A lifetime link between her family and a former Italian prisoner of war has inspired a new novel by award winning Bala author Siân Melangell Dafydd.
She drew inspiration for the book, Filò, from her family’s real-life experience in World War Two when an Italian Prisoner of War (PoW) was assigned to work on their North Wales farm.
Sian’s father, Hywel, still has the official ‘receipt’ document which made the then young soldier Pietro Busetti his parents’ responsibility.
But far from being a bond of restraint it evolved into a bond of friendship which has thrived over four generations.
Pietro Busetti worked on the farm of Margaret and Dafydd Davies from 1943 until World War II ended in 1945.
Though they were technically enemies they found themselves working as allies in the struggle to overcome shortages of food and resources in rural Wales. Pietro was also from an agricultural community and it soon became clear that their differing cultures had much in common. A strong affinity and understanding was forged of each other’s ways of life.
Hywel recalls his mum telling him how Pietro would share evening meals and Sunday lunch with the family. They became such great friends that, after the war, when their house guest had returned home, in 1948, Margaret and Dafydd took a ‘second honeymoon’ in Italy to meet Pietro’s family.
Lawyer Hywel laughed: “I believe I was actually conceived on that second honeymoon. As a result, I like to consider myself part Italian!”
Hywel’s parents kept in touch with Pietro and his family via letter for many years.
Siân visited him in hospital in his old age shortly before he passed away. She recalls the huge smile on his face when he looked up to see her.
She also vividly remembers her first visit to Italy in 1988 after her father Hywel found his mum’s old notebook containing letters from Pietro. Hywel embarked on a mission to track down the Busetti family and rekindle the friendship.
Until recently Siân taught Creative Writing at the American University of Paris. She is a respected poet, course-leader for a groundbreaking new Master of Research in Transnational Writing course at Bath Spa University, and is a former co-editor of Welsh literary magazine, Taliesin.
The title of her novel Filò is a noun in the dialect of Pieve di Soligo. It means, this gathering, this storytelling, re-building a sense of family and belonging. It is also the name of a well-known Italian poet’s most famous poem in dialect for the film, Cassanova, by Fellini.
The novel is set at the time of World War II after the battle of El Alamein. At the core of the plot is a gaggle of young men and boys from all over Italy who speak various dialects. They suddenly find themselves in Welsh prisoner camps and then living among families.
Siân confessed the book has been a long time in the making. She began work on it after winning the 2009 National Eisteddfod Literature Medal for her first novel, Y Trydydd Peth (The Third Thing).
But she said it turned out to be a ‘monster’ in need of re-working: “I had so many ideas rolling around in my head that it became far too long and cumbersome and I gave up. After some time, I went back to it and realised there were the seeds of a potential separate novel lying within the middle section of this great monster. I took it out, reworked it and Filò was born.”
Although much inspiration for the book came from her family’s history, Siân resisted making it all about them.
She said: “I drew from personal experiences and factual information passed down to me, but I wanted the novel to have a broader scope than just our own family story. So, it is entirely fictional, but it has similarities to our story in that it’s about people from different backgrounds and cultures suddenly thrown together, having to find common ground.
“It’s about ways of communicating, learning and personally evolving when enemies have to share the same plough and the same kitchen to survive.”
As well as drawing from her own friendship with the Busettis, she also interviewed Oswaldo Fontana, a one-time neighbour in Bala who was also a former Italian Prisoner of War. She borrowed his surname for the main character in her book, Guido Fontana.
The story is told through Guido who finds himself living with a farming family. They welcome him, not as a prisoner, but as a curious character who opens a door to the rest of the world for them. At first they communicate by eating wild plants found in Welsh hedgerows and fields, eventually learning to live as one family, focused on surviving together despite the war.
It is a tale which may have resonance with many Welsh farming families who were assigned Italian POWs as workers during the war. Pietro and Oswaldo were among thousands captured in battle in North Africa, brought to Britain and made to work.
Many were placed in agriculture to alleviate labour shortages caused by young British men being away at the Front. A large proportion wound up among Welsh farming communities.
But the Italians quickly gained trust and were given freedom to mix with locals. Often lasting friendships were forged, like that which happened between Siân’s ancestors and the Busettis.
Siân, 42, currently living again in the area where she grew up, near Bala, explained: “Basically when I was about 11, and my youngest brother was five, my father found a notebook and belongings of my grandmother’s including correspondence from Pietro. Dad was fascinated and decided to pack us all up with the car and a caravan on a journey to Italy to reconnect with him. It took us on a criss cross road through different villages and we even had an awkward encounter with the Italian police, who quizzed us about why we were interested in this Italian man. But amazingly he succeeded. He found Pietro, who just hadn’t had enough education to continue correspondence over the years since his 1959 return to Italy. They said they had an inkling we might turn up one day and even took us to find other Italian friends who knew Nain.”
Siân’s mum, Glenda, added: “Our families have maintained a wonderful friendship ever since, attending each other’s weddings, christenings, funerals, like one big family.”
Pietro’s descendants still live in the Pieve di Soligo area, near Treviso, in what is commonly known as the Prosecco Crescent of Italy, and has its own dialect. Siân, an accomplished linguist, says she first learned colloquial Italian sitting round the dinner tables of Pieve di Soligo.
She said: “Conversations were struck up and interesting life-stories shared.
“In some ways, our experiences reflected those of POWs who lived in remote corners of Wales. They had to learn the Welsh language from scratch and find innovative ways to communicate. Often this was done through food, sharing recipes and foraging together.”
Siân holidayed there several times and stayed in Pieve di Soligo when living and working in Italy. Today she is fluent in Italian and French.
If successful, Siân hopes Filò will be translated into Italian. She has already started conversations with a professional literary translator who she encountered during one of her visits.
The Welsh language edition, published by Gwasg Gomer, was officially unveiled at yr Hwb, Bala, (29 February, 4 p.m.) and is available in bookshops (from March 1).
Siân will also be talking about it at follow up events including at Cardiff Central Library on March 19 at 5.45pm, Cant a Mil in Cardiff on March 21 at 2.30 pm. at Dylanwad, Dolgellau, on April 11, Llandeilo Festival on 25th April and Caernarfon Food Festival on the 9th of May.
After some years dividing her time between France and Wales, new mum Siân and her baby son, Ewen, are living back home in Bala.
But despite becoming a mum for the first time, she is as busy as ever and already hard at work on her third novel, A’r Ddaear ar Ddim, a follow-up to Filò.
“It will develop the story further, and particularly from the women’s perspective,” she said.
In addition, she works extensively on collaborations with Indian poets and, as an accomplished yoga instructor, is undertaking a doctoral research on the use of yoga to boost creativity and improve writing skills.
On April 18 she is running a Welsh language day course at Tŷ Newydd Writing Centre, Criccieth, on writing and foraging. For details of this course visit: www.tynewydd.wales/course/welsh-language-day-course-writing-about-food-and-wildlife