Set in wartime, The Fallen takes place in 1944 in the newly liberated city of Naples. Into the vacuum created by the German retreat and fall of the fascists, warring factions of criminal groups jostle to assert their supremacy and fight over the scanty spoils of war. The allied military police has been charged with keeping order, but corruption runs deep. Everyone is on the take, making conscience and the notion of good guys versus bad relative terms.
Thomas Greaves, a young Canadian lieutenant from a middle class Toronto family, has been placed on reassignment with a British unit, having been brought back from the front lines after a fatal error on the battlefield reportedly left him a suicidal mess. As part of the security police, Greaves has been assigned to tasks such as civilian liaison, dealing with local police and marriage vetting. He finds that this so-called “drudge work” suits him, however.
But what Greaves enjoys most about his new job are his biweekly visits with Augusto Parente, the curator of Naples’s Archaeological Museum. As a former high-ranking fascist, Parente must have tabs kept on him. But Greaves recognizes from the outset that the old man is harmless—his allegiances are, first and foremost, to his museum’s collection and not to any political ideals.
Greaves particularly looks forward to his encounters with Parente’s assistant, the aloof, self-consciously boyish Luisa Gennaro, who, despite Greaves’s cautious entreaties, regards him only with suspicion and contempt. Greaves, for his part, appears almost to welcome the indifference, and we have the sense that this acceptance is bound up with a desire to atone for whatever calamity lies in his recent past.
Threaded through Greaves’ story is that of Aldo Cioffi, Parente’s alcoholic, wastrel nephew. Cioffi’s weaknesses get him in thick with the local gangsters who call him dottore—a sarcastic reminder of how little he has achieved in life compared to his doctor father. Cioffi enlists Greaves to help convince his uncle to give him a second chance doing inventory at the museum, but his motives are nefarious: his real aim is to repay his debt to the mob by stealing artifacts for his boss to re-sell on the black market. Unaware of this, Greaves takes pity on him and encourages Parente to do the same. Luisa, on the other hand, sees the situation for what it is and remains vigilant about Cioffi’s every move.
Throughout the story, Greaves stays at only a single degree of separation—via Cioffi—from the criminal underground. His inevitable collision with it is strung out until the very end, when it takes on a direct significance to the fates of several characters, including his burgeoning relationship with Luisa.
Although short for a novel at just over 200 pages, The Fallen feels broad and ambitious. What makes it work is that it is never overarchingly so. Finucan, who has previously published two books of short stories (and sometimes reviews books for this paper), has done his homework on a compelling period in history, but he wisely resists a tendency to flaunt it. Encounters between characters happen in short bursts in circumscribed, re-visited backdrops, giving The Fallen the feeling of a play sometimes.
As the novel reaches its climax, Mt. Vesuvius erupts—so momentous an event that it would seem like a dramatic stretch if it hadn’t actually happened. Symbolism notwithstanding (is an erupting volcano sometimes just an erupting volcano?), the apocalyptic explosion makes Parente, pushed aside by both the mob and the American troops muscling in on his work—yearn for annihilation: “Come now. He thought to himself. Come now and bury us all.” This is a war novel where war has effectively ended, yet there is no real respite or freedom from it; one system of power has merely been fobbed off for another and Finucan does a subtle but formidable job of expressing the desperate confinement of it all.