Readings — From the December 2012 issue

A Question of Circumstances

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From Servabo: A Fin de Siècle Memoir, first published in Italian in 1991, and included in Memories from the Twentieth Century, edited by Alberto Toscano, a collection of three of Pintor’s books out next month from Seagull Books and reviewed in New Books in this issue. Pintor, who died in 2003, was a founder and editor of the Italian newspaper Il Manifesto. Gerarchi were officers of the Italian Fascist Party. Translated from the Italian by Gregory Elliott.

When the war entered the city, I was still incredulous. It entered furtively, with bursts of gunfire in the suburbs and the odd desperate clash, surprising unarmed, frightened people. In those days of utter confusion, accompanying my brother through ministries and barracks and following him on improvised demonstrations, I’d seen every attempt to organize armed defense fail. But the illusion that the occupation would be only a brief parenthesis was widespread. And when he left for the south on a makeshift transport, with ambitious plans for a counterattack, I had no doubt we’d meet again in peace after a few weeks.

For a time I was caught up in a series of minor adventures, in a climate of conspiracy I didn’t take seriously. To avoid conscription, I ended up in a house in the country where I played chess and in a convent where gerarchi wandered around disguised as priests. But I soon returned to the streets because the risk was modest and preferable to humiliation. Even during curfew hours I began to venture out of the house to hang little red flags on trees and lampposts. These were the flags that had vanquished the German armies on the battlefield and disgraced their crooked crosses, the flags on which the honor of the world depended at that time. I shall never understand how it is that many who lived through such a great moment have forgotten it to the point of inverting its meaning.

If, one Sunday afternoon, I began to fire at strangers in the middle of a street, I can’t say to what extent it was a conscious choice or the force of circumstance. I wasn’t a fearful kid, but I wasn’t unduly brave, either. I had no inclination to violence and had never even handled an air gun. How I came to undertake this action is a question to which I’ve given many different answers over the years, none of them conclusive.

I wasn’t alone; the five of us were schoolmates. I’d been at a concert, gripping a pistol and a small hand grenade—the sum total of our arsenal—in my pockets. Outside the theater we came across two soldiers and followed them for a long time without deciding on anything. Finally, at the exit of a public park, we quickly caught up with them and fired. My weapon was so covered in sweat that it jammed, leaving me dazed.

I fled in haste, losing my hat. I’d never worn a hat—it was a childish disguise—and for no apparent reason went back to retrieve it. Some people had gotten off a tram and begun to yell and chase us; maybe our undertaking looked more like a holdup than a military action. But I ran quickly, I had the little bomb in my hand, the pursuers dispersed, and we made off down side roads.

I could offer many explanations; the simplest is that we were in a war. Others like me had been fighting it for some time, an invisible and therefore more treacherous war, filtering into everyday life, punctuated by ambushes, in a gray city where it seemed to me it was always raining.

Around that time, many unarmed people had been massacred in caves outside the city. I can confirm that, like all invading forces, the German police were hateful, but with an additional characteristic: racial pride, and that innate taste for orders which (as someone has said) is the worst of human instincts. This is something difficult to understand if you haven’t experienced it, but those gray uniforms, those pointed weapons, those raucous yells, that sheer cruelty, forced the mildest of people to rebel.

I’d learned that my brother was dead; the news had reached me with incredible violence, and this, too, might explain my conduct. But I don’t think so. In my memories there’s no feeling of revenge or retaliation; the blow I’d received was more than skin-deep.

If anything, it was out of a sense of duty, which can be deceptive if it isn’t accompanied by mature conviction. Or maybe it was simply a question of circumstances. In the end it’s always a question of circumstances. But I’d like to think that no circumstances will again make me act as I did that afternoon, against a chance target, even if I were that age again.

I don’t know why the person entrusted with the information didn’t speak to me about it calmly in his house. He summoned me like a conspirator to the basement of an aristocratic building, cluttered with trunks and camp beds, which served as a night shelter. And in that unreal atmosphere, by the feeble light of a lamp, he began an absurd tale.

A small group, a December night, a remote village in the south, a front line to cross, a country path beside a stream, a mined field missed by the pathfinders, a firefight, an explosion in the dark. And in the first light of dawn the body lying prostrate in a vineyard under a wall.

It was an idiotic sequence of words that didn’t in the least correspond to my brother’s image. Anyone who knew him like I did couldn’t recognize him all of a sudden as so vulnerable, in that spot like something out of a novel, in that unnatural position, deaf to any call, inert in the day and the night under a winter sky. Even after many years, I’ve never been able to take in such an implausible scenario.

Weird, confused thoughts possessed me. Perhaps in those September days, when I’d set off by bike on the consular roads to look for a gap between the roadblocks, I could have told him that the city was surrounded and dissuaded him from his plans. Or I, too, might have been on that mission and suggested to him that he seek shelter in a ditch rather than a vineyard. These were strange thoughts bound up with our games, bike races, and duels with peashooters in the garden, stratagems to abolish time.

The tale continued with many details—that the English were involved, that there was a map drawn by a survivor, that there was a letter for me somewhere, that the lives of others parachuted in behind the lines depended on it, and that therefore it was necessary to keep the news secret. So a lot of time had passed and I’d been kept in the dark; who knows what had become of that unburied body?

I left that basement a little after dawn; the streets were colder than usual and I didn’t encounter anyone. I remember the city as always being rainy, but that February morning it rained in earnest. I got home drenched, with a single thought: How could I tell my mother? She was a wise woman, but this death, coming on top of her husband’s, was too much.

