In Dante’s War, Sandra Sabatini portrays fascist Italy through the lives of two young Italians: Dante becomes a soldier in the Second World War, while Angelina works on her family’s farm in a rural village. They meet briefly in Rome just before Dante is deployed, and begin an epistolary romance.
Sabatini, whose research and attention to detail suffuse her writing, is strongest when crafting symbolic, affecting vignettes, which dramatize both the domestic and military experience of the era. In describing a mischievous and dangerous sortie Dante makes in a rickety plane, or Angelina’s indulgence in buying a cake to eat on the train, she vividly captures their personalities and the social realm each inhabits.
The influence of Dante’s Inferno is evinced in the eponymous protagonist’s ideation and adoration of Angelina, and the way his love sustains him through various military postings, as well as in the allegorical nature of certain secondary characters and events. Evocative as these devices may be, however, they don’t always fit neatly in the larger arc of the novel.
The quality of Sabatini’s writing is also inconsistent. Dante and Angelina’s initial meeting is true to their characters and situation, but the romantic expressions that ensue are mawkish: “His words had filled her. She did not know she had been empty.” Unfortunately, the book’s final, unnecessary chapter is filled with such writing.
Sabatini also has a problem integrating historic detail into her story. While she can effectively drop major events into dialogue, as when the local priest brings tragic news of a massacre of 300 Italians to “atone” for the death of 30 German soldiers, she just as frequently writes in characters whose sole purpose is to tediously explain various arcane military strategies.
Sabatini is a good writer, with a real gift for creating simple yet emotionally powerful scenes, but her stylistic weaknesses are too often distracting.