More than an action tale, ethical dilemmas in ReneE Pappone’s latest novel

Di Anna Ciampolini Foschi

A long-kept secret still haunts a man. He still harbours the painful memory of the injustice that embittered his family. If he returns to the place where, in tragic circumstances, he acted against his own beliefs, would he finally find solace? Pasqualino Leone, the protagonist of Rene Pappone’s latest novel The Partisan Brigade, has been asking himself that question ever since he returned to Canada after serving on a secret mission during the Second World War. Pasqualino is an Italian-Canadian youth from small-town Northern Ontario. His family immigrated to Canada from the mountains of Abruzzo, and rose to a comfortable lifestyle through hard work and ingenuity. They feel a deep allegiance to the country who has given them prosperity and a future for their two children. But: “Bad things happened in 1940” as one of the characters says. The quiet life of the Leone family changes suddenly when Pasqualino’s father, Antonio, is arrested and jailed for eight months as an enemy alien on the unfounded suspicion that he is a spy and a Fascist sympathizer. He never recovers from the trauma till the day he dies, a broken man unable to forget the shame he felt. The youth feels responsible for restoring the family reputation and enlists in the Canadian Army hoping to be sent to Europe’s battlefields, but his language skills and his knowledge of Italian customs make him an ideal candidate for a dangerous mission as a secret agent in Italy. Pasqualino, after an intensive training along with two other secret services recruits, is then parachuted to San Bertoni, the village in the Abruzzo region where his family comes from. There, he and his two comrades are supposed to recruit and train anti-Fascists locals to conduct guerrilla warfare against the retreating Nazis. He succeeds in accomplishing his mission. The San Bertoni Partisan Brigade can inflict heavy losses on the German forces but also suffers several casualties. Pasqualino must face an unimaginable level of horror and violence and carry out actions that conflict with the moral principles he had been taught at home.
The Partisan Brigade, whose narrative spans over four decades and takes place in two continents, delivers action and suspense at a breathtaking pace. Pappone’s writing is terse and expressive and he has done his historical research thoroughly. The obvious attention that he gives to the details about the rigorous training of the special agents, the descriptions of the preparation and execution of sabotage and guerrilla operations bring authenticity to the story. However, the focus of the novel is the moral dilemmas that Pasqualino faces. He, like many others, is driven by noble ideals and by the urge of honoring both his family and his country but the grim reality is that to fight against tyranny he must hide his identity, lie to his family, be prepared to kill other Italians and when necessary, forget his own humanity. Special agents are taught “silent killing” and other ruthless survival techniques, because the basic rule is “Kill or be killed.” Yet, when Pasqualino slits a German soldier’s throat, he can’t justify his action so easily.
Pasqualino felt his own body go numb as he stood aghast over the enemy soldier, fighting off the urge to run into the woods to retch his guts.
I can’t believe I did this, he cursed to himself, and the more he tried to rationalize his action, the more he kept asking himself: What right did I have to crept up on this unsuspecting human being and take his life? 1
How can you face absolute evil without letting its corruptive influence contaminate your own soul? Is the carnage and horror of war justifiable even when war is waged in the name of a sacred cause? The main issues go beyond Pasqualino’s personal story and are so essential and universal that probably there isn’t a true answer to any of them. Pappone’s protagonist manages to retain his principles because he can acknowledge these quandaries, but he pays a great price for the rest of his life. It is only with his return to San Bertoni, many years later, in the occasion of a ceremony honouring a fallen priest who had been working for the Resistance, that he can come to terms with the anguish and the sense of failure that he felt for sixty years.
….Another realization haunted him. When he left home to join the army, it was with the intention of restoring his father’s dignity and showing, in a concrete way, that the Leone family was loyal to Canada. But he ended up instead in a dangerous mission shrouded in secrecy. Nobody back home would know what he had been through or done to help bring peace and liberty to Italy. He would be judged by his cover story, a soldier with a cushy job, travelling across Canada at military expense while other boys were doing the heavy lifting.2
Pappone’s book is both a gripping action tale and an exploration of sensitive and still very relevant and contemporary issues. The Partisan Brigade also highlights the deep wound that the unjustified internment of Italian-Canadians during WW2 caused to the individuals and their families subjected to that indignity and the shame it inflicted upon the Italian-Canadian community. The internment represented a betrayal of their dreams, of their efforts to belong and contribute to their new country. The pain and shame became trans-generational. Only a few years ago, the Canadian Government finally took some action to acknowledge the wrongness of the Internment.
Rene Pappone began his career as a journalist in 1955, working with radio, television, newspaper and national agency newsrooms. He also worked as a Parliamentary correspondent for six years and covered such major news events as the FLQ crisis in 1970, foreign visits by Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau and two federal general elections. In 1975, Rene joined the federal government as a media relations officer, then becoming director of information. While at Canada Immigration, he was spokesperson for the department when iron curtain athletes defected during the 1976 Montreal Olympics. He also directed the Public Affairs group. He has published three other novels: Beyond Expectations: Memoirs and Stories of a Timmins Boy (2007), The Rogue Files (2011) and The Hai Hong: Profit, Tears and Joy (2014).
A novel by Rene Pappone
Published by Rene Pappone. 2018.

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