Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Rescued from the Ragman

Einaudi, 2009

L’ultimo fronte (“The Last Front”) is Nuto Revelli’s presentation and selection of letters sent by Italian soldiers who didn’t return from the war. In his introduction to a revised edition of the book, he notes that many of the collections of letters he obtained, most sent by alpini serving in the Soviet Union to farm families in the province of Cuneo, happened to be missing the final letters—that is, those posted around Christmas and New Year’s of 1943, just before the Soviets broke through the Axis lines on the Don and put an effective end to the Italian military postal service. But it is perhaps better to let Revelli tell the tale of these missing letters himself:

It has been twenty years since L’ultimo fronte was first published, and yet, for many people, this book is still living and topical. Just as well that, after the research for La strada del davai, I didn’t say, “Enough about the war.” It was gathering the 200 collections of letters for L’ultimo fronte that I entered the peasant world. Without that precious experience, I would never have written either Il mondo dei vinti or L’anello forte.
In the introduction to the 1970 edition, I assert that, covering the length and breadth of my province, going from one house to the next, I collected 6,000 letters—that is, 80 complete and 120 incomplete collections. I then mention 4,000 other letters, those from “Presenti alle Bandiere,” [a fund that made monetary allocations to the family members of the fallen or missing in action in the Second World War], letters acquired, when they had already been sent off to be pulped, in an altogether unexpected fashion. What I don’t say is that I got them from a Cuneo ragman. I had kept this unsettling detail to myself, because I had thought it would humiliate and offend the family members of the dead and the missing. But I realized, as a member of the “Lvov Commission,” that history is still being abused, and I mean to censor myself no longer, come what may.
Bureaucracy is really an awful monstrosity. Lord only knows who the bureaucrat from Rome who forced all of the families of the dead and the missing to go without their last letters was! This was the blackmail: “Show, by submitting your last letter, that your family member was on a battlefront rather than at home or it will not be possible to create an official file that will enable you to receive a monthly allocation equal to the pay or the salary received by the dead or missing combatant.”
It had taken me a while to realize the last letters were missing. I acquired the collections of letters, photocopied them, then saw about returning the originals—I put a lot into this work. I didn’t have the time to take a close look at the documentation I was acquiring day after day.
I noticed something wasn’t right only when I began the second phase of my work. Comparing the collections of letters from the Eastern Front, I noticed that almost all of them came to an end too soon, around mid-December. And the letters from Christmas and New Year’s? The military postal service of the Alpino Army Corps, and thus of the Cuneense Division, had been operational until early January 1943!
I thought that the family members had withheld the last letters, the most precious ones, and I sought confirmation. But all were sure they had given me every single one of the letters. Then, a woman from Malandrè, in Robilante, remembered she might have had to give the last letter to the police. Another woman told me she might have had to turn it over to city hall. “Could they have ended up at the recruiting office?” I wondered, even though such a destination seemed to me not only highly unlikely but also senseless.
So I turned to Lieutenant Colonel Enzo Chiorando, my close friend, who, after a brief inquiry, located the sixteen sacks containing all of the paperwork for the “Presenti alle Bandiere” in an attic of the military recruiting office. Enclosed with each file was the last letter!
How to deal with the problem? Enzo suggested that I go the official route:
“Ask the recruiting office to return the last letter to all of the families that gave you collections of letters. If your request is turned down, we’ll see what we can do to get around the obstacles.”
My request was turned down:
“These are confidential, untouchable documents meant for the archives in Rome,” I was told.
I took my work up again, but my obsession was to be able to add the last letters to my collections of letters. Enzo went on setting my mind at ease:
“Don’t worry,” he would tell me. “I’m keeping an eye on those letters. We’ll solve the problem sooner or later, you’ll see.”
He calls me one morning:
“Nuto, I have bad news for you. I was on holiday—”
“I know what you’re going to say. Where did the letters end up?”
“They’ve been sent to be pulped. A group of alpini on fatigues showed up to clear out the attic and threw everything onto a truck. That’s all I can tell you.”
I made it at a run to a nearby paper mill, where I was told they bought paper sorted by type and color, not mixed. I had to turn to the ragpickers. I found them, finally, the sixteen sacks, in Cuneo, in the warehouse of the first ragman I turned to. They were still intact. The negotiations went on a long time, as complications and fears emerged. Finally, I closed the deal. Those 4,000 “Presenti alle Bandiere” files didn’t cost me much: 25,000 lire in all.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Murder on Via Belpoggio

Giorgio, an out-of-work porter who has just robbed and killed an acquaintance, finds the consequences of his misdeed hard to bear. It's not that he is racked by remorse for having killed, no, not Giorgio; rather, he is terrified to the point of paralysis that, upon his inevitable capture, he will appear as a greedy coward to his fellow townspeople and, above all, to himself. Here he is, then, returning from his mother's house (where he gets the news she has been dead for a week, news that frustrates his plan to get her help in ascribing to his crimes a noble motive--that is, to enable a poor old woman to live out her last years in comfort):
He [had] lost the hope he had cherished so dearly over the last few hours he had ended up clinging to it quite as much as to the hope of not being found out.* It wasn’t grief over the death of his mother that was sending him reeling and clouding his vision. He didn’t see in front of him the now ashen face of the deceased or call to mind the voice he would now never hear again or the gesture so often filled with affection for him. That old lady had died at a bad time, and her death made of him, once again, a contemptible, rapacious murderer. 
Italo Svevo's 1890 tale "The Murder on Via Belpoggio," available here, is the latest translation published as an e-book by Fario.

* Sentence revised in response to the observant comment below!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Dreams of Eça

"Last night I woke up dreaming about Eça de Queirós and lay awake for an hour remembering his novels. I think I remembered them all, even though I read them when I was between fifteen and eighteen. I remembered odd details: for example, that two of them, The Relic and The Illustrious House of Ramires contain in turn other novels, written by the protagonists of the main novels. I remembered the similarities between many of his works and those of Flaubert, whom he admired so much. I remembered his excellent journalistic reports, mainly those from London and from Paris, and the letters of Fadrique Mendes. And his stories, many of them unforgettable, such as 'A Blonde Girl's Eccentricities,' 'The Treasure,' and 'The Deceased Man,' which my father once read to us. And also his lives of the saints, his least good work even though it was his last. This confirms for me the indelible nature of the readings of adolescence and their influence on you. I would have to reread his work now to see if it is as good as it is in my memory. In any case, for me he is still a great novelist, unfairly forgotten. I don’t think I’ve ever seen his name or one of his books mentioned in a magazine or a literary article in France, and I haven’t seen translations of his books into French, either. Temptation to write a short, remonstrative article about him." 
This entry from Julio Ramón Ribeyro's diary, dated 2 November 1976, has inspired the publication of Fario's latest translation, of Eça de Queirós's brief tale "O tesouro."

