The Premio Campiello is an Italian literary prize awarded to one book that, more than any other that year, captures the hearts and minds of its audience. Its winner is determined by a jury of 300 readers from different regions, professions, and social classes of Italy; you might call it the People’s Choice award of the Italian literary world. Last year, that prize was given to Rosella Postorino for Le assaggiatrici (in English, The Wolf’s Table). It was a well-merited win. Though a consummate reader and trained analyst of the written word, I found myself compelled to read Le assaggiatrici not with the eyes of a literary critic, but with the spirit of a child listening awestruck to the first story truly to touch her heart. It entrapped me in that way. Reading it, like watching so many Hollywood-style renderings of world catastrophes, invited a real suspension of disbelief. I willingly complied, leaving all literary analyses on my bookshelf and letting myself get carried by a worldview I knew could not exist, not because unrealistic. On the contrary. Because too perceptive an observation of the many human weaknesses that get disguised as resilience. In Postorino’s grip, I found myself floating on air, weightless, or perhaps more accurately, unmoored.
At its most basic level, Le assaggiatrici is the story of the Second World War and Germany under the Third Reich. Yet this background, by now all too common in literature, never feels predictable or trite. Told from the point of view of Rosa Sauer, one of ten women hired to taste Hitler’s food for him lest it be tainted or poisoned, it addresses the attitudes both of those sympathetic to Hitler’s plan and those strongly against it — what the narrator calls “bad Germans” under Nazi rule. Rosa’s point of view, though informed by sporadic contact with the rest of Europe and by her past growing up in Berlin, centres on life in East Prussion Gross-Partsch (now Parcz, in Poland) — the lush countryside region where she is living with her parents-in-law at the time of her recruitment — just a few kilometres away from Hitler’s eastern front headquarters and Krausendorf, where his meals are prepared and sampled for him. In an important inclusion of myriad female protagonists, Rosa’s is not the only life followed in Le assaggiatrici. Through her eyes, readers also get to know more or less intimately the women in her surrounding: the strong-willed and opinionated Elfriede, the young and sensitive Leni, Heike, doting mother to two adoring children and war widow, Rosa’s parents-in-law Herta and Joseph, and the other people of various ranks that populate their world.
Rosa’s story is told in layers, each in constant motion, delicately rising and falling, at times revealing, at others concealing, like Salome’s seven veils. Actions in the present are interspersed with glimpses into her Berlin past and early childhood or interrupted by observations on the future: readers’ first indication that the story is being told in hindsight. It is in many ways incomplete, and consciously so: only Rosa’s final outcome is made clear by the book’s end, and its recounting is perhaps unreliably influenced by the passing of time and the mutation of memory that comes with it. Its peaks are romanticized, and its lows exaggerated in faithful replication of the act of reflection. Some characters are only perfunctorily known, and inadequate attention is paid to them or to their role in the overall narrative, perhaps because of their superficial inclusion in the narrator’s own life. The book is not a social or anthropological documentation of wartime Germany; it does not seek to speak to the unfathomable suffering of a people or to the daily hardships of a population trapped under the weight of its leader. Nor is it the biography of the woman whose story inspired it, Margot Wölk. Rather, it is a keen and cutting inspection of the Grey Zone — where victims collaborate or collude with their oppressors to ensure the best possible outcome for themselves — and the fragility of the human moral compass.
Rosa’s years as one of Hitler’s aides are built on contradictions that admit no ambivalence — both parts are constantly and equally felt. Every moment of her life is the product of strict and unforgiving binaries: the privilege of eating food hard to come by in wartime Germany expertly prepared mixed with the fear of death each bite contains; the pleasure of sexual intimacy laced with the pain of separation and the guilt of betrayal; the grief felt for a spouse presumed lost cut with the gratitude for an opportunity at a new life and a different future; the desire for friendship tainted by the recognition of its impermanence. Each sentiment is unmitigated by rational thought, justification, cognitive dissonance. Rosa feels the emotional weight of her decisions and actions acutely. She ignores no part of them. Yet her willingness to face them leaves her no better off; the depth of her entanglement in a world she so despises haunts her long beyond her years at Krausendorf and decides her future irrevocably. Postorino gives her a sensitive and poetic nature that both endears her to those around her and traps her in a world of her own undoing.
It is hard to characterise Postorino’s prose. She has the rare capacity to depict the worst atrocities or the most complex of human reactions with an ephemeral beauty that at times leaves her readers breathless. She does so without any lofty symbolism, using concrete images and precise qualifications of even the most elusively described physical sensations. Le assaggiatrici seems delicately wrapped in a gentle, milky film, a patina dorata; Rosa’s story seems filtered through a rose-coloured lens that softens it and makes the horrors of it more tolerable not just to readers, but above all to herself. The second part, which introduces readers to Albert Ziegler, a fundamental figure in the narrative, is decidedly the most captivating; readers unconvinced by the book’s opening eighty or so pages are very quickly converted by the second part’s change of pace, register and emotional density. Like all great stories of its kind, Albert and Rosa’s drags readers into the depths of it with them, and though impossibly glamorized and hopelessly unrealistic, it remains one of Postorino’s biggest achievements in this book and a memorable exploration of female desire and moral ambiguity.
Le assaggiatrici won il Premio Campiello with a majority of 167 out of 300 votes — a sweeping win for a whirlwind narrative that contains within it and on every page the calm before and after the storm.
It is preceded by Il corpo docile (Torino: Einaudi, 2013).