Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Q&A with Ben Pastor




Ben Pastor is the author of the new novel The Venus of Salò, the latest in her Martin Bora series. She was born in Italy, spent 30 years in the United States, and is now living in Italy again.


Q: What inspired the plot of your new Martin Bora novel?


A: Truly deceptive are beginnings and endings…This free quote from Hölderlin’s poetry sums up the historical context of Martin Bora’s experience in The Venus of Salò, set during the last months of the Second World War.


His juvenile enthusiasm at the start of the conflict turned out to be misleading; political disgrace, even as Germany rumbles toward final defeat, is nothing but the cost of his meritorious ethical choices.


It is the winter of 1944-1945, in Mussolini’s German-run puppet state near Italy’s northern border.


Colonel Bora works as a liaison between the two headquarters, and in so doing his responsibilities range from diplomacy to active warfare against guerrilla units in the mountains. A series of gruesome deaths soon forces him to try to understand why young local women are falling victim to an apparently senseless violence.


All along, as a long-time covert opponent of Hitler’s regime, he must steel  himself against the likelihood of harsh retribution.


What inspired me? We live in times when concepts like justice, equality, and peace agitate and divide the world as never before. Although the novel was first conceived years ago, its depiction of a man’s struggle to stay true to his ideals in the face of adversity makes it timely and appropriate.


How far would any of us go, physically and psychologically, to stand by our beliefs? And how will Bora investigate and confront feminicide, an issue still burning today?

Q: How did you research the novel, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: When writing, my approach to research is born out of personal curiosity and an academician’s tolerance for lengthy practices of fact-finding, double-checking, digging through first- and second-hand material, maps, photographs, on site investigation, and more.


In preparation for the draft, it was useful for me to travel to the region where the novel takes place, inquire of elderly eyewitnesses, visit local libraries, ransack bookshops for reliable texts in several languages… in other words, immerse myself in that world and that historical period.


Familiar as I already was with the events and the principal players in them, I must say that a few surprises came my way.


The melancholy of a lakeside once torn between fighting armies, under Nazi and fascist occupation, is palpable even today, despite the glorious reputation Lake Garda has among tourists the world over. Its beauty, mild climate, palm trees and fine hotels cannot altogether cancel the echo of all that happened there.


The mindful visitor will readily identify Mussolini’s final residence (under German guard), the local SS and Black Shirts headquarters, let alone the markers pointing out places where patriots fought and died. Equally unexpected was perceiving the local population’s tickled embarrassment over the fame the town of Salò and neighboring communities “enjoy” in history books, 80 years after the events.


Q: Why did you decide to focus on a Wehrmacht officer in your series?


A: Twelve Bora novels have seen publication in various languages during the past 25 years. My protagonist and I have been travel companions for longer than many couples stay married!


Believe it or not, in my attempt to “push the envelope” while conceiving an out-of-the-ordinary mystery, the first idea was to create a WWII investigator who served in the Russian NKVD, Stalin’s infamous secret police. Of course, my character could not be a murderous thug, and would need a certain leeway to do his inquiries besides.


As neither possibility appeared likely under the Soviet regime, I had to look somewhere else. However, the same logic held true on the German side for a disreputable corps like the SS.  


Thus, Bora became a Saxon cavalry officer in the regular armed forces, the Wehrmacht. From a landowning background, with a degree in philosophy, he is a Catholic, although a descendant from Martin Luther’s wife. His art-loving maternal family is Scots, liberally minded and supportive.


A sportsman who gave up a chance to win the Berlin Olympic Games in order to fight in the Spanish civil war as a legionnaire, Bora is also a faithful, passionate young husband who keeps an accurate diary of his moral doubts throughout the war.


The publishing world showcases investigators of all types and sizes, from all walks of life. Choosing a protagonist from what is to all appearances the wrong side of the fence found its justification in the true stories of German soldiers who rejected the regime’s criminal orders at the cost of their careers and often their lives.


Secretly coming to the aid of civilians, especially the persecuted, and generally living on the edge, Bora saves his soul while retaining the allure of a first-rate combatant and dashing horseman.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: Everyone will probably take away from this novel what in some form s/he already had inside. My hope is that at least some of the concerns I try to convey in The Venus of Salò come through and stay with the reader.


Among them I would mention a sense of hope and resilience, a strong moral instinct, the delight in physical love as an antidote to fear, and generally speaking, a hardy attitude in life, capable of grinning even in the face of trouble. Bora has lost a hand in combat, but displays all the vigor and efficiency of an individual unbowed by disability.


In my opinion, a mystery should entertain, while possibly making readers reflect not only on crime-solving and justice, but also on the way we all confront daily choices in normal times, free of the horrors known to the generations of our parents and grandparents.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Thanks for asking. In May, The Wolf Pit is coming out in Italian – the first novel I actually wrote in my native language, as I habitually write in English. I am now in the process of working with the publishers and their marketing staff to schedule readings, book presentations, attendance at literary festivals, and TV appearances.


The choice of using Italian is tied to the novel’s plot, actually a sequel to Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed, Italy’s fundamental novel – more or less as Moby Dick is for Americans. Set in Spanish-run Milan and its duchy, it takes place in the XVII century during the Thirty Years’ War, and the subsequent plague that ravaged Europe.


Taking up where Manzoni left off, the story evolves from a tale of oppression, injustice and redress into a mystery full of action and intrigue, against a backdrop of religiosity and superstition typical of those witch-burning days.


The protagonist, Don Diego Antonio de Olivares, a young and spirited lawman, is the latest addition to the team of my fictional investigators.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Well, my next project regards Martin Bora. We backtrack from 1945 to 1941, shortly after the start of the German invasion of Russia. Bora has just come out of a close encounter with the enemy in fine shape except for a broken arm.


He fears that a desk job will be his destiny for the following weeks, until he is unexpectedly shipped to Odessa, the once wild Ukrainian port city on the Black Sea. Due to the war, gone are the days when Odessan streets echoed with the cries of Greek and Italian vendors, klezmer music, sailors’ oaths, and the shooting rows of criminal gangs in the alleys of the Moldavanka quarter.


The spunky officer is given a perilous task even as the death squads of the SS move east to annihilate entire populations. It will be interesting to see how he manages through it all, of course coming across a fresh criminal case of his own.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Ben Pastor.

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