One would also quite like to publish a translation of Ribeyro's excellent diary. His work, alas, unlike Eça's, is not yet in the public domain. And when it is (in another fifty years, perhaps) one is not much more likely to be in a position to publish it than the three rancid brothers of "The Treasure" are to make safely off with the chest full of doubloons they chance upon in a cave in the forest of Roquelanes.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Don't Talk to Me about the Weather

Italo Svevo
The latest ebook published by Fario is a recent translation of work by Italo Svevo. Two Plays includes An Unpublished Play, in which Elena ("My husband exists only insofar as he bores me") bemoans her broker husband's plan for their move to Venice, and Before the Ball, the entire text of which appears below.

Before the Ball
CLARA (towards the entrance). Yes, Mother, I will be modest, I won’t make a fuss, I’ll say I like everyone and everything, and I won’t dance a lot. (Towards the audience.) At boarding school people said I was a good daughter, and as such when mother tells me to do something it’s my duty to listen and to promise to obey. That way, she sleeps easy here, and I dance with a clean conscience there. It’s just my second ball, but our experiences are so different we don’t understand each other anymore. She has been to so many balls… and has never understood anything about them. Unless the balls and the dance partners of her time were different.
(Listening.) The carriage! No! It went by. My aunt, to be chic, is in the habit of turning up late at balls, and because of this idea from the old days or from fools of the present day, you miss the real dancers, who, to tell the truth, are fairly rare.
I was so modest and respectful at the other ball I got bored. I didn’t have any great hopes for it, and even before I was laughing at the naivety of my mother, who was describing, in her way, the good time I was going to have. But I was surprised by the reality. The men don’t know how to woo or don’t want to; they go to balls to escort their sister or their sister-in-law or maybe their wife or they get dragged along by a friend who has a sister or a sister-in-law or a wife there. They are never dragged along by a desire of their own. Put them in front of a modest and quiet young girl and they will ask for nothing better. They’ll leave her in a corner and go about their business.
And it’s not just my experiences that make me think this way, even though they alone would also be enough. I watched how the girls people say are the most pursued get treated. They have a lot of men around them, but the men seem more eager to be wooed than to woo. Finelli, for example, one of the girls people mention most often. She said to an old woman who was beside me that she had no preference and that she was indifferent to all of them, and since her tone was angry I believed her. The ways she must be wooed! I bet a quick look from my literature teacher at school is worth more. It’s true that Finelli is very stupid, or so they say, but there aren’t any other girls to pay court to. Ah, yes, that corn-colored blonde whose name I don’t remember has a reputation for being stupid, too, and so does that other girl whose figure, a real broomstick, people admire. Because modern men, when they finally reveal their preferences, reveal at the same time a certain taste. Signor Mastroni was praising all three of them to me, and I interrupted his enthusiastic words to say: “Yes, she dresses well, very well.” Then I said I liked the Finelli girl’s nose, an odd nose that guards her mouth, the broomstick’s prominent ears, and the other girl’s forehead, because, covered as it as by a disheveled mass of hair she tries in vain to get into people’s eyes, at least you can’t see it. (Touching her head.) It’s not as if you need that much hair when it’s the desired color.
For a first ball, and bearing the burden of mother’s advice, it wasn’t too bad.
As for me, I have the consolation of not being wooed either well or badly. Here is my dance card from the other ball; poor little skeleton! Two empty contra-dances and the others badly penciled in. I want to keep to savor all the more the revenge I will take. (Tries to read the dance card.) An illegible name, my first partner, but an unforgettable person. Yesterday, modestly, but with absolute determination, I snubbed him to keep from having to waste my dancing time with him. Imbecile! He led me to the dance floor without opening his mouth, but smiling as if he were promising very witty things. During the first figure, he said to me: “Are you enjoying yourself?” Then he went quiet for half an hour. Then he said to me: “This is the first quadrille.” And again he went lost in thought. And, finally, just before taking leave of me, still smiling wittily, he said to me: “I really like dancing.” And I thought: “You wouldn’t know it.” There was nothing to say, but my mouth was still tired from the long period of inactivity.
(Reading.) Rialti. Another person to avoid. Before he had even taken my hand as a token of having made my acquaintance, he started complaining, yes, complaining, and in such a whiney voice it was awful to listen to him. He complained about his management for one reason and about his partners for another, and then about the color of the room, and that the company was better in the arcade than in the ballroom and that the reading room wasn’t located by the other entrance and that the girls were engaged a month beforehand…
“A pity I can’t change all that,” I burst out.
It didn’t do any good. Shortly afterwards, he started whining about excessive luxury and about how people nowadays no longer know how to dance or be witty. It was a lancers… a real torture.
The others (looking at the dance card), neither good nor bad. A little wit, a lot of presumptuousness, and when they know something they try to bury the poor girl who has been entrusted to them under it.
But Mastroni—oh!—the most hateful of them all. He gets introduced to me at the start of the ball by a director who later tells me he had been asked explicitly for the introduction.
“Good start,” I said to myself, “it’s one at least.”
Deceiver! The unspeakable tedium of the first hours is lessened by the surprise of not seeing signor Mastroni turn up anymore. Did he perhaps dislike my voice? It would be another sign of the impoverished taste of the times. No! After dinner, I see him, in a corner of the room, putting on his gloves, looking at himself in the mirror, and then making a move. I couldn’t tell which person he was moving towards, because I was watching him in a mirror, and descriptive geometry has never been a strength of mine. All at once I see him in front of me, and only then do I understand: before dinner, he hadn’t had the courage, and to muster it up he had needed a glass of Marsala. There was no reason to bear a grudge against him. On the contrary!
I respond kindly to his greeting:
“Are you enjoying yourself, Miss?”
“Not with any help from you, you bumpkin,” I thought, saying to him instead: “Yes, very much.”
“I’m not,” he said sincerely. “I don’t like dancing.”
“Then don’t come,” I think, and I say, looking at him with interest, because you could tell it was what he wanted: “Ah!”
“I dance reluctantly; if you allow me to keep you company for a bit, the ball will take on a different aspect for me.”
“Here’s a fellow who’s about to offer me his hand,” I thought.
And I looked desperately around in search of a friend from whom I could get information about that gentleman’s station. Instead, and even though he had seen one free on my dance card, he didn’t even ask me for a contra-dance.
That gentlemen was a good talker, but he wasn’t fooling me. You need only to have read a novel or two by Kock to be a good talker at a ball. He told me that he regretted deeply being unable to have a good time, but that it wasn’t his fault.
“I am of my time, which is serious,” he told me, which meant: “My brain is too developed for me to be able to have a good time, and you who dance are fools.”
This evening, if he says the same things to me, I will say frankly to him:
“Let people who are cut out for studies alone stick to studying; it’s a pity for their studies if they leave them.”
And modesty with these people? Let them bore you that way? We’ll see how it goes tonight. Even people who aren’t expecting them will get some insolent remarks. If anyone talks to me about the weather, for example, I’ll say: “It’s my second ball, and I already know everything there is to know about winter weather. Wait for summer and we’ll talk about it again.” We’ll try that method.
The problem is that my dance card is still empty, except for the first quadrille, which I have to dance with an old friend of father’s. These old men! I’d sooner not dance at all: dancing with old men, I run the risk of becoming too respectable. If only I could get rid of it…
Here’s the carriage. I’m coming! (Remains lost in thought.) That’s enough! If I find a nice young man right away, I’ll leave father’s friend in the lurch. Heaven knows! Maybe a duel will come out of it. A pity if the old man turns out not to be too willing to risk his hide. I get the shivers when I think he may be dancing for his health.
  Original title: Prima del ballo

