Love and War in the Apennines by Eric Newby
Eric Newby’s brilliant fictional memoir, Love and War in the Apennines, is the standout title from a classy collection of travel fiction. It tells the story of Newby’s war years, opening with his capture as part of a doomed Special Boat Section mission off the east coast of Sicily and touching on his internment in a prison camp close to Parma.
If that sounds like the ingredients for a bleak tale, rest assured that this whimsical story is anything but. Part of that has to do with Newby’s gentle humour – at times he comes across as a P.G. Wodehouse character - but two things really set his tale apart.
The first is that following the Italian Armistice in 1943, Newby and his fellow prisoners evaded the advancing Germans and took shelter in the mountains and countryside south of the River Po. Here, Newby was hidden, cared for and fed by a motley network of local peasants and farmers, passed from one precarious location to the next, eventually ending up in a mountain cave.
His saviours come vividly to life, described with real affection and wit, as do the high mountain peaks, the simple Italian food, the colourful morning skies and all that other good stuff that comes from a neat piece of travel writing.
But what really tugs at the heart is the developing romance between Newby and a local girl called Wanda. Communicating in pigeon English and Italian, chaperoned by nuns, separated by mountain passes and the dangers of the war, they fall swiftly in love, destined to spend the rest of their lives together.
It’s sentimental, sure, and Newby is the first to admit that the lines between fact and fiction are more than a little blurred. But even so, it’s strangely poignant to read of how cut-off Newby became from any larger knowledge of the conflict raging all around him, and I defy anyone to read the epilogue, set some twelve years after the end of Newby’s ordeal, without
a lump in the throat.