Writers & Company

Francesca Melandri and Christopher Kloeble on confronting history through fiction

Christopher Kloeble and Francesca Melandri both wrestle with their countries' pasts. And the German and Italian authors believe the time has come to confront their overlapping histories.
Eleanor Wachtel interviews Francesca Melandri and Christopher Kloeble at the 2016 International Festival of Authors in Toronto. (Tom Bilenkey)
Listen to the full episode52:18

William Faulkner famously wrote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." For novelists Christopher Kloeble and Francesca Melandri, the effects of history on their contemporary nations are potent sources of story.

Almost Everything Very Fast, Kloeble's third novel and his first to be translated into English, is a darkly comic story of a father and son with a complicated history, going back 100 years in Bavaria. Melandri's debut novel, Eva Sleepsevokes a century of conflict in Italy as a woman seeks out the truth of her past.

They both joined Eleanor Wachtel at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto to discuss their confrontations with history.

ON THE EFFECTS OF WORLD WAR II ON GERMANY AND ITALY TODAY

Christopher Kloeble's first book translated to English, Almost Everything Very Fast. (Graywolf Press)
Christopher Kloeble: In Germany, when most children go to school, they hear a lot about the crimes that Germany committed in World War II. You watch a lot about it. You talk a lot about it. There is a guilt that goes back for several generations and not only one kind of guilt but several kinds of guilt — there was a guilt for all the bad things that happened, but also many soldiers returned home and felt guilty that they didn't win. It's like a double guilt. This was given to the next generation, and then the next.

Only fairly recently, in the last 15 years or so, there has been a change. In 2006, Germany hosted the World Cup. It was the first time that people put German flags outside and on cars to celebrate their country's soccer team. They didn't do that before. Any kind of national feeling is considered suspect. When people started doing this, there was a big outcry and some worried that nationalism was back.

You could say we are so far away from the time of World War II because the people who actually lived in that time are dying out. But there's this danger for the younger generation because they are much less attached to that time and they don't think about it often.

A hundred years in the future, people will do the same stupid stuff again, if nobody takes care. So you always have to be careful.

Francesca Melandri: I have great admiration for the thorough work that Germany and Germans have done with their past. Of course, I don't see that they had any alternative.

CK: It's very important to point that out. Many Germans dismiss it and say, "We have dealt with the past — let the other countries do it, too." But we should acknowledge that we were forced to do it.

Francesca Melandri's debut novel, Eva Sleeps. (Europa Editions)
FM: In some ways Italy's relationship is much more complicated because, of course, Mussolini was a fascist and we had racial laws too — we helped the SS arrest the Jews who were subsequently brought to Auschwitz — but then in the last two years of war the Nazis were the occupiers and we were the resistance.

But we never had anything like the Nuremberg trials for our fascist generals. There were some half-hearted trials but nothing comparable to the very strict and clear judgments that were passed for the Nazis. This has always allowed us to build this foundation myth, the foundation myth of the Italian Republic. Our myth is one of resistance to the partisans. It's not a bad myth, but it's a very incomplete myth. I like it and I can see the reason why it was necessary to have it. Italy was a completely destroyed country and when you have to rebuild the country, you have to find the positive energy to rebuild it.

But in taking care of the guilt, responsibility was very much swept under the carpet with some unsettling effects, which have been influencing the history of postwar Italy since then.

Christopher Kloeble's and Francesca Melandri's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the interview: ​"Pendulum" composed and performed by Eberhard Weber. ​