Luce D’Er­amo; Anne Milano Appel,trans.

  • Review
By – April 1, 2019

Luce D’Eramo’s Devi­a­tion, orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Ital­ian in 1979 and recent­ly trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish, is based on the author’s expe­ri­ences in a Ger­man labor camp dur­ing World War II. As an eigh­teen-year-old, the nar­ra­tor runs away from home to vol­un­teer for the Fas­cist cause; she doesn’t believe rumors of atroc­i­ties and wants to see first­hand what is hap­pen­ing. How­ev­er, due to her par­tic­i­pa­tion in a work­ers’ strike at the labor camp she escapes to, she ends up being trans­ferred and detained in Dachau con­cen­tra­tion camp.

Even though many of its details are auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal, the book is cat­e­go­rized as fic­tion — seem­ing­ly due to D’Eramo’s strug­gle to recall the details of this trau­mat­ic time, but also to allow her the cre­ativ­i­ty and imag­i­na­tion to fill in times when mem­o­ry failed. The book is divid­ed into four parts, none of which fol­low a strict chrono­log­i­cal order. Ear­ly on, read­ers find out that the nar­ra­tor even­tu­al­ly escapes Dachau. Imme­di­ate­ly after this dis­clo­sure, D’Eramo takes read­ers to the narrator’s expe­ri­ences in a tran­sit camp, Thomas­brau, where she stays for a few months at the end of 1944. Here, she learns about the sex­u­al devian­cy and bru­tal real­i­ties of a place where bombs are explod­ing and shel­ter is a luxury.

D’Eramo employs oth­er unusu­al nar­ra­tive tech­niques as well. The first half of the book is writ­ten in first per­son. At times, the nar­ra­tor describes her sit­u­a­tion in the style of a diary entry: I now know that I am more drawn to the vagrants at Thomas­brau than to any­one in my ear­li­er, prop­er life. I’m fear­ful of the hold such a short time has tak­en on me, and I feel like my life will nev­er be as gen­uine and secure as it is now.” Toward the begin­ning of the third sec­tion, First Arrival in the Third Reich,” D’Eramo switch­es to third per­son, where she details the work­ers’ strike that led to her being sent to Dachau. The narrator’s dreams, hal­lu­ci­na­tions, and sur­re­al expe­ri­ences — such as being forced to under­go a dis­in­fec­tion process while naked with a group of oth­er new­com­ers — con­fuse her sense of real­i­ty. In the book’s intro­duc­tion, trans­la­tor Anne Milano Appel offers expla­na­tions for this, in addi­tion to oth­er help­ful analy­ses of the non­lin­ear nar­ra­tive. Appel writes, Because the con­nec­tion with the past is unsta­ble and volatile … any rec­on­cil­i­a­tion between becom­ing and being, between past and present, seems impos­si­ble.” In the fourth sec­tion of the book, D’Eramo dis­cuss­es her writ­ing process and how cer­tain mem­o­ries have fad­ed into the shadows.”

At a piv­otal moment in the book and in her life, D’Eramo describes the bomb­ings that occurred on Feb­ru­ary 27, 1945, when she assumed the war was over. While the nar­ra­tor tries to save peo­ple stuck under the debris of destroyed build­ings, the wall of a build­ing sud­den­ly col­laps­es on top of her, leav­ing her par­a­lyzed from the waist down. A large sec­tion of the book focus­es on her hos­pi­tal stay, dur­ing which she feels impris­oned in her own body and strug­gles to under­stand her future.

It is not until this hos­pi­tal stay that read­ers learn why she end­ed up in a labor camp and at Dachau in the first place. She explains the chronol­o­gy of her expe­ri­ences to the com­rade com­man­der, help­ing the read­er gain clar­i­fi­ca­tion on the narrator’s mem­o­ries: I was eigh­teen when the Badoglio gov­ern­ment, fol­low­ing the armistice of Sep­tem­ber 8, 1943, upset the front against the Allies dur­ing the war and the Ger­man roundups began; peo­ple were ter­ri­fied, con­fused, left to their own devices, hid­ing … I real­ized that the only way to learn the truth for myself about Fas­cists and anti-Fas­cists … was to ascer­tain it first­hand.” Even at the book’s end­ing, the author avoids a tidy res­o­lu­tion, and still tries to make sense of her own experiences.

Devi­a­tion is both a sto­ry about under­stand­ing the ter­rors of World War II and fas­cism through the expe­ri­ences of a young woman, and a sto­ry about how human fears and real­i­ties of war impact mem­o­ry. D’Eramo’s writ­ing tech­niques effec­tive­ly chal­lenge the read­er to under­stand this era from a new view­point. Not only will enthu­si­asts of World War II lit­er­a­ture find D’Eramo’s account fas­ci­nat­ing, but so will any read­er inter­est­ed in the impact of mem­o­ry on truth and storytelling.

Jamie Wendt is the author of the poet­ry col­lec­tion Fruit of the Earth, pub­lished by Main Street Rag Pub­lish­ing Com­pa­ny (2018) and win­ner of the 2019 Nation­al Fed­er­a­tion of Press Women Book Award. Her poet­ry has been pub­lished in var­i­ous lit­er­ary jour­nals and antholo­gies, includ­ing Fem­i­nine Ris­ing: Voic­es of Pow­er and Invis­i­bil­i­tyLilith, Raleigh ReviewMin­er­va Ris­ing, Third Wednes­day, and Saranac Review. Her essays and book reviews have been pub­lished in Green Moun­tains Review, the For­ward, Lit­er­ary Mama, and oth­ers. She holds an MFA from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Nebras­ka Oma­ha. She teach­es high school Eng­lish and lives in Chica­go with her hus­band and two children.

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