only son, Paolo, a partisan, will survive the war.

As the allies get closer, the Germans suddenly retreat and, for a few bloody days, the Italians – partisans and fascists – fight it out for control of Turin. But the real reckoning comes after the war, as the women slowly realise that the ideals for which they had fought are being quickly watered down. Female combatants were excluded from the victory parades. One woman wrote that it was like being “sent home like chickens to the coop to lay our eggs in solitude and silence”.

Just as Giuseppe Garibaldi had bemoaned the betrayal of the Risorgimento by the “dregs” of Italian society who entered parliament, so the four friends felt that the resistance had been short-changed. Ferruccio Parri, one of the heroes of the insurgency, lasted less than six months as the first postwar prime minister. All but 495 of the 28,399 cases for collaboration with German occupiers were dismissed. “Ordinary torture” – like the rape and impaling of a female partisan – was decriminalised and because the fascist military were recognised as “belligerents” and the partisans weren’t, it was often easier to convict the latter in the courts. The melancholy coda, recounting what happened to the women – accidents, politicking, writing and addiction – completes a riveting read.

A House in the Mountains is published by Chatto & Windus (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020-3176 3837. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Tobias Jones

The GuardianTramp

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