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Pisco in the Dunes

Julio Ramón Ribeyro himself suggested that he drank little other than Bordeaux, but his story "La casa en la playa" is remarkable for, among other things, its celebration of a particular pisco.

In the story, Ribeyro's narrator and his friend Ernesto take several trips south of Lima in search of a deserted beach ideal for a small house. An excerpt from the account of their third trip, no more successful than the first two, is included below:
Laguna de Huacachina (Ica), Peru

From "La casa en la playa"

I will say beforehand that this third excursion was also a failure and so break all the rules about creating suspense in a story. But this time the failure had nothing to do with the difficulty of finding deserted beaches. It was simply because of the demijohn. 
Everything had begun promisingly. Our two young friends Carol and Judith were going with us. We also had the good luck to be able to stay for three days at the Pesca Peru club, a small resort close to the Hotel Paracas reserved for the executives of the company. The club was nice: a dozen bungalows, a pool, a sauna, a ball court, lounges, a dining room, and the entire staff at our service. Since we were there during the week, we had the place to ourselves. 
We liked the place so much we spent the whole first day swimming in the pool and savoring the excellent dishes prepared for us by the Japanese cook. Our plan was to take Ernesto's truck and head out the next day for beaches south of Ocucaje--the theater of our last expedition--this time without either guide or recommendations, just playing it by ear. 
At dusk we decided to go to the Hotel Paracas for a change of scenery and some pisco sours. That was when the demijohn first showed up, not in its real form, glassy and cylindrical, but in the person of Don Felipe Otárola, who could be called cylindrical but not glassy and in any case was a reputed local grape grower. He was an old friend of Ernesto's; he sat down at our little table and invited us to spend the next day at his small Ica vineyard, the only thing left to him after the land reform. Ernesto tried to explain to him that we were in Ica only for three days and only to find a deserted beach, but Otárola was unbending and ordered us to come by his farm at ten in the morning. Then he would leave us free to go on with a search that, in his view, was completely idiotic. 
Carol and Judith couldn't care less about enology and they refused to go visit Otárola's vineyard the next day, choosing instead to stay at the club sunbathing by the pool in thong bikinis. So Ernesto and I had to face that engagement alone and stoically cross the fiery, hundred-kilometer plateau between Paracas and Ica. Sweltering, we arrived at Otárola's house close to noon. And we still had to visit the vineyard! Otárola led us down a dry and dusty road through the outskirts of the city until he stopped in front of a gate in a long adobe wall. We went though the gate and found ourselves in the vineyard: barely five or ten hectares but very well cared for. Lined up along irrigation furrows, the vines grew as high as a meter and a half and were supported by stakes and protected by cane arbors overgrown with intertwining vine shoots. The grape bunches weren't ripe yet. Ernesto and I thought the visit would be limited to contemplating the vineyard from the entrance and listening to a few comments from our host. But grape growers are fanatics, single-minded men with violent passions, so Otárola didn't just give us a panoramic view of his vineyard; instead, he had us tour it furrow by furrow, vine by vine, bent over on account of the low cane covering, suffocating in the heat, breathing dust, and listening to technical explanations that our desperation prevented us from understanding. When we got out of the place, Ernesto and I were hunchbacked and exhausted, but Otárola was proud of his demonstration. 
There had to be some recompense for that torture. Back at Otárola's house, dying of hunger and thirst (Carol and Judith were waiting for us at the club to eat lunch), our host offered us a farewell pisco sour. Yet another delay! But not in vain: the pisco sour he put in front of us in big glasses seemed to be a gift from the gods. Not only did it banish our hunger and thirst, it also endowed us with uncontainable happiness. We asked for another one and yet another, but the third one was denied us. Otárola was a responsible man. We had to drive back to Paracas and it was better to do so sober. It was finally time to go.
"The wine I make isn't that great," Otárola told us frankly, "but my pisco, the pisco I make for my own use, has no match here or anywhere else in the world."
Next thing, he went to the kitchen and came back with a big bottle that must have had ten liters of pisco in it.
"Here you have it. So you can take it to Lima or Paris and remember this poor farmer."
The demijohn!
From then on the afternoon devolved into the absurd. Carol and Judith were still sunbathing by the pool, but angry with us for being late. To mollify them we showed them the bottle as if it were a trophy and asked the Japanese cook and bartender to prepare us a pisco sour before lunch, which, according to the reproaches of our girlfriends, had been ready for more than an hour. But the pisco sour was so good that we had another one and just after that the four of us were in the pool, euphoric, splashing around and shouting, while the Asian kept bringing us new rounds of his concoction and reminding us, without our paying any attention to him, that the cebiche was getting warm and the rice with duck was getting cold. Only as the afternoon went on did we recover a bit of lucidity and realize: 
Primo: we hadn't eaten lunch. 
Secondo: for the second day in a row we had put off the excursion that was the object of our trip.
After showering we ate quickly and decided to set out for the deserted beach, even if it meant spending the night in unfamiliar terrain. We threw some food and other things into the truck, among them, very well-corked, the demijohn. 
We had barely gone twenty kilometers when it got dark and we started to wonder where exactly it was we were going. We were at a crossroads: the Panamericana heading to Ica and another road that presumably went to some cove. To decide which way to go, we uncorked the pisco and drank straight from the bottle, helping each other to lift it, so heavy it was. Straight like that, without any ornament, that pisco was heavenly dew, thick nectar that filled our mouths with fragrant warmth and the taste of mythical vineyards, to the point that we almost saw Bacchus drinking and Silenus dancing. 
"That way," said Ernesto. And he turned onto the secondary road that, as we noticed a few kilometers on down, led not to the ocean but into the sand dunes. And what dunes! On that moonless night, they undulated endlessly under the light of nothing but the stars. A low voice seemed to be coming from the dark plain. A bit farther on we yielded to its summons and agreed that we should get out of the truck and brave the inhospitable dunes on foot. Ernesto parked the truck on the side of the road and we headed into the darkness, the demijohn our only provision. 
The sand was warm in spite of the hour, and our feet sank noiselessly into the softness. We went on very close together, following the lay of the land, dips and rises, all of it under the soft light of the stars. But as we went forward (halting regularly to take swallows from the bottle, which Ernesto was carrying), we began to feel an intoxication that, more than from the alcohol, was coming from the powerful spell cast by the desert. We were walking faster and faster, farther and farther apart, as if absorbed by an unseen force, until at last we broke into a run and our group split up. Ernesto and Carol disappeared in one direction and I found myself alone with Judith under the immense dome of the sky. 
"Wait," I told her, before she disappeared like the others, and grabbing her by the hand we stood still listening to the silence. 
What a marvelous sensation! I felt Judith's heart beating in my hand and in unison with us the distant pulse of the sidereal world. The two of us sat down on the sand and then lay face up looking at the sky in astonishment. At that late hour the spaces between stars, planets, and constellations had been filled in with more and more lights so close to each other that they formed a milky blur and at last the sky turned into one sparkling silver dome. A sky like that I hadn't seen even on the highest Andean plateaus or on the driest coasts of Almería or North Africa. Now I understood, only now, why the ancient inhabitants of these bone-dry, cloudless plains were bound so closely to the stars and learned so much from that window that opened every night onto infinite space. Astronomers, prophets, potters, weavers, farmers, fishermen, builders of roads, temples, and cities were for centuries educated in the school of the cosmos. 
Judith and I, still holding hands, merged into the desert and the night and became fused to the heavenly bodies blinking in the silvery sky; we were in a state of exaltation that disembodied us and melted us into the immensity of the universe. And we would have stayed that way if it hadn't been for the distant cries we heard. 
". . . to!"  
". . . ol!" 
It was Ernesto and Carol looking for each other in the desert. We stood up right away to go look for them and set off running over the rolling plain, but as we chased those voices we too ended up losing each other. Each one of us was running around shouting for somebody else. I went backwards and forwards or ran in circles, guided by a shout and distracted by another in a space that was neither dark nor light but bathed in phantasmagoric light. I realized then that I didn't have to shout the whole name, just the last syllable, it was louder that way and took less effort. And the others must have made the same discovery: 
". . . it!" 
". . . to!" 
". . . ol!"  
". . . lio!" 
At last I heard a "to" next to me and I ran into Carol.  
"I've been looking for Ernesto for hours," she said. "Where in the world were you? Let's stay together, please." 
We kept going into the darkness, guided by Ernesto's and Judith's shouts, which resounded anxiously from separate, distant points. In that soft light and on that uniform terrain it was impossible to get oriented. At last, after countless twists and turns we ran into Judith. Only Ernesto was missing. The three of us, not straying too far apart this time, shouting each other's names to indicate our position, tracked the plain, and when we came around a dune we spotted Ernesto standing on top of a small rise and gazing at the sky, his arms raised. 
"Damn!" he said when he saw us. "I was just about to blast off for the Milky Way!" 
We were tired, excited, but happy to be reunited. Now it was a matter of finding the road where we had left the truck. The only information our poor knowledge of astronomy could give us was the Southern Cross, which was shining triumphantly in the stellar map. We followed its orders and fifteen minutes later made it to the road; then, walking along the road, we made it to the truck. Ernesto turned on the headlights and we saw a marker indicating kilometer thirty-three. Only when we started back for the club did we realize we had forgotten something in the desert: the demijohn.
The demijohn is eventually recovered, of course, but the story of the recovery is perhaps for another day.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Nuto Revell, on the Davai Road Again

