A Tenuous Transition to Paradise Lost Giorgio Bassani's tragic The Garden of the Finzi-Continis chronicles a wealthy Jewish family's struggle to keep change — and destruction — at bay in Mussolini's Italy.


A Tenuous Transition to Paradise Lost

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This week's installment of our summer series, You Must Read This, comes from a young Iranian writer, Dalia Sofer. She's chosen a classic, "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis," which was made into an equally famous movie. The book reminds Sofer of her life in Tehran before the Islamic Revolution.

Ms. DALIA SOFER (Author, "The Septembers of Shiraz"): I first read Giorgio Bassani's "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis" on a summer afternoon, the kind that tickles you with thoughts of road trips and beach vacations, but whose heat traps you in inertia.

The narrator begins unearthing his memories of the Finzi-Continis — Micol and Alberto, and their parents, Professor Ermanno and Signora Olga, during the years leading up to World War II. What follows this prologue is a chronicle of an insidious ending, unfelt and imperceptible as the worst endings often are. The losses begin small, first with the weather — the warm days of October replaced by the brutal cold of winter — then accumulate, along with Mussolini's racial laws, leading to the disintegration of a way of life, love, friendship, health, and finally, life itself.

I lived through the revolution of 1979 in Iran, and I too am familiar with accumulated losses. But I also remember the months leading up to the fall of the Shah, when for many of us denial was the order of the day. We carried on with our lives as if nothing exceptional were happening — swimming in the pool for long hours and drinking tea on the terrace as the summer afternoon slowly turned into dusk, discussion of politics, like the mosquito lamp, always in the background. It was only on the eve of my seventh birthday, in January 1979 -when a blackout plunged the city into a sudden darkness and I sat in front of my unwrapped presents, waiting as the adults scrambled to find candles - that I realized that something terrible was about to happen.

For Bassani's Finzi-Continis, that moment of realization comes far too late. In the fall of 1938, because of the racial laws prohibiting Jews from attending country clubs, they opened their doors to a select few for daily games of tennis. Their lush garden becomes a refuge, a paradise of sorts, untouched by the external world and made more beautiful because of it.

Inside their walls, the Finzi-Continis are collectors — of furniture, books, and letters from the celebrated poet Carducci. The Finzi-Continis are preservers of the past — rescuing objects, people, memories, and even the dead. In the end, however, they cannot rescue themselves.

As often is the case with tragedy, people can imagine neither the extent of it, nor the possibility that it could actually happen to them. Bassani's book perfectly captures that small, tenuous transition from paradise to paradise lost.

I've been drawn back to this book five times already, and each time I re-read it, I'm struck by the way it depicts the sudden shift in the way of life.

NORRIS: Dalia Sofer is the author of "The Septembers of Shiraz" and you'll find an excerpt from "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis" along with more summer reading recommendations at our Web site. That's npr.org/summerbooks.

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