At the close of Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” Holocaust survivors bring small stones to their employer/savior’s grave, in his memory. In my opinion any writer who sets novels in a war should do the same. Thus A Dark Song of Blood, set in 1943-44 German-occupied Rome, although a fictional work, means to remember those who lived – like my mother – and died – like many of her friends – in a city technically “open,” i.e. safe from military actions, but in fact as “closed” as any claustrophobic labyrinth can be.
In days when Roman civilians (lay and religious, Jewish and Christian) share a circumscribed, uncomfortable space with German occupants (Nazi and anti-Nazi), three murders would seem small matter in comparison to the bloodiest of conflicts, but they must be investigated: justice, like the show, must go on. Entrusted with the inquiry is a courageous German officer, Major Martin Bora – a survivor of Stalingrad, politically unreliable and a disquiet Catholic. His Italian counterpart is Police Inspector Sandro Guidi, similarly uneasy with fascist rule. Bora is stern and troubled, Guidi is honest but pragmatic. They face opposition from their respective superiors; they persevere at the risk of their lives; they love and lose and go on, in a stifling city no one supposedly can leave or enter, but where war reaps victims every day.
Thus far, the opening of the novel, with its parallax view of Rome seen through the eyes of Rome’s enemy. Soon images and perspectives turn and twist and break apart, as in a rich and cruel kaleidoscope. The city itself, Eternal by definition, conquers in the end.
“Bora rolled down his window and listened. Got our of the car. Against the mirror brightness of the sky, the heads of the pines at the edge of the park rounded dark above him. For the first time in months he heard the wind rustle through them. The sound of the wind whispering in the branches over the silence. He held his breath, listening to the lack of noise. Suddenly the whole city, the whole world had fallen asleep, and enchantment would hold it now for a hundred years in stillness. He could all but hear his own heartbeat…. The crinkle of a piece of paper that came wind-tossed over the pavement. And the tidewater sound of the pines over him.”
But what can a wartime murder mystery tell us today, about ourselves and our world? It must have something to say – or ask. A Dark Song of Blood points out, I think, what the value of any single life is: saving it may not necessarily save the world but it does makes it a less miserable place to live. And it does ask: how impeccable are we before our responsibilities, in a society that is complex, often unjust, but rarely threatens our lives? How much would we do, dare, give, or give up for an ideal, for the common good?