In La strada del davai (Einaudi, 1966), Nuto Revelli, himself a veteran of the retreat from the Don in January 1943, speaks to more than two dozen former Italian prisoners of war in the Soviet Union. These PoWs were held in the Soviet Union until after the end of the war and thus did not experience the partisan warfare, following Marshal Badoglio's September 8, 1943, radio announcement of Italy's surrender to the Allies, of northern and central Italy. The partisans, of course, were held up as heroes after the war. The survivors of captivity in Russia were all but forgotten.

As Revelli notes in his preface to the book, it is the raw fury of one of these forgotten men, the madman "Mauthausen," that prompts his realization that the war has not left his blood, that he, a former officer, has a debt to pay to the men who did not return from Russia and to those who returned broken.
Contrada Mondovì in Cuneo, Italy--Photo: G. F. Fanti
It was “Mauthausen”—a poor madman I met by chance—who stirred up this tangle of resentments of mine, of repressed rage, of fanciful meditations, of disappointments, of defeats. “Mauthausen,” in telling me of his war, spoke a true language, intact, not worn out by time. His memories of the war were my memories of the war. But less filtered, less reworked, sparer, more authentic. “Mauthausen” was a madman, one of the many wrecks of war discharged only in appearance. But war is madness, and every one of “Mauthausen’s” curses, every one of his shouts, was a sacrosanct truth. As “Mauthausen” hurled oaths I relived my nights in the open, I experienced the forty degrees below zero again, the collective madness, the crying colonels, the obsessive shout “fire… fire,” the abandoned wounded, the gangrene, the snow, so much snow and so many dead. It was the complete chapter of the retreat from Russia reemerging from my poorly healed wounds. Listening to “Mauthausen,” I realized my war was still in my blood, like a cancer; I realized I had a large debt to pay.

