November 2014

Lori Feathers


Limbo by Melania G. Mazzucco, translated by Virginia Jewiss

Survivor's guilt is one of war's invisible scars. On the field of battle death feels random, perhaps due to the chaos of war or the certainty that there will be casualties among otherwise healthy, young men and women. War's cruel assignation between victims and survivors is the subject of Italian writer Melania G. Mazzucco's novel Limbo, in which an Italian army sergeant, Manuela, struggles to understand why she survived an explosion in Afghanistan that killed five men from her platoon.

In the novel's opening pages, Manuela is released from the hospital and returns to convalesce at her family's home on the coast of Italy. Her leg and mind are crippled from the explosion. During her convalescence Manuela falls in love with Mattia, an elusive stranger who is living at the seaside hotel across the street. Mattia, too, is a troubled survivor; he was forced to walk away from his life and change identity after testifying against a man with connections to the mob.

As part of her healing process, Manuela works out a theory of why she survived the explosion: her course was predetermined -- to die with the others in the explosion -- but by virtue of a few last minute, unconscious acts she created a divergence from the innumerable and uncontrollable events that were converging to result in her death. In discussing a war that took place two hundred years before Manuela's deployment to Afghanistan -- Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812 -- Leo Tolstoy likewise asserted in his epilogue to War and Peace that the combined decisions and actions of many individuals, when taken together, create inevitable outcomes. And Tolstoy criticized historians for attributing events, like the outcome of a battle, to the act of any great man. Although she does not refer to him by name, Mazzucco gives another conspicuous nod to Tolstoy when Manuela tells the mother of a deceased fellow soldier:

[I]ndividuals don't make history; certainly not an Alpino corporal, not even the brigade general or a minister, or the president of a country. History is something beyond the intentions and aspirations of individuals; it's more like the tide. You can be part of it, but you can't stop or guide it.

Mazzucco uses an engaging and approachable narrative style to tell Manuela's and Mattia's stories. Manuela's character is fully developed; her motivation for joining the military and the emotional impact of her experiences in Afghanistan feel authentic, especially the closeness that develops among the soldiers with whom she shares the struggle of living in harsh conditions and the vulnerability of being surrounded by unidentified enemies. Mazzucco's writing is especially strong and avoids cliché when she describes life at the front and the difficulties that Manuela, as a female soldier, must overcome to earn and maintain respect.

However, it is a challenge to empathize with Mattia, and this makes Mazzucco's portrayal of his love affair with Manuela unsatisfying. Mattia's life in a witness protection program is removed from everyday life, and his calculating nature brings to question whether he truly could feel affection for someone as physically and psychologically shattered as Manuela. It is hard to believe that so soon after her trauma Manuela could trust and establish an intimate relationship with someone like Mattia.

Fortunately, it is Manuela's need to work out why she survived and how this need both retards and accelerates her recovery, rather than the love story, that provides the narrative momentum for this novel. Manuela and Mattia refer to themselves as "the walking dead" and the "living dead." Each had a near-death experience, and the inexplicableness of their survival creates the feeling that they exist in an intermediate state, not fully alive and not dead -- in limbo. But on any given day, at any point in time, each of us sits at some unknowable point on the continuum between life and death. Being in limbo is a necessary fact of the human condition. It is a credit to Mazzucco that she does not tidy all of the loose ends at the novel's conclusion -- a validation that, like each of us, Manuela and Mattia, in some sense, will remain in limbo.

Limbo by Melania G. Mazzucco, translated by Virginia Jewiss
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374191986
384 pages