The first chapter opens with short poem which anticipates the opening scene:
One January afternoon in the year
a German soldier was out walking
in the San Lorenzo district of Rome.
He knew precisely 4 words of Italian
and of the world he knew little or nothing.
His first name was Gunter
His surname is unknown.
The novel then begins with violence, as the young, drunk, German soldier, wanders the streets of San Lorenzo, runs into Ida, follows her into her apartment, and rapes her. That violence will bring about the birth of Giuseppe, “Useppe,” and set into motion the book’s narrative.
In the twenty-nine years between the end of the war and the publication of this novel, a pervasive self-absolving mechanism within Italian society, public life, and political discourse was reflected in movies, novels, and popular culture. Instead of coming to terms with the horrors and responsibilities of Fascism, the blame for any and all wrongdoings, including the catastrophe of war, was attributed squarely to the Nazis.
On the very first page, Morante moves away from that a-historical simplification.
Her German soldier is not a monster, but rather a helpless young electrician from Dachau—not yet synonymous with its concentration camp at the time— who was only three days away from being killed on his way to the African front.
The narrator in no way tries to forgive his actions, but presents him as a kid swept into the madness of war, unable to take a stance or understand what is happening around him:
[…] in contrast with his martial stride, he had a desperate expression in his eyes. His face betrayed an incredible immaturity, although he was six feet tall, more or less. And his uniform —a really comical thing for a soldier of the Reich, particularly in those early days of the war— though, new and fitting his thin body tightly, was short at the waist and in the sleeves, exposing his thick wrist, rough and innocent, like a worker’s or peasant’s. […] He was a simple recruit called up in the latest draft. And until the time of his summons to his military duties, he had always lived with his brothers and his widowed mother in his native home in Bavaria, near Munich.”
Throughout the novel, Morante describes the devastating existential condition of invisibility. Here, Gunther, the soldier, and Ida, the schoolteacher, live through their brief, joyless encounter, as two distinct and diverging experiences. She, succumbing to the sexual assault, experiences an epileptic fit, he, misunderstanding her convulsions, thinks she is having a wild orgasm.
The rape scene that opens the novel has been insightfully analyzed by Amos Oz in the essay, Into Mother’s Bosom, on Several Beginnings in Elsa Morante’s History: A Novel.