I sought a dialogue; I approached my first witness, Mattio, along the mule tracks that connect the stunted Bosco dell’Impero and the ancient world of Tetto Giordano and Tetto Cannone upstream from Roccasparvera. Then, still in the area of the Bosco dell’Impero I met Renaldi, a wise and self-assured farmer from Vignolo. Renaldi was raking leaves… Renaldo and I talked about this and that, about his people, about the poverty of the mountains. I spoke about the Second World War and about the dangers of a third world war. We’re all generals! The army is the only branch of the state that the citizen gets to know through and through. The soldiers of my generation know a lot about it. After eight or ten years of military life, after years of war, they still remember everything about the army. They speak, in almost technical language, about weapons, tactics, maneuvers, organization, and disorganization. They speak above all about defeats, about retreats! Renaldi agreed to arrange meetings for me with some of the Russia veterans around Vignolo. Antonio Nova, Giuseppe Giraudo, Dalmazzo Giraudo, Andrea Serale… They were almost clandestine meetings, in houses, in barns. I wanted my witnesses to speak as free men, in a peaceful environment, in an environment far from that of the claims staked by the usual combat, confessional, and political imperatives. 

There were bounds—the retreat and captivity in Russia—to my particular interest. Recording was impossible; it intimidated the witnesses. The best thing was to take shorthand. To prepare the witnesses, I had asked them to tell me everything from the start, from their first day of military life. The first part of the stories would be a warm up, talk I wouldn’t use. 

With total rigor, as if I were gathering evidence, I wrote everything down, noting even the emotions of my interlocutors, their long silences, their fits of weeping, their moments of abandon. But soon enough I realized the whole stories of the witnesses fascinated me, not just the war in Russia.

The bibliography on the Second World War includes hundreds of diaries, stories, and memoirs. But, as always, it’s the so-called men of letters who have written for the humble, for the unlettered. Our generals have written dozens of memoirs, often full of wretched belated accusations, often dry like the outlines of maneuvers in formation. Missing was the peasant’s war, the mountain dweller’s, the laborer’s, the poor tubercular, malarial, nephritic fellow’s, the never-ending war. My ultimate aim was but one: for the soldier finally to “write” his war, too.

With research devoid of set plans, entrusted to chance, to whatever turned up, I thought I could get a large enough sample of experiences.

“Mauthausen” curses the war, the country, everything. He doesn’t talk; he shouts. “How many gold medals does the Julia have?” he shouts. “Tell me how many gold medals the Julia has.” He shouts and cries. “They say I’m crazy. Was I crazy when I went off to be a soldier? If I was crazy why did they say I was fit?”

“He’s a pain in the ass,” the bien-pensants say of him, “he’s just acting crazy.”

Pinu d’ Rússia has war on the brain, too. He lives like a stray dog, telling his stories full of madness. After the war he was committed for two years to the asylum for the criminally insane in Aversa. The few people who still listen to him say: “He can thank Mussolini!”

Mattio is raking leaves; his hill is a wilderness, a mountain. His life is all here:

“Eighty months of military service, France, Albania, Russia. I started when I was twenty and finished when I was thirty. By the time I was six I was out of school; I was earning my bread: if you’re a jackass, you live like an ass. I carry everything on my back just like a beast of burden. But if you have some schooling you don’t work this way. A wretched life. There’s no water here, there’s no electricity, no roads. We’re godforsaken. When the tax bill comes we pay our pittance. In the summer, I take care of the land; in the other seasons I go down and do day labor here and there, but I can’t work out anything permanent. The old proverb is right: ‘A rolling stone gathers no moss.’ But I have no way out. A ciabot [small farm] on the plain would give me enough to live on, but I don’t have the guts to rent one. I’d like a steady job in a factory, but how to find one? I’m almost fifty, I have five mouths to feed, and it’s late.”

Marro works a small ciabot just outside Cuneo. He’s tired, sick, old, a specter in the raging economic miracle. “We’ve been forgotten,” he says to me, “not even a plaque in Passatore in memory of our eighteen dead. Let there not ever be any more wars. Even now I often dream and suffer: I dream I’m a prisoner of the Russians.”

Arlotto manages a gas station. He’s tired, sick with gloom. He has never told his story, not even to his father, who fought in the First World War.

Sasso left the countryside after ten years of working like a dog. He’s sick; his liver is killing him; he stands up by force of will. He helps his wife in a bar on the outskirts of town. “I would have liked to write my story,” he says to me, “the story of the stupid and horrible war. I’d like to write; I’d like to thank the people in Russia who helped me. But I keep putting it off…”

Beltramo is a farmer. He doesn’t have the strength to work the land. “I weighed eighty-three kilos when I left for the Eastern Front. In June 1944, in Siberia, I was down to forty-eight kilos. The camp doctors often weighed us; they said if we lost more than half our normal weight we wouldn’t survive. Today I barely manage to get up to sixty-six kilos, and I’m always tired, tired like an old man.”

Galaverna, a former laborer, caught TB in Russia. His house looks like an izba. He’s on a war pension.

Antonio Nova works for a contractor cutting and tying rebar. A life of poverty, picking up crumbs from the building boom. “I’m almost done for,” he says to me, “no strength, a wreck. With my children still young.”

Viale, once a farmer, runs a village tobacco shop. Like all the former prisoners from Russia, he’s sick, and it’s his first time talking, telling his story: “Our fathers never stopped talking about the First World War. Even now they talk about it with each other, they bring it up again, they tell stories. For me, for us, it’s completely different. I’ve never told anyone my story; you suffer again when you tell it. And whoever hasn’t gone through that experience can’t understand it, can’t believe it.”

Giuseppe Castellino, farmer, Western Front, Albania, captivity in Russia, has gone through intimidating amounts of agony and injustice. He’s more dead than alive, hollowed out by fevers and by struggles. But when he recalls the heroic Major Annoni he comes to life again, lights up. Castellino has the right to ten war pensions; he has his papers in order. But the bureaucracy for war pensions is a monster: no small number of the workings of our bureaucratic machine are worse than epidemic typhus. Twenty years later Castellino is still waiting, setting store by the “judges,” the “gurus from Rome.”

Giordano, a mountain dweller, lives in the Upper Grana Valley: “Our land is poor; we’re cut off from the world. I have small children and I don’t have the courage to go down to the plain. It’s just as well a lot of people were smart and ran off to the plain. The best-looking young man, if he wants to live in the mountains, won’t find anybody to marry. The girls go down to work and they get married there so they don’t have to come back to the mountains. In my village there’s a church, but it doesn’t have a priest.”

Giuseppe Giraudo, born in 1916, laborer, the Western Front, Albania, Russia, and a lot of wretchedness, had a “tired” heart and no war pension. He died in 1962.

Giovan Battista Dutto is a day laborer: in addition, he helps his wife work five acres of tenanted land. “I gave the country ten years,” he says to me. “I have four small children to raise. I need five kilos of bread a day. Because of my malaria, two or three times a year I shake like a leaf and my spleen gets this big, like two fists. I asked for a pension, but I never got anything. This morning I got the ballot for the next elections and I said to myself: ‘May God never send any more wars.’”
This is the world that inflames me and dismays me.
They knew nothing of fascism. In the easy days they weren’t members of the fascist youth: they lived free, far from the great national happenings. They didn’t even have the black shirt: at most, they could come up with a few set phrases, Mussolini’s miracles, and nothing else.

