Writer’s blend of imagination and history a fitting tribute to chapel
And On This Rock: The Italian Chapel Orkney, Donald S Murray. Birlinn, £9.99.
And On This Rock does not fit neatly into any particular genre. Ostensibly a work of factual history, the book owes much to the author’s imagination – its lodestar is the story of Pinnochio. While the immediate subject is a religious icon, the idea of our common humanity is manifest throughout. The eponymous chapel is in Orkney, but the story has its geographical roots as much in the Trentino-Alto Adige of Italy (or South Tyrol) where its principal creator, the artist Domenico Chiocchetti, came from.
Such resistance to categorisation is a hallmark of this fine writer’s work. In this as in previous books, particularly The Guga Hunters, it is a strength. The “little invention[s]” of conversations and thoughts about which Mr Murray is very honest will not be to everyone’s taste, but they are at least not implausible. I also like the fact that there is a moral to his telling of the story: amid war, fervent nationalism and religious and cultural divides, more connects than separates us.
The book begins with the Churchill Barriers. Or, more precisely, the sinking by a German U-boat of the battleship Royal Oak in Scapa Flow in October 1939. This disaster, which resulted in 833 deaths, 137 of them of boys between the ages of 14 and 18, prompted Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, to order the construction of the barriers that connect Mainland Orkney with first Lamb Holm (site of the chapel) then Glimps Holm, Burray and finally South Ronaldsay, to make Scapa Flow a safe haven. “These [channels] must be closed. How long will it take?” he exhorted and demanded.
The answer was to be much of the rest of the war, which is why the Italian Chapel came to be built.
Through interviews with islanders and descendants of the Italian prisoners, conventional narrative history and those imagined conversations and thoughts, Mr Murray traces the development of the war, the Italian campaign under Mussolini and the arrival in Orkney of Chiochetti, Scarponi, Palumbi, Micheloni and others, men whose names were to become synonymous with the little Nissen hut chapel with its white facade.
Chiochetti was born in the village of Sorte in the Dolomites and brought up in nearby Moena before going on to Ortisei to study his craft. Captured as a prisoner by the Allies after just six months in North Africa, he was taken to Egypt and, after a request to a Scottish corporal not to be sent to India, to Britain.
On reaching Orkney, the author imagines he and the other prisoners feeling much like Pinocchio arriving in Busy-Bee Island: “[T]hey wondered if the place was inhabited by civilised people, capable of relaxation or reflection, or if they were the kind that could hang young men from any hook or rafters that might be available. Judging by the grime-covered appearance of many of the workforce, there was the possibility that they could be. There was scarcely a single ‘idler or vagabond’ in sight – a fact that made the more lazy ones among them come to the same conclusion as Pinnochio: ‘I see that this island will never suit me! I wasn’t born to work!’”
Work they did, however, under the direction of Major Yates in Camp 60, but only after a typical bit of British chicanery. Accused by the prisoners of breaching the Geneva Convention of 1929 by forcing them to work on a war effort project, the purpose of the Churchill Barriers was altered from protecting Scapa Flow to connecting the remote islands.
Such is Mr Murray’s devotion, rightly, to the context of the chapel that it is page 130 of the 219 before mention is made of the possibility of one being built and 152 before we meet Father Gioacchino Giacobazzi, who was the inspiration behind the building. There are fine photographs by Tom Muir of the chapel interior – Chiocchetti’s Madonna and Child behind the altar, the nave, the holy water stoup made from concrete, the dove in exile (Because his world is ringed with water, / Goti draws a dove, / recalling how Noah sent one out three times, / returning to his fingers out of love.).
Thanks to the landowner, who saved it when the rest of the camp was destroyed after the war, the chapel is still there, and Mr Murray concludes with a visit for a combined Easter/christening. It is a fittingly peaceful and optimistic ending to a story that had started so inauspiciously.
In places, the book would have benefited from more vigorous editing: “It was a place where Domenico’s stomach must have echoed with hunger, desperate, like most of the others, for food.” The number of typos is irritating; hopefully they will be corrected for future editions. The absence of an index in such a richly detailed book is unfortunate. But these are minor quibbles when set against the overall achievement. The chapel now has a book that can match it in artistic merit.