ALAN MURRAY Luigi’s Freedom Ride. Reviewed by Jody Lee
This novel traverses the brutality of war and displacement to offer hope and compassion.
Even as his eighty-first birthday drew near, Luigi Ferraro was a handsome and stylish man … His easy unhurried manner said Luigi Ferraro was comfortable with himself and his world. Luigi, then, had the look of a man of uncommon resolve and resilience. A man with a story to tell.
From the very first page of Luigi’s Freedom Ride you know you are in for a treat of a story. This is a delightfully optimistic novel about life, bicycles and the joy of the journey.
Luigi’s story begins with his birth in the Tuscan village of Tescano in 1921, the year Benito Mussolini was elected to the Italian Chamber of Deputies. From the start, Murray confidently sets the scene and starts gathering the threads of dramatic tension for what will lie ahead for our likeable Italian hero.
Luigi’s life is one of chances. As an innocent ten-year-old boy playing in the cobbled piazza of his hometown, he rushes to help an Englishman, Jeremy Forsythe, whose bicycle is deliberately hit by an open truck loaded with a dozen of Mussolini’s Blackshirts. Luigi takes Jeremy home to his mother and Uncle Cesare, who shelter the Englishman until his injuries heal. Resuming his journey to Rome before returning home to take up his military commission, Jeremy leaves his beloved bicycle, a jet-black Hercules Popular 21-inch Gent’s Roadster, in Luigi’s care, asking him to mend and take care of it. Luigi promises to look after it forever. From this chance meeting Luigi’s young life changes direction as he discovers a love and passion for cycling.
Luigi and his best friend, Leonardo, enjoy a childhood filled with adventures into the forest, cycling and going on imaginary expeditions where they play at being centurions on the look-out for hostile tribesmen. Surrounded by a close-knit community that has, at its heart, wise Father Gianni, the church, the school and the bakery, life has a ‘caterpillar-like cadence’ with the days passing smoothly as they have for centuries. Mussolini’s brutal push for support for his fascist regime sees the trust of the townspeople shaken when a new schoolmaster loyal to Il Duce takes control of the local school. The idyllic rhythm of life also changes when, in late 1939, Luigi and Leonardo receive a letter requesting them to report as conscripts for military service in Livorno.
The boys enter the army, meeting another conscript, Jacob Zevi. The trio of adventurers knuckle down for training and with their exceptional football and cycling skills are asked to enlist with the Italian Cycling Corps. There is a chance meeting with Mussolini, the man himself, who holds the three up as perfect examples of Italian youth, ready to fight for Italy. Life again adopts a regular pace until war breaks out and the three unexpectedly find themselves fighting alongside the Partisans. They witness the whirl of bloodshed and division that their leader has drawn their beloved Italy into. The cruelty and violence of life as a Partisan behind German lines never completely leaves Luigi’s thoughts:
In the very worst times of crimson-hued memories, Luigi could smell the blood. He could taste it, like damp soil, in his mouth. When this happened, he tried to spit away the taste. Sometimes he succeeded and he could reflect, at peace, on fond, warmer memories – of the comradeship and the adventure, even the romance of Partisan life. He recalled how he and Leonardo, as accidental Partisans, would set off on scouting missions … tramping along familiar tracks through those Tescano hills.
Despite facing hardship, heartbreaking sorrow and unimaginable suffering, Luigi’s love of life remains undiminished as he is always looking for the best in people and the possibilities in the game of chance that is life. Postwar, his inclination for adventure sees him travelling, with his precious bicycle, through the Holy Land, Turkey and Sri Lanka, finally arriving in Australia, where he’s offered the promise of escape from the tragic aftermath of war in his homeland.
Luigi’s Freedom Ride is gorgeously crafted with a perceptive ear for the flamboyance of Italian life, customs and expression. It traverses the brutality of war, of displacement and the struggle of building a new life in a foreign land, yet cleverly avoids the sentimentality or cliché that novels of this ilk sometimes lean into. This is a story of hope and humanity with a sweet flourish of humour.
Alan Murray Luigi’s Freedom Ride Fourth Estate 2014 PB 352pp $27.99
Jody Lee is a freelance book editor who generally prefers mountains to lakes.
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