They became a mob on only one occasion, when, drafted, they went to “draw their number.” Then, like bands of rebels, they descended on the city with their accordions and clarinets. Under cover of the colors of the annual contingent everything was permitted. They sang, danced, drank. Shy as they were, they often went too far: young girls had to give them a wide berth. They sang the anti-militaristic songs of their elders. Their favorite refrain, “col vigliac d’la testa plà, l’ha fame abil a fé ’l suldà,” [That bald-headed coward declared me fit for service] they shouted twenty times, in anger, in defiance, even though they had asked to be Alpini. If you weren’t an Alpino, you were at best a reject.

All of them, the survivors of captivity in Russia, are exceptional men. It wasn’t just luck that helped them survive: they have antennae at their disposal; they have rare virtues.

Today, as they did before the great ordeal, they live on the margins of society, detached from the environment around them. They all bear a deep, hidden mark. They are sick, tired, old, falling to pieces. They all had the right to a pension, but the war pensions bureaucracy is an impassable wall: only the shrewd, the cunning, can get around it.

They tell their stories and they suffer. It’s the first time they tell all or almost all. As they talk they yield; they weep.
Castelmagno, alta valle Grana, province of Cuneo, Italy--photo: M. Plassio

In village houses, on farms, when the wife and children are listening, the story is less cruel, more humane. In taverns they don’t want witnesses; outsiders can’t understand; they can’t believe. Hardly any of them have ever read a book on the war. They don’t curse. They don’t hide the truth; only victory is embellished. They say terrible things, shocking things, with the simplicity of someone who is reencountering the past intact. They are ingenuous, resigned, today as much as then.

The war in Ethiopia, the Western Front, and the campaign in Greece are engraved in their memories. But when they relive the retreat from Russia, when they relive captivity in Russia, they go into a trance. Their faces go tense, their hands shake, madness resurfaces in their astonished gazes. It’s cruelty to urge them to tell their stories, to make them talk.

They talk about Albania, about Greece, Yugoslavia, Austria, Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Siberia, Mongolia. And then they may not even know where Russia is on the map. Some of the witnesses ask me who those civilians—the Jews—were who marked the long route of the troop trains heading toward the Eastern Front!

They don’t know the war against the Soviet Union was a total war. They don’t know that Hitler’s “new order” was our plan, that three million Soviet prisoners were killed or made to die of hunger and exhaustion, that millions of Russian civilians were deported to Germany. They don’t know that in the Soviet rear the population was starving to death; they don’t know that the lunacy of Hitler and Mussolini cost twenty million Russians their lives, that six million Jews died in the gas chambers, in the ovens, in the Nazi death camps.

September 8 doesn’t belong to their past; they are mutilated. Not having seen “Badoglio’s mess,” they can’t believe it; not bearing the marks of that anguish, they can’t understand; not having chosen then, they didn’t choose later.

Our struggle for liberation—a war of volunteers, of the people, of rebels—is incomprehensible to the survivors of captivity: they consider it an insignificant chapter of the war. In Cuneo and the valleys quite a few families lost one son in Russia and another in the partisan war. But the partisans, in the talk of the former prisoners, are the phony heroes of an easy war, of a phony war, phony because it was fought at home.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Like So Many, Like You Yourself

La tentación del fracaso, the published diary of the Peruvian Julio Ramón Ribeyro, comes to an abrupt end in 1978, even though Ribeyro apparently went on keeping the diary until his death in 1994. According to his estate, the unpublished pages are kept in a safety-deposit box in a bank in Paris and will be released, as a "reward," only to a publisher that undertakes to bring out all of Ribeyro's work. Until that unlikely day, then, readers eager for more of Ribeyro's diary must settle for three entries that appeared in an anthology of Ribeyro's work published by Fondo de Cultura Económica. One of these entries, an account of a visit to Bordeaux, is translated into English below:
Bordeaux (Pessac)
Paris, 19 November 1981

