I read this wonderful book as part of the “12 Months of Reading Goodness” challenge. January’s challenge is to read a book published in your birth year, which for me is 1966. I’m so glad I did this challenge because otherwise I wouldn’t have discovered this book – it’s over 50-years-old, afterall; vintage, just like me.
The Secret of Santa Vittoria takes place in a small village in the mountains of Italy during WWII. It is a brilliant commentary about human nature, relying on deadpan and sometimes dark humor to cover topics like love, honor, power, community dynamics and prejudices. Robert Crichton cleverly weaves a parable that pits Italian peasants against German soldiers in a cat and mouse game involving the wine that serves as the lifeblood of the little village.
The beginning of the book coincides with the overthrow of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. At first, the villagers were indifferent, not seeing how it impacted them at all. But then someone figured out that it meant the end of the gaggle of incompetent fascists who had been running their town. Then they were ecstatic. In an amusing sequence of events, Italo Bombolini, a clownish man with a penchant for Machiavelli, becomes the new mayor and surprises everyone when he rises to the occasion.
When Mussolini was kicked out, Italy switched sides in the war, which meant the Germans who were previously in the country as allies were now an occupying force. Some of the Germans in a nearby town decided they wanted Santa Vittoria’s 1.5 million bottles of wine. This wine represented the only income most of the villagers would make that year. Without it, they would face starvation. So they hid it.
When German Captain von Prum, an admirer of Nietszche, arrives in town, he and Bombolini match wits (in a Machiavelli vs Nietzsche throwdown), with von Prum underestimating Bombolini and the villagers every step of the way. Von Prum wants to have a “bloodless victory,” not because he has compassion but because anything else would be beneath him. But he quickly unravels when he can’t find the wine and he abandons his principles. At this point, the novel, which has mostly been a pretty lighthearted farce up until now, becomes very dark with graphic scenes of torture. The switch was jarring and perhaps the author’s way of reminding us that war is not a humorous romp. It also served to create a lot of additional tension regarding the wine – would this finally lead to the wine’s discovery?
I’m not going to tell you!
This book is a gem, one that many people may not have heard of. It was very successful when it was published, spending over 50 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. It was made into a movie which was released in 1969. It’s insightful, humorous, cleverly plotted and unlike anything I have read recently. I enthusiastically recommend it!
Now it’s your turn. Tell us about the forgotten gems that were published in your birth year.