Any book that begins with the phrase “Everyday is a good day to kill Nazis” is sure to interest me. Luckily for me, that’s how Francesca Tacchi Let the mountains be my gravebegin.
Tacchi (xe/xem/xir) is a neurodiverse and queer Italian author, who has also contributed to Transmogrify! (June 2023), a YA anthology where trans people claim center stage in fantasy stories. I am Tacchi’s friend and have been eagerly awaiting the release of the book since day one. I wasn’t disappointed when I finally got my hands on – or should I say mouse and keyboard, since I read it electronically? – on new xir. This review is therefore not entirely unbiased, but I will of course do my best to give a fair review.
Let the mountains be my grave is an antifascist and queer short story set in Italy in 1944, just after the landing of the Allied forces in Sicily. The title refers to a verse of the famous partisan song “Bella Ciao”. It’s a semi-historical book, filled with good humor, touches of Etruscan mythology and fantastical magic.
Tacchi said their inspirations behind the short story were mainly drawn from the fact that in World War II media, partisans are rarely depicted.
“This war is a Hollywood darling, but most movies focus on Allied intervention,” Tacchi continued. “Very little space is given to local resistance movements, even when they played a central role in defeating the Nazis, as in the case of Italy.”
The main character is Veleno, a 20-year-old partisan who is bent on revenge because the Nazis ruthlessly killed his uncle and father. Hailing from the small Abruzzese town of Cocullo, Veleno is armed with an unusual weapon: the healing magic of the pre-Italic chthonic deity named Angitia. Cocullo celebrates Saint Dominic, patron saint of protection against snakes, in his Festival of Serpari (Snake Hunters Festival).
Tacchi’s interests in history and ancient Italic paganism, as well as xir history and tradition, were among their other inspirations. Tacchi has perfectly balanced the realistic and fantasy elements. I also liked their fictional interpretation of war as including these ancient gods, but the fate of war ultimately being in human hands.
The short story is pleasantly paced and features a cast of diverse and lovable characters: Mosca, a Catholic; Irma, a Jewess; and last, but not least, Rame, a communist. These names have specific meanings in Italian; this is because supporters of the news take on new names when they join the resistance.
“They were…united by hatred towards fascism and the desire to finally see Italy liberated from Nazi occupation,” Tacchi writes in his author’s note. “I wanted to portray this diversity in the main characters of this short story.”
As an Italian-American Jew, I was especially happy to see the inclusion of the Jewish character, Irma, an academic. Irma has powers from a pre-Italic god, Tinia, whom Irma describes as “the Etruscan Zeus”. I also appreciated the inclusion of the Italian version of ‘Echad Mi Yodea’ (‘Who knows one’), a traditional Passover song. The lyrics illustrate the themes of freedom and resistance, which I think goes well with the short story’s own themes.
My Jewish Brain also paid close attention to a piece of dialogue where Rame asks Irma how her relationship with Tinia fits in with being Jewish. He assumes that the Jews are forced into monotheism. She responds to Rame with grace. She explains that she personally believes in henotheism or monolatry, which means she believes in one god, but does not deny the existence of other gods. She also explains that her point of view is not accepted by all Jews, a very important point for her to make. I think the author has handled this difficult subject as best he could while avoiding a generalization of Jewish belief. Even between me and my two other Jewish friends, we disagreed on a general Jewish belief about Irma’s position in the novel, which proves my point!
Besides the Jewish portrayal, I also enjoyed Tacchi’s critiques of American foreign policy around the world. As was the author’s intention, Let the mountains be my grave does not glorify the involvement of the Allies in the liberation of Italy from the Nazis.
Veleno believes that the Allies have no business in Italy, and their aid is likely rooted in self-interest rather than a genuine desire to help. He worries about the possible annexation of the Italian peninsula by the Americans: “And if they [the Americans] won’t leave once the war is won? I’m not sure I’d like to see Italy break free from fascists just to step into the shadow of one of the Allies.
Although I’m half American, my Italian half catches Tacchi’s criticism. After the war, the United States began stationing large numbers of its forces throughout Europe. There are currently seven US bases in Italy, one of which is near my mother’s hometown of Aviano.
On a very different note, the novel is decidedly queer. “Choosing to include queer people in my short story was quite simple, as I am queer myself and always hungry for more representation. [within the fantasy genre,]said Tacchi. Xe also wanted to show that the most broken and messy people deserve love. Xe hopes queer readers will feel validated reading this relationship.
While I enjoyed all of these aspects of the short story, I have a few criticisms. My main would be that some writing could be called clumsy. While I love putting fascists down every day, repeatedly calling Stormtroopers “Nazi pigs” was a bit annoying. There were also some weird descriptions, especially when it came to characters and people. I won’t be too critical on the clumsy writing issue because English is Tacchi’s second language, and xir writing really gets better the further you get into the new one.
These tendencies, however, were offset by beautiful writing. There’s some pretty nice prose, not only about Veleno and Rame’s love for each other, but also about depression, memory, justice, and the human condition in general.
Finally, I appreciated the importance of the song and the music throughout the short story, whose lyrics are repeated in their original language. In his author’s note, Tacchi said we wanted to do this because the songs are deeply rooted symbols in Italy’s cultural history. Xe felt that translating them into the text would have, in a sense, distorted these songs.
“I really wanted to include songs and music first and foremost because songs are an important symbol of Italian resistance,” Tacchi said. “Songs are powerful for conveying a message, and also for representing a people more viscerally. Folk songs… are very common in Italy and traditional music plays such an important role in our culture.
In conclusion, I would highly recommend reading Tacchi’s short story. I think the subject of Nazis and fascism – and more importantly, resistance to these ideologies – is becoming increasingly important with the resurgence of the far right across the world. Moreover, positive fictitious homosexual relationships like that of Let the mountains be my grave, are really necessary because romantic relationships between men in fiction tend to end in tragedy. I look forward to future releases from Tacchi and am excited to see how xe develops as a writer.
Image credit: Mia Carnevale (artwork), dave ring (cover design).