The book: A Hundred Thousand Ice-Filled Mess Kits (Centomila gavette di ghiacchio), by Giulio Bedeschi
The edition: Italian (original) softcover edition by Mursia, 430 pages
The story: about the brave and disastrous campaign of the 3rd Alpine Division Julia in Russia during World War II, as seen from a military doctor perspective. It draws from the author’s own experience as a military doctor in Albania and Russia.
My experience with the book & my thoughts: I have been struggling with this review for some time now, mostly for two reasons: one, that I both liked and disliked it a lot; and two, that I don’t know how to convey the good of it to non-Italian readers.
I’ll start from this second point. This book is an hymn to the bravery of soldiers who were fighting on the German side of the front, and the Russian army is described as a merciless hoard set to annihilate the enemy. But surely Italians were the “bad guys” during World War 2, right? In a way, yes. But one of the beauties of this book is that it shows how people were not fighting for the ideas that made Fascism and Nazism so infamous. They were fighting because that was their job. In a way, I’d say there is a relation between this book and one I read shortly after, The Book Thief, because both allow to see how opinion was not so uniform, and how there were so many layers into that war.
As for point one above, I could make a long, long list of the things I disliked: the gross descriptions, the sentimental digressions, the fact that the author takes no position on the reasons for war nor comments in any way about Fascism, and most of all the fact that all the characters, with no exception, are brave and patriotic — this last point almost made it unbelievable.
And still, I liked it. I liked the passion of the author’s love for his fellow soldiers. And I am happy I read this, because — well, because the Russian campaign is still relevant to Italy and it shaped many things to come; in the region I come from, each family has a relative lost or wounded in Russia, or knows one (at least, it was like that when I was a child, things may be changing as we are moving to the next generation). The story described here is still very alive to many, and it was good to read it first-hand.
What I liked: first-hand and very down-to-earth description of how a war is lived on the front.
What I didn’t like: very detailed (and disgusting) descriptions of wounds and illnesses.
Language & writing: it feels dated, very different from the way Italian writers use language nowadays, but once you get the grip of it, it’s very well written.
In the author’s own words: see here (in Italian)
Links to better understand this book:
- Italian participation on the Eastern Front and the operations recounted in this book
- Analysis of the Soviet-German war
- A videoclip recreating the environment and the feel of the campaign described in this book. Please disregard the comments there as they only show how much WWII is still a difficult issue to talk about.
Random thought: I seem to be reading a lot about World War 2, recently, and I’m getting scared
Read this if: because it’s only available in Italian, you need to be able to read Italian, but anyway I think you need to be Italian to really appreciate this one. For Italians: do read it, because it’s good and important to remember how things were at the time.
Counts as: What’s in a name Challenge – Number