How do you invent a hero
Mark T. Sullivan is the author of well known thrillers as Private Games, The Purification Ceremony and, in 2017, of the best seller Beneath a Scarlet Sky.
Sullivan, in his Preface to the book, says that in 2006 he was in such a bad situation that he contemplated driving into a freeway abutment ... Believe it or not, that very same evening ... I heard the snippets of an extraordinary untold tale of the World War II with a seventeen-year-old Italian boy as its hero ... My first reaction was that the story of Pino Lella's life in the last 23 months of the Second World War could not possibly be true... ".
Sullivan contacted Pino Lella, who claimed not to be a hero, more a coward ...". Then they met in Italy and stayed together for three weeks in an ancient villa and during the hours and hours of interview Lella "certain events and characters ... clearly avoided and others he seemed to dread talking about at all."
Adds Sullivan "Wherever possible, I have stuck to the facts gleaned from those archives, interviews and testimonies. I was forced in some places to construct scenes and dialogue based exclusively on Pino's memory decades later, on the scant physical evidence that remains, and on my imagination fueled by my research and informed suspicions. In some cases, I have also combined or compressed events and characters for the sake of narrative coherence and have fully dramatized episodes described to me in a much more truncated form.
An honest Preface that is well suited to a novel that, as such, can take inspiration from real episodes, completing, modifying and attributing them to a single person basing on the author's creative imagination.
But the final sentence of the preface modifies this approach and states that it is "a work of biographical and historical fiction that hews closely to what happened to Pino Lella between June 1943 and May 1945."
And in all the interviews and presentations of the book, this approach continues to pass off as true all the incredible, absurd and for the most part invented adventures of Pino Lella "The Unknown Hero", and Lella has willingly adapted to this adulation.
The novel is divided into five parts.
The first part, comprised of four chapters, is a prologue that tells the story of Pino Lella, a seventeen-year-old son of a wealthy merchant family in the Milan fashion district, who lives his life, falls in love, meets and talks with Cardinal Schuster and is involved in one of the first bombings in Milan.
The second part, of eight chapters, tells the story of Pino Lella and his brother Mimmo's life with Father Luigi Re at the Casa Alpina of Motta, from the end of September 1943 to mid-May 1944, and it is on this period I dwell as I was really present in Motta from the end of September 1943 to the time of the Liberation of Italy.
In reality, the Lella brothers at Casa Alpina have not been there: I have never seen them, nor do they appear in the numerous photographs in my possession; Pino Lella is shown only one photograph, not actually taken in Motta.
During the presentation of his book, Sullivan showed also some images taken from two articles of mine, published on Arengario, the first of May 2003 and the second of January 2008, from which also a lot of information about Don Luigi Re and his Casa Alpina can be taken.
If that were not enough, there was also a true hoax: one photograph of me was sold as an image of Mimmo Lella, as shown in the opening photos.
The description of life at Casa Alpina containes numerous inconsistencies.
- They talk of about forty boys who live there while we were only about ten.
- Pino makes hot showers but, at that time, to get some hot water, it had to be heated in a large pot on the stove.
- Cook was not Mr. Bormio (in the book pseudonyms generally avoided) who prepared superfine dishes, but Mr. Magri, a relative of Don Luigi, and the menu was really poor: we ate risotto practically every day as in Casa Alpina. there was a large rice reserve.
- "The chapel was rarely used except for a brief Sunday Mass ..." it is written, on the contrary we went to Mass in the chapel every morning, and every night there were rosary and blessing.
- As I write in one of my cited articles, the partisans of Tiberius and his brother Caio came to Motta two or three times, and the political commissar was Pioppo, Giovanni Pirelli, but we knew about it after the war. They taught us to sing Fischia il vento and The Red Guard and we even played a soccer game together.
But Pino, in the story told by Sullivan, did not see them.
Instead, he talks of bandits, common criminals who pretended to be partisans, who carried out raids and who would even have left a trap bomb in a Madesimo meadow, where it exploded right before his eyes, tearing and killing a child, whom he took in his arms only to see him dying, and wounding seriously two other kids. The episode is unfortunately true but it has never been ascertained whether the bomb, which most probably was a hand grenade, had been collected on the spot or found somewhere else by the children.
Some trips to allow some Jews to expatriate were actually organized after September the 8th, as I have reported in my article, but certainly they did not involve hundreds of people and, obviously, were not guided by a seventeen-year-old Pino and by Mimmo, who was a couple of years younger, whom in Motta were never seen ...
Mark Sullivan is a good writer, Pino Lella a great skier and it is only right that in the "true story" of his life his skill is mentioned. But then, after the story of Pino leading to safety a family of four plus a violinist, after twenty-three pages (pp. 113-135) of ascent in which everything, absolutely everything, happens, from the storm to Mimmo falling into the void and the avalanche that buries them in a hut where they had taken refuge, what else happens?
Once on the top, with the Val di Lei and Switzerland looming into the view and still five kilometers to climb downhill in the snow, and the violinist, who was pregnant, not able to make it any more, Pino puts on his skis, takes her on his back and, without even holding her by the legs, grasping her Stradivari with two hands in front of him, flies down at over fifty kilometres per hour, and arrives exactly at the state border...
The thankful violinist plays a wonderful melody and Pino "stopped at the top of the lake to listen to the distant crescendo".
Really poetic, too bad that the dam that formed the lake was built after the war and, above all, that the Val di Lei was Italy and not Switzerland! To reach Switzerland, they should have climbed another 500 meters on the opposite side the valley.
Of all the incredible events that follow in the book, I have no direct knowledge and will therefore limit myself to a few notations.
- In May 1944 Pino was urgently called to Milan by his family because on the 1st of June, on turning 18 years old, he would have been drafted into Salò troops and, as his father clarified, wringing his hands, and all new Italian soldiers are being sent by the Germans to the Russian front. You'd be cannon fodder, Pino. You would die...
A second alternative was offered by the uncle: "Or someone I know can get you assigned to a wing of the German army called the 'Organization Todt', or the OT. They don't fight. They build things." (pp. 167-168)
And the hero Pino Lella, thanks to his connections, was recruited and wore the Nazi uniform.
Pino's father and uncle, and also Mark T. Sullivan, evidently did not know that the tragic retreat from Russia ended on January 31, 1943 with the battle of Nikolajewka.
- In August, almost casually, he was chosen as the driver of General Hans Leyers, plenipotentiary in Italy for the Armament and Production Minister, second German authority in Italy after Field Marshal Kesselring. The book tells that, at the request of his uncle, he became a spy for the Italian Resistance.
- What can be noted is that nothing is recorded about his activity in ANPI (National Association of Partisans of Italy) archives, as nothing is there even about his brother Mimmo, according to the book entered even earlier in the Resistance.
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8 ottobre 2019