The following are my thoughts in response to having read Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan. If you have designs to read this book, while I appreciate you frequenting my blog, please save for a later date.
Calamity. Utter and total heartbreak. Those are my feelings today, as I’ve closed the book on Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan. I don’t know how I’ll ever open another book. In the week since I first opened this beautiful, hopeful, inspiring and yet altogether heart-wrenching novel, I’ve cheered for Mimo and Uncle Albert, scorned General Leyers, revered Father Re and Cardinal Schuster and fallen in love with Pino and Anna. The kind of love where your hope resides in a greater future for the love you posses within yourself and for others. The kind of love only found in Eden’s paradise, before we cast ourselves into shadow. I don’t know that I’ve ever cursed at a book out loud before. I probably only did so because I saw it coming, and was powerless to stop it.
Beneath a Scarlet Sky is set in WWII Milan, leading us through the winding trials of Pino Lella. Pino finds himself in one harrowing predicament after another. Shortly after the bombing of Milan began, Pino’s parents scuttle him to Casa Alpina, where he’d spent much of his youth skiing and studying under the careful tutelage of Father Re, the remote school’s headmaster and priest. Pino soon discovers Father Re has other designs for Pino; leading one expedition after the next over a chain of Italian Alpine Mountains with Jews seeking refuge in Switzerland has his repetitious mission. Pino encounters thieves, doubt and avalanches along the way. His faith is tested but his outlook on life remains untainted, ever-desirous of finding love.
Prior to turning 18, Pino is jettisoned back to Milan under the bequest of his father, that he might avoid the draft and instead enlist in the German Army under a division that would keep him out of harm’s way. After a near-death incident shortly into his career, an injury places Pino on leave. Upon returning home he is yet to even set foot in his home before he encounters General Hans Leyers, the chief engineer in Hitler’s Nazi Regime in Italy. Having learned to maintain and operate vehicles as a hobby while at Casa Alpina, it is his deft technical skill that earns him the new position as driver for the General.
On Pino’s first day as driver, he knocks on the door of the General’s apartment and is greeted by the maid, a beautiful woman named Anna to whom we are introduced earlier in the story. The night of the first bombardment, Pino has scheduled a date with Anna to see a movie. She stands him up, avoiding, unbeknownst to her, a bomb hurtling through the roof of the theater. Their subsequent near daily interaction quickly leads Anna to reciprocate feelings for Pino, who is now operating as both the General’s driver and a spy for the resistance in Italy. Pino’s love for music abounds as Sullivan deftly conflates Pino’s passion for Anna, and for music, into one solitary tone. The two fall in love despite the war-ravaged surroundings and become engaged just before the German retreat. The love scene depicted in the story was written in such a way that anyone looking for clues as to whether or not their days would entail each other for the rest of their loves quickly becomes aware that Anna will not survive the war.
As much as I knew this to be true, still there was hope. Perhaps the words would rearrange themselves in the coming pages and the tragedy about to ensue I would be spared of. Fully invested in their world, their happiness, their continued existence, I trudged forward. Sure enough, a few calamitous decisions on Pino’s behalf coupled with the ill-timed retreat of the Germans and the vendetta killings required by the Partisans set the stage for Anna’s capture, due to her association with General Leyers’ mistress. A public gathering’s boisterous atmosphere attracts Pino’s attention. The strapping young man works his way to the front of the mob as an executioner leads out “collaborators” of the Nazi party. Anna among them. Before he can explain the mistake, the executioners try the traitors and kill them by firing squad. Pino has a front row seat to the barbarous atrocities, his heart breaking mine.
I can think of only one other such case where I felt so abandoned by the death of a literary love interest: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway. All of this leads me to feel powerless and forlorn, with a burning resolution to evade Italian-set World War II tragic novels.
I am glad I encountered Pino’s story, it was a world I relished having a window. Pino is a hero for so many of his actions. Much like much war literature, Pino’s humanity befalls his passion and love. Pino’s misfortune reinforces my good fortune. I am grateful to have never known war. I am fortunate to have never been separated by my wife. Blessed to have never feared what might become of me, my wife or my children. But yet still, here I am, heart-broken over the evil that stole Anna from this world, even if I’d never known her. To have come all that way in such a perilous time and die at the hands of your misunderstanding countrymen is what makes Beneath a Scarlet Sky so difficult a pill to swallow.
Yours in the Passionate Pursuit of Happiness – Con Smania