“Music. Wine. A cigar. The small luxuries of life are how we survive what the mind can’t fathom.”
Mark Sullivan, Beneath a Scarlet Sky: A Novel (p. 90).
Pino got a faraway look in his eye, and after a long hesitation, said, “I’ve never told anyone about my war, Bob. But someone very wise once told me that by opening our hearts, revealing our scars, we are made human and flawed and whole. I guess I’m ready to be whole.”
Mark Sullivan, Beneath a Scarlet Sky: A Novel (p. 502).
It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book about World War II, but the first time I’ve ever read one from an Italian perspective. Mark Sullivan’s Beneath a Scarlet Sky is based on the true story of Pino Lella, an Italian spy for the Allies. When he was 18, Lella became the personal driver for one of Hitler’s top men, a Nazi named General Hans Leyers. Crazy, right? It’s really no wonder that Beneath a Scarlet Sky has risen to number 3 on Amazon Charts this week.
Mark Sullivan wrote the book through interviews with Pino Lella and corroborating his story through extensive outside research. However, Sullivan filled in the gaps where he couldn’t find more information and made up all the dialogue. I’ll admit I sometimes had trouble distinguishing between truth and fiction.
And while I’m glad someone took the time to research Lella’s story, I kinda wish Sullivan hadn’t been the one to tell it… He’s one of those writers who will spend 10 pages on something you might not find important (or at least I didn’t) yet summarizes an interesting event in a couple lines. I’m also not a fan of his writing style, which tends to be simplistic, redundant, and choppy. Plus, he’s not that great with dialogue, which makes it difficult to get completely immersed in the novel:
She sat on the bed, drank wine, and watched him eat.
“That makes my tummy happy,” he said when he’d finished.
“Good,” Anna said. “I’m a student of happiness, you know. It’s all I really want— happiness, every day for the rest of my life […]”
Mark Sullivan. Beneath a Scarlet Sky: A Novel (p. 261)
HOWEVER, I think Lella’s story is compelling enough to overlook the book’s stylistic shortcomings (and the first 70 pages…). I wouldn’t be at all surprised if someone made this book into a movie someday. It’s hard to overlook a book with firsthand accounts of Mussolini and Hitler, a famous race car driver, a Jewish underground railroad through the Alps, the anguish of young love during war— For all my criticism of Sullivan’s writing style, I’m actually very happy he wrote this book.
In the days since finishing Beneath a Scarlet Sky, I can’t get a particular scene out of my head.
(**WARNING: Minor spoilers up ahead**)
The war has ended, and Milan is overjoyed.
Lella bumps into his cousin, Mario, celebrating in the nearby public gardens. Mario was a pilot who was forced to hide in Lella’s apartment to escape the Nazis in Italy during the last couple weeks of the war:
[Lella] entered the public gardens, taking a shortcut home. People were lying on the lawns, basking in the sun, having a good time. Pino looked ahead on the crowded path he was taking through the park and saw a familiar face coming his way. Wearing the uniform of the Free Italian Air Force, his cousin Mario was beaming, looking like he was having the time of his life. “Eh, Pino!” he cried, and hugged him. “I am free! No more sitting in the apartment!”
“That’s so great,” Pino said. “Where are you going?”
“Anywhere, everywhere,” Mario said, glancing at his aviator’s watch, which gleamed in the sunlight. “I just want to walk and soak it all up, the joy in the city now that the Nazis and the Fascists are kaput. You know this feeling?”
Mark Sullivan. Beneath a Scarlet Sky: A Novel (pp. 417-418).
Mario and Lella talk for a bit, and then, this happens:
[Lella] had gone no more than six meters when an argument broke out behind him.
“Fascista!” a man shouted. “Fascista!” Pino turned and saw a small, stocky man standing in the path, aiming a revolver at Mario.
“No!” Mario cried. “I am a pilot for free—”
The pistol fired. The bullet blew out the back of Mario’s head. Pino’s cousin collapsed like a rag doll.
“He’s a Fascist! Death to all Fascists!”
The man yelled, and shook his gun. People began to scream and run. Pino was so traumatized he didn’t know what to do or say, just stared at Mario’s body and the blood draining from his head. He started to dry-heave. But then the killer crouched over Mario and started working at his aviator’s wristwatch.
Anger boiled up inside Pino. He was about to attack, when his cousin’s murderer saw him standing there. “What are you looking at? Hey, he was talking to you. You a Fascist, too?” Seeing him trying to aim, Pino spun and took off in a series of cuts and feints. The pistol barked behind him, hit one of the few trees left in the garden.
Mark Sullivan. Beneath a Scarlet Sky: A Novel (pp. 418-419).
Lella manages to get away. He stops running and vomits. Shaking, he starts walking home in a daze:
Mario was alive one second and gone the next. The randomness of his cousin’s death had him shaking and shivering as he walked through the hot streets. Was no one safe?
Mark Sullivan. Beneath a Scarlet Sky: A Novel (pp. 419). Emphasis added.
Up to this point, Mario felt like a tertiary character, on the periphery but not necessarily central to the action in the book. His death feels sudden, random, and most of all, unfair. The narrator draws a sharp contrast between the people enjoying the nice weather and Mario’s bleak death. He had fought in the war, survived, and then, the first time he walks outside freely, he gets shot by a thief—all against the backdrop of a sunny garden in Milan.
I had never really thought about what happens in a city devastated by war when that “war” is suddenly declared over but your former enemy still lives in the next neighborhood. Lella is forced to abandon Mario’s body, knowing there will never be justice for his cousin’s murder. Mario was only one more person killed that day because someone declared them a Fascist or a Nazi. No court, no ruling, just a bullet to the head.
The ugliness of war isn’t contained between two clear dates, as sometimes history books lead us to believe. The horror spills over across the years, like a bloodstain that fades but never disappears:
Pino shook his head and felt tears stream down his face as he said, “I don’t understand, Carletto. And the war’s not over. I don’t think it ever will be over for me. Not really.”
Mark Sullivan. Beneath a Scarlet Sky: A Novel (p. 490).