It’s my fate always to end up in the most awkward, foolish, and ridiculous situations. Of all the invitations I’ve received lately (Madrid, Antwerp, Belgrade, Grenoble) I finally accepted one from the University of Bordeaux. And it’s the only one I shouldn’t have accepted, because everything, or nearly everything, was deplorable. To start, when I got off the train, it wasn’t the professor who had invited me who was waiting for me, but a short little student who didn’t know me and whom I spotted in the crowd by sheer chance, since she was holding up a sheet of paper saying RIBEYRO. She had me get in an ancient car and drove me to the university campus, telling me the professors from the Latin American section were waiting there to take me to the auditorium where I was supposed to give my talk. But nobody was waiting for me, so the girl took me to a kind of university cafeteria, where there were twenty or so students drinking and chatting, and she left me after saying something like “this is the Peruvian writer who’s going to give a talk.” The students looked up, glanced at me, and went on chatting. I stayed there not knowing what to do, my briefcase in one hand and the folder with my talk in the other. Now and then the students turned their gaze my way and gave me another look, with a mix of curiosity, surprise, suspicion, and irony. Finally, the professor who had invited me (an exiled Chilean) showed up, apologized—he had been teaching a class—and showed me a cardboard box sitting on a table. “Your books,” he said to me. “We ordered them from Gallimard. So you can give the buyers a dedication.” Since it was already one o’clock, he raised his voice: “Let’s go to the auditorium; it’s time for the talk.” Nobody moved from his seat, so he added: “Are you coming or not?” Some ten students got up and headed for the auditorium. On the way, another ten or so students who were in the hall joined them, and we went into a big room with stepped desks and chairs, as in an amphitheater. On the dais or stage were only a table and chair. No microphone, ashtray, or pitcher of water. The twenty or so students took their seats, but widely spread out rather than near each other, which heightened the impression of emptiness. “Let’s wait a while and see if more people come.” I sat there in front of the people, then, but without doing anything; we were silent, looking at each other, waiting for the metteur en scène to come back. I finally decided to light a cigarette and look over my notes. The professor, who had managed to recruit three or four more students, finally came back, introduced me, and I began my talk. I said what I had to say without much eagerness or enthusiasm, and I finished at just the right time, because it was already two in the afternoon, I hadn’t eaten, and my stomach was bothering me. Moderate applause, scattering of the students, disappearance of the professor, who told me to wait five minutes for him, and once again alone in a hall at the university, dying of hunger and not knowing what to do. Luckily, a French Peruvianist who knew me and had read my books happened by and took me to his office while we waited for the Chilean. It took him an hour to come (I think he had gone to teach another class) and he told me he would take me to eat lunch. It was already half past three in the afternoon. I thought we would go to a traditional Bordeaux restaurant, where I could at least indulge in a good local wine, but no, the Chilean was taking me to his house. On the way he stopped at a grocery store. “We’ll have steak and fries,” he said. I went with him to get the food and, on the way, since it looked as if he were going to get an ordinary wine, I begged him to let me offer the wine. Shame on Bordeaux: on the shelves were wines of terrible quality. I got the most expensive one (barely twenty francs) and we went to his place. A twenty-story building in a kind of suburb of Bordeaux. A small apartment. We went into a living room/dining room/kitchen, where his wife was watching television and his children (two years and ten months) were playing on the floor. Huge efforts to swallow the steak (it usually gets stuck in my throat; that’s why I eat only filet), the children were making a hellish racket, I find out that the professor isn’t a professor but what they call a vacataire and is very badly paid and that at six in the evening I have to go to a bookstore to sign my books and at nine at night to a meeting of the Túpac Amaru Association to give another talk. It’s already five in the evening, I’m falling over, the husband and wife disappear, and I end up babysitting the two kids and I worry because I’m afraid they’re going to split their heads open. At six my host reappears (he had been on the phone) and tells me that he has to go teach a class but that the owner of the bookstore will come by to pick me up. He comes by at half past six, has me get in a 2CV, and we head for the center of Bordeaux. We make it to the bookstore, a tiny and wretched den, and there isn’t anybody, apart from three friends of the bookseller, who are there for other reasons. The bookstore is called Dehors (get out) and beneath the sign is a little piece of paper saying “Julio Ramón Ribeyro book signing” in such a way that the whole could be read like this: “Get out, Julio Ramón Ribeyro…” On a table is the huge box with my books. The bookseller and his friends disappear into the back of the shop, from which music is coming. I’m alone and I take a look around the shelves: I realize I’m in a shop for anarchist and trade unionist books: shelves and tables are teeming with books, magazines, pamphlets, and flyers of this sort. What the hell am I doing here, freezing cold, to top it off, since there’s no heating, to the point that I have to put on my coat? Finally, a girl shows up, buys a book, and I sign it for her. By eight at night nobody else has come, except for a few anarchists who talk with the bookseller about something having to do with the passing out of tracts and propaganda. The bookseller decides to close, telling me: “Bordeaux is a dead city. Nothing is going on here. The bourgeoisie isn’t interested in culture.” When I ask him what we’re going to do and where I’m going to sleep, he tells me that we’ll go manger un morceau (grab a bite) before going to the meeting of the Túpac Amaru Association and that I’ll sleep in the house of a friend who lives by the train station, so I won’t have to worry about heading out the next day. We go out the back of the bookstore, where I see a girl putting on records and a series of microphones. “What is this?” I ask. “Our free radio,” he says. We start walking the streets at that cold hour. “We’ll see a bit of old Bordeaux,” my guide tells me. Empty, sinister, dark streets of a gloom that breaks your heart. I want only to go into an old Bordeaux tavern and have a bit of cheese with a good wine. “There aren’t those taverns here,” the bookseller says to me. “Only snack bars where nobody drinks anything but beer.” When I’m about to fall over in despair and anxiety, my guide leads me into a crêperie where, naturally, they serve only crêpes and cider, a drink I can’t stand. With no choice, I eat a bit of crêpe and listen absentmindedly to the bookseller, who is talking to me about local politics, which I know nothing about. When we leave the restaurant, I suggest taking a taxi to the Túpac Amaru Association, but he is against it, saying it’s right nearby. Another walk through even colder streets, empty and ghostly. My guide yells at me about some real estate speculation the mayor Chaban Delmas is mixed up in. We finally make it to the association. It’s a bar, a kind of tiny café-chantant. A bar, eight or ten little tables, and a lit stage with a standing microphone, as if for a singer. Behind the bar is a single person: the Chilean vacataire. As in the bookshop, there’s no heating. I don’t take off my coat. We wait a bit. Nobody comes. The Chilean goes to the phone several times, apparently in search of an audience. I see that the huge box of books, which I saw at the university and then at the Dehors bookshop, is following me, is now in this bar, as full as it was at first. At around half past nine the girl who bought the book up shows up with her mother and father, and they take a seat at one of the little tables. Later, three pretty students turn up and sit at a table on the other side. Then a mestizo comes in with a girlfriend. The bookseller and the Chilean are talking behind the bar, while I pace the floor in a state of utter exhaustion, followed by the gazes of the four cats in attendance, who are not even talking with each other and are just watching me. Since I can’t take it anymore I tell the Chilean we should start. “Of course,” he says to me, and speaking to the four cats he says in French: “The Peruvian writer J. R. R. is going to talk to you now about the contemporary Peruvian novel.” And to me he adds in a whisper: “You have to speak in French; I don’t know these people.” It’s too much for me now. I’m standing up in the middle of a shadowy bar, eight people are at three little tables separated from each other, I don’t know where I’m going to put myself in relation to them (whether on the musicians’ stage, behind the bar, or at a table), and I have to give a talk in French on the Peruvian novel, a topic I already went over at the university! I start by saying I’m not going to give a talk and would they please get closer together so I can sit by them and at least chat. But nobody moves. So I decide to take a seat at a table, too, as far from the others as they are from each other, and I then begin the most absurd performance any man of letters or conference speaker has ever given. I ask for questions, not about literature, because I get the feeling these people don’t know what it is; let them ask me whatever they want to and however they want to, but nobody opens his mouth. They go on looking at me in stupefaction. After a long, long silence, the Chilean makes up his mind and asks me to explain to him why Chile has great poets and Peru doesn’t. I have to explain to him that Peru has had and has great poets, that the Nobel Prizes for the poets Gabriela Mistral and Neruda have a relative value. I mention César Vallejo, César Moro, and Martín Adán, but since I get the feeling he hasn’t heard of them I decide not to bring up Westphalen and the good poets of later generations. Another very long silence ensues. I expect the Chilean professor to go on asking me questions, but my having contradicted him or objected to the relevance of his earlier question has silenced him. Since I don’t know what to do, it occurs to me to ask questions myself and, to say something, I ask why the place is called Túpac Amaru and if anybody knows who Túpac Amaru was. The people look at each other, and finally one of the three pretty girls raises a finger and says: “He was a Peruvian leader.” “A leader, yes,” I say, “but a leader of what?” Neither she nor anybody else can answer. So I talk a bit about Túpac Amaru’s uprising, about his personality, about the meaning of his act as far as its being a precursor of our independence. I interrupt myself because a black guy opens the door to the café-chantant, peers in, and asks if there’s music. “It’s a talk,” says the Chilean. The black guy, without responding, shuts the door and disappears. Enough. I’m not going to go on talking any longer. I tell the Chilean: “I think that’s enough for now. I’m tired.” The audience seizes the chance to take off. Suddenly, I find myself alone with the Chilean (since even the anarchist bookseller has left without a word) in that dark, freezing, sinister bar. “Take me to the hotel, please,” I tell him. “I have to be up early tomorrow.” But my adventure hadn’t ended: “It won’t be a hotel; you’ll be staying at my house.” I picture the drive to the Bordeaux suburb, the couch they will surely give me, the trouble of finding a place to stay, and I sink exhausted into a chair. I remember, besides, that I haven’t been reimbursed for the travel expenses. It’s fine that I don’t get paid anything to give one or two talks, even if I talk to a wall, but let it at least not cost me money to put myself through these ordeals that take everything out of me and give me nothing back. There must be a telepathic channel of communication, because the Chilean asks me how much the ticket cost me. When I tell him the amount and show him the ticket, he starts. I see him dig around the cash register at the bar, count banknotes, reach into his pocket, pull out more banknotes, count again. “Let’s go home,” he says at last. “We’ll sort this out in the morning, before you leave.”

