When he was 20, Giacomo Colnaghi was still working in a bank and was interested in communism, but he started studying law. One timeline in the book is set in Milan in the early 80s - the era of groups like the Red Brigade. Magistrate Colnaghi's trying to collect enough evidence to arrest people for the murder of Aldo Vissani. He repeatedly refuses to have an armed escort. In the book's other timeline his father, Ernesto, is involved with communists and the Resistance towards the end of world war 2. The 2 timelines share settings, and there are similarities between the structure of the resistance groups and the terrorist groups. Main themes include
- Morality - Religious (Giacomo's a serious Catholic) vs civil; Old testament God vs New Testament forgiveness; Society vs private morality; theory vs practice. Giacomo wants to believe that his battle for justice is done for as virtuous reasons as his father's actions. When Gianni Meraviglia is brought in for questioning, Colnaghi engages in a debate with him about morals (they went to the same school, so how come they ended up so different?). Colnaghi's son is puzzled that God doesn't answer his prayers. Colnaghi's disappointed that he can solve murders but can't stop his son being teased.
- Couples - Even the couples who are still together wouldn't rate their relationship as ideal. Colnaghi is apart from his wife and two young children for long periods, but they carry on. He feels that the individual sacrifice is justified by society's gain. Towards the end of the novel he asks his mother (who never re-married) if she's forgiven his father yet for leaving her with two children to raise.
He believes that the state isn't perfect, that ends and means are equally important. His motto is "Always exceptions, never errors". He believes that revenge escalates, and stiff sentences for terrorists may just be a form of revenge. More than once people have suggested to him that he should have been a priest, that he wants to convert criminals to his way of thinking.
Once the 2 timelines had been established, and the death of Ernesto at the hands of the Nazis foretold, I assumed the 2 threads would both end with deaths, and so it was. Giacomo's life doesn't flash before his eyes, but the events of the book conveniently do.
I like much of the writing. Lucia's annual family confession day and the long discussion with the visiting, ailing, speaker seem too thematic for me, but however grand the topic under discussion, there's usually the compensatory attention to little details - "Colnaghi went to mass alone. The sermon was banal but convincing - it's in the hardest times, during personal crises, that real faith emerges - and Colnaghi exchanged his sign of peace with a bored girl behind him. He admired the gravity of the sacraments, how they restored in him a more simple and fair order: believe and you will be saved, the least that one's ancestry could hope for. The faith of farmers. During the communion he saw an old couple arm in arm struggling to the altar: as soon as they received the eucharist, one of the tripped and would have crumbled to the floor had the man behind them not saved them in time. A boy in the 4th row laughed" (p.43, my translation).