In peacetime it wouldn’t prove easy to reach that crumbling village, that gully and that vineyard described to me in such minute detail. With my old uncle, dejected and silent, I traveled for several days, passing through bleak villages in a landscape where age-old poverty was compounded by devastation. When war recedes, its traces are ghostly; there were improvised cemeteries, and villages where no wall above a meter in height remained standing. Having arrived at our destination, we didn’t find the single burial mound that we’d expected, but more than one—the corpses of unfortunate civilians and soldiers of various nationalities.

It was a highly unusual funeral service. Without the aid of an impromptu grave digger, we wouldn’t even have come close to identifying the remains of that strange person who had galoshes in his knapsack because he didn’t like the discomforts of bad weather. Not only a violent death, but, judging from the broken vertebrae, an abrupt one. Bent over the grave, my old uncle, sapiens cor et intelligibile, carried out the formal identification.

I wasn’t used to this, and perhaps I should have let the dead bury the dead, as recommended by his message from beyond the grave. But the local peasants, women in mourning, and barefoot children honored with waving flags this exhumation and the transfer of the body to a less irregular grave. For me this was melancholy confirmation, among so many furnished by the war, of those popular virtues that will remain an indestructible myth of my youth.

I managed to end up in prison one May evening, shortly before peace arrived. We were caught as a result of conspiratorial carelessness, my closest friend and I, on the eve of a suicide mission I’ll recount some other time. Only our young associate in the escapade, likewise careless but with greater talent, escaped arrest, by lowering herself onto the rooftops in the middle of the night.

I’d stayed at home so as not to miss out on a white-flour focaccia. The men who came to take me away thought for a moment they’d made a mistake; this genteel house didn’t fit in with their image of the subversive. But they took the opportunity to snatch my father’s pocket watch and other things they reckoned were of value. It was a well-known gang of irregulars, who had rampaged for months through the city with the help of an informer, the very gang we had wanted to smash.

They took me off to their headquarters, a guesthouse with a garden, full of mirrors and crystal lamps, run by a terror-stricken Neapolitan. I’d been blindfolded and couldn’t figure out where I’d ended up. It was like an artificial set straight out of a film.

Their leader was a young cavalry lieutenant, an Italian with a foreign name who acted his part with ostentation. They sat me down on a stool in front of his table, and ten or so of them formed a circle around me and, for many hours, in successive waves, laid into me with some cruelty. In the intervals the young lieutenant made himself scrambled eggs.

They suspected me of being behind an attack on their base and hammered away to get to the bottom of it. I hadn’t expected this kind of treatment, and it scared me. But at that age one is good at taking it and pretending; and hatred of the violence inflicted provides excellent succor. And then there was something in my appearance and social condition they found disconcerting. And when they threatened to shoot me in the garden, simulating an attempted escape, I realized they weren’t capable of it.

They finally shut me in a little bathroom with a very wary old bricklayer. He had swollen limbs and cursed without addressing his words to me. I must have seemed too young and educated to warrant trust, even though I’d been beaten up like him. But then his mood changed, and on the second day he encouraged me with great kindness. It was a lesson I haven’t forgotten. I learned, before reading it in books, that the workers would free the world by freeing themselves.

I was anxious to know what fate had befallen my friend. When I met him in another kind of cell—a coalhole—he had two broken ribs and was losing blood. But he retained his vaguely sardonic air, that annoyance of his at the way of the world. We were mortified to have fallen into a trap that also endangered others. But basically we’d done our best, and now, finding ourselves together again, we cheered up.

The last day of May found us once more in that coalhole, us two alone, after a period of respite in the city jails full of bedbugs but also of good bread. In this solitude, sitting on piles of coal, we understood that things were looking very bad for us. Finally, a guard came down to tell us he’d just killed a friend of ours in the street and that we would be shot the following day. News of the imminent execution got around in the city, and we were being mourned as dead. One of my sisters prayed for me with a future pope.

We, by contrast, felt curiously relieved, because we weren’t going to end up in German hands. The idea of having to face scientific torture terrified us more than anything else. Death, on the other hand, is very difficult to grasp at that age. We weren’t able to imagine ourselves blindfolded in the courtyard of a barracks, or tied to a chair in a meadow on the outskirts of town, or shot in the back of the neck in a cave. The whole night long we spoke of other matters or of nothing.

Only in the early morning were we distracted by the rare shuffling of passersby on a sidewalk grate above our heads. This was our neighborhood; a hundred meters away was our school; maybe these invisible passersby were people we knew; and we abandoned ourselves to melancholy thoughts. Above all, I thought about how I was doing my mother a great wrong, dying as I was in the wake of my father and brother—a veritable massacre.

Another member of the gang came in without saying a word, escorted us through staircases and deserted corridors, loaded us onto a requisitioned taxi, and deposited us, incredulous, at the city jails. Artillery fire could be heard, the Americans were at the city gates, and we hadn’t survived by a miracle but as a result of scheduling. Three days later, we emerged into the sunshine, free. Germans in camouflage fatigues on muddy tanks were still making their way up the riverbank. At home they weren’t expecting us; they thought that we were alive but had been deported to the north. For my friend that would have been very fortunate; he wouldn’t have died obstinately on a different battlefront, hit by shrapnel, a few days before the armistice, buried with an absurd helmet on his grave. He might be called a hero, but I prefer to remember him as a heedless lad.

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