The Marshalless

Zora del Buono

German, 2020

“Is that what people are obliged to say in 1980 – that socialism has failed? No, this is just a temporary crisis; soon the world will grasp that only socialism can prevail, that what matters more than anything else is equality. EQUALITY. You think it strange that I of all people, the wife of a professor, who once lived in a palazzo, should speak this way? It’s quite simple – communism is aristocracy for everyone.”

The Marshalless is a many-layered family saga covering the years from 1919 to 1980 and encompassing three generations, two world wars and half of Europe. It is set mainly in Slovenia and Bari, but also in Berlin and Zurich. The novel centres on the extraordinary Zora Del Buono, a doctor’s wife responsible for an upper-middle-class household, but who is also a communist and a fervent admirer of Josip Broz Tito. Author Zora del Buono, the granddaughter of the ‘Marshalless’, brings long-hidden family secrets to light, creating a literary monument to her grandmother.

A capital D or a small d? Del Buono – or del Buono? Even this minor linguistic detail has a significant story behind it. A small d suggests noble origins unbecoming to a communist. That was why Zora Del Buono, the novel’s protagonist, deliberately opted for a capital D. Nonetheless, she remained a lady born to rule, albeit one whose heart was firmly on the left.

Growing up in a Slovenian mountain valley, an only daughter with four brothers, Zora was obliged to take on responsibility from an early age. Her mother disappeared when Zora was eight, but returned five months later, expecting a stranger’s baby. That destroyed her daughter’s original trust. In the First World War their valley was on the frontline, so the family fled to the city, returning two years later to their now ruined village. This was where Zora met her future husband Pietro Del Buono, a red-haired Sicilian who served as a medical officer during the war, and who, at twenty-three, was the youngest doctor in the whole of Italy.

After their marriage, the Del Buonos settled with their three sons Davide, Greco and Manfredi in Bari. Zora herself designed their palazzo, which numbered over twenty rooms. While Pietro devoted himself to his work, setting up his practice at home and lecturing as a professor of radiology, Zora swayed the sceptre over the household. The couple threw themselves into supporting the Communist Party and the partisans engaged in a guerrilla war against Mussolini’s Fascist Italy. They looked for inspiration to Marshal Josip Broz Tito, the partisan leader and later President of Yugoslavia, whose life Dr Del Buono once saved. What Tito was to his country, ‘Marshal’ Zora became to her family – the absolute ruler.

Shortly after the Second World War a shadow fell over the family; to support their political work, they had engaged in criminal activities that cost a human life. Pietro’s exclusion from the Party was a terrible humiliation. In a blazing final monologue, Zora draws up a sober balance at the end of her life, back in Slovenia: two of her sons are dead, her daughters-in-law are estranged, her brother has packed her off to a care home. Is she now forced to atone for past sins? Is there a curse on the family?

Zora del Buono, granddaughter of the ‘Marshalless’, was born in Zurich in 1962. An architect, arts editor and writer, she made her authorial debut in 2008. In The Marshalless, she has given us a novel that recounts the history of an era and a family, a book rich in stories from an eventful time, whose multiple narrative threads are held together by her dazzling grandmother. The language is direct and vivid: ‘But he remained noble even when cursing, unlike those popinjays. Those Johnny-come-latelies in borrowed plumes – I can pick them out straight away, mostly by the way they walk, with their chests puffed out and a slight backwards lean, as if they’re displaying their male organs on a tray before them, the strutting cockerels.’

Text by Jan-Jesse Müller

Title
Die Marschallin
Publisher
C. H. Beck, Munich
Translation rights
Jennifer Royston, jennifer.royston@beck.de
Publication date
July 2020
Pages
382
ISBN
978-3-406-75482-1

Author

Zora del Buono

Born in Zurich in 1962, Zora del Buono lives in Berlin and Zurich. After studying architecture at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, she worked as a construction manager in Berlin for five years immediately after the fall of the Wall. She is a founder member and the arts editor of ‘mare’ magazine. Das Leben der Mächtigen. Reisen zu alten Bäumen (The Lives of the Mighty: Journeys to Ancient Trees) was published by Matthes & Seitz in 2015, in their ‘Naturkunden’ series. Her novella Gotthard (2015) and the novel Hinter Büschen, an eine Hauswand gelehnt (Behind Bushes, Leaning Against the Wall of a House, 2016) were published by C.H. Beck. For further information (in German), see zoradelbuono.de.

Photo: Yvonne Böhler