An hour later back on the nineteenth floor of the building. Noblesse oblige. My host makes an effort to coddle me. “Just as well there’s a guest room,” he says to me as he takes me to it, but it’s clear I have been given the master bedroom: because of the big bed, the pictures, the books, the papers, and the personal items I realize it immediately. His wife has whipped up a Spanish omelette and a salad and put out cheeses. There’s a little wine left over from lunch. We talk about his life, his problems. A delightful individual, I tell myself, and, besides, understand him, Julio Ramón: he’s an exile, he can’t go back to his country, his two children were born abroad, he dreams all the time of Chile, he’ll never get used to living in a city in the French provinces, he’s a déraciné like so many, like you yourself, although for other reasons. Appreciate him and thank him. The world is certainly complicated.

Friday, July 8, 2011

A Warm Welcome to Padua for the British Eighth Army

On the Po River
In his book I piccoli maestri, an account of the nearly two years he spent as a partisan (or, for the Germans and the Fascists, a bandit), first on the Asiago Plateau, then in the hills above Vicenza, and finally, as the war wound cruelly down, in Padua, Luigi Meneghello recalls sitting atop a tank and escorting the British Eighth Army into Padua (phrases in italics are in English in the original):
I went in person to welcome the British Eighth Army when it made up its mind to enter Padua. I was on patrol between Santo and Bassanello a little before midnight. Odd scenes were taking place at the roadblocks. All of the passwords were different, and, strictly speaking, we should have been opening fire on each other every thirty meters; only general euphoria, I think, prevented a universal internal massacre. They say euphoria fosters opening fire; but it certainly doesn’t foster good aim.
I had made it past the last roadblock with my detail (Simonetta, with her sub-machine gun, was there, too), and we were walking in the pitch black of the darkened outskirts, on a long, wide road lined by houses and leading south out of Padua. There wasn’t anybody on the road, naturally; we knew the Allies were near, but German units, some yielding, others compact and ferocious, were still going by. This, then, is how a war ends. First, one army leaves, then another one arrives; but this isn’t really the end. The war ends in the minds of the people, in some a little earlier, in others a little later; it’s for this reason that there are still these senseless bursts of fire.
We start hearing the din of large engines coming from down the wide road; it was a compact, intense thing.
“It’s the English,” I say to Simonetta for good luck; and I wondered how likely it was that it was instead the last German column. I decided less than thirty percent.
“Are you sure?” she said.
“Absolutely,” I said.
And she whispered:
“It seems like a dream.”
It did in fact seem literally like a dream. At bottom, we had been waiting for them only two years, but it had seemed long, really long. I have a certain experience of things that seem as if they will never end, and at a certain point you believe they never will end, and then when they end all at once it still seems impossible, and you have the strong impression you’re dreaming.
We were walking in the middle of the road, heading towards the Eighth Army, at least at seventy percent. The noise was getting louder and louder, and we in the middle of the wide road were getting smaller and smaller. You could start to make out, indistinctly, dark shapes of tanks; they were huge. When we were fifty meters away, I stopped the detail; we had two flashlights, and we started signaling. Then Simonetta and I went on a little ways.
How odd life is—the English have come. Welcome. These tanks are our allies. With these great bulges of theirs, with this trim of big hammered-down studs, this clanking, these barrels, they want what we want. Europe is full of these huge allies of ours; how trifling we must look from up on one of those tanks! Packs of ragamuffins; gangs. Bandits. We are still, of course, the most decent thing left in Italy; haven’t foreigners always thought this is a country of bandits?
The first tank stops; on it are an officer and a soldier from the rank and file. I would have liked to say something historic to them.
“Eh, you aren’t Germans, are you?” I said.
Not really,” said the officer.
“Welcome,” I said. “The city is already ours.”
“Can we get on?” said that irresponsible person Simonetta.
But by now the patrol was no longer necessary; you could hear the column piling up behind the first tank for hundreds of meters; the rumble of the motors was magnificent. We went back into the city sitting on the tank and conversing in shouts with the English.
“And who might you be?” asked the officer at one point.
I responded without thinking:
Fucking bandits,” but right away it occurred to me that my response had an implication disrespectful of Simonetta, and I blushed in the dark.
The officer shouted:
I beg your pardon?
And I shouted:
“I said we are the Volunteers for Liberty.”
“Liberty?” shouted the officer, and I said yes and then added:
“And now I’ll sing you a song that’s about you, if you don’t mind.”
Sing away,” he said, and I began:
Sono passati gli anni
sono  passati i mesi
sono passati i giorni
e ze rivà i inglesi.
Simonetta joined in on the refrain. I sing out of tune, but she doesn’t. The din made a muddle of everything.
La nostra patria è il mondo intèr…
solo pensiero – salvar l’umanità!
“What do the lyrics say?” said the officer.
“That the war’s over,” I said.
And then I added:
“And that we’re very interested in the salvation of humanity.”
You a poet?” said the officer.
I put my hands around his ear and shouted in it:
Just a fucking bandit.”
In this way we accompanied the Eighth Army to Padua, and then Simonetta and I went off to sleep, and we left them there in a square.