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Sex, violence, and the crime that defined modern Italy

Discussed in this essay:

The Catholic School, by Edoardo Albinati. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1,280 pages. $40.

In a quiet northern suburb of Rome, a woman hears noises in the street and sends her son to investigate. Someone is locked in the trunk of a Fiat 127. The police arrive and find one girl seriously injured, together with the corpse of a second. Both have been raped, tortured, and left for dead. The survivor speaks of three young aggressors and a villa by the sea. Within hours two of the men have been arrested. The other will never be found.

Illustration by Danijel Žeželj

Illustration by Danijel Žeželj

Known as the Circeo Massacre, after the resort area of Circeo, seventy miles south of Rome, where the violence took place, this atrocity made a huge impact in Italy in 1975; it then came back into public conscious­ness in 1981 when one of the culprits escaped from prison and fled to Argentina, and again in 2005 when the other condemned man, granted day release to work outside prison, killed a woman and her fourteen-year-old daughter. The dust jacket of the Italian edition of The Catholic School tells its readers right away that the book is inspired by this near-­mythical crime. Particularly shocking, and immediately felt to be an ominous sign of things to come, was that all three rapists came from well-to-do families, while two had recently completed their education at an expensive, highly respectable boys-only Catholic school run by an order of priests dedicated to the Holy Virgin. The author ­Edoardo Albinati attended the same school in the 1960s and early 1970s.

The logic of the novel, then, is that the school is to be put in relation to the crime, perhaps to serve as an explanation for it. And not just this school but Catholic schools in general, since the Italian title, La scuola cattolica, could equally well be translated into En­glish with a ge­neric Catholic School. The whole idea of a traditional religious education is undermined by the suggestion that, at least in our modern times, what it actually fosters is cruelty and bedlam. It was no doubt this sense—­that something profound and profoundly evil had been revealed about an institution absolutely central to Italian culture—­that pushed this mammoth twelve-hundred-page ­novel up the bestseller lists and won it the country’s most prestigious literary prize, the Strega.

But Albinati’s book is not so easily pinned down. It’s certainly not another In Cold Blood, where victims, perpetrators, and their respective backgrounds are meticulously researched and the crime is analyzed in hair-raising detail. Albinati offers no extended dramatization of the events themselves, or the consequent police investigation, or the judicial proceedings. We do not follow the life of the girl who survived, or that of the culprit who escaped. Indeed, one of the charms and irritations of this extraordinary and extraordinarily long novel (just a few thousand words shy of War and Peace) is how ingeniously it plays with our expectations.

“When I was little . . . how I loved to go to school,” Albinati tells us. He writes in the first person and uses his own name. “I unquestioningly accepted everything that befalls a kid aged thirteen, fourteen, fifteen.” Until, that is, his brilliant friend Arbus opens his eyes to the absurdity of much that goes on in school, not least the fact that “99 percent of the stuff they teach . . . won’t serve any purpose ­later on.” But then

school . . . isn’t exactly a place to study . . . it’s a period of your life when you explore the borders of the known world and what is permitted. . . . And the friendships that you cultivated there were nothing more than a free zone in which to experiment and behave in ways that are otherwise forbidden. . . . You achieved great progress by breaking rules, after which you either suffered cruel but fair punishments, or else you learned that there was no punishment after all.

Freedom, in short, means freedom to transgress; this is the atmosphere of Albinati’s school. There is a total disconnection between the urgencies of adolescence—understanding one’s sexuality, coming to grips with the idea of what it means to be a man, meeting girls—­and an institution run by poorly paid, second-rate priests-cum-teachers who invent endless rules to stop the boys from growing up; the teachers are no more than “ballast . . . heavy objects, like so many carved marble animals to be used as bookends.”

The situation invites comedy, and Albinati can be very funny. It would be hard to think of a more exuberant, unashamedly intellectual, implacably candid evocation of the preposterous­ness of male adolescence than is offered in the opening three hundred pages of this book. Deprived of all female contact, the boys are more or less in prison: “the only woman who wasn’t an intruder . . . was the Virgin Mary.” Afflicted by constant, obtuse appeals to behave and engage in “dialogue” rather than conflict, the boys feel compelled to lie, fight, and cheat. Fooling the teachers in exams becomes a matter of personal pride. Even when it is easier to pass honestly, the boys prefer to cheat. Anything else is “unthinkable, a shameful alternative.” To get by without merit is the only merit that makes sense. “Everyone copied from everyone else . . . in a maelstrom of total mistrust of themselves.” To pass your exams was to be “absolved.”

All this would be entertaining, and no more than ordinarily disquieting, were it not for the terrible crime that hangs over the book. And Albinati lets it hang. Not until page 153 does it get a first, brief mention; then, just as the name of the school, San Leone Magno, is reduced throughout the novel to the letters ­“SLM,” so “the Circeo Rape/Murder,” “the event that gave rise to this book,” becomes “hereinafter the CR/M.” From this point on, the two abbreviations will call to each other over a thousand pages and more, like the quantities of some fatal equation.

Since Albinati has warned us that he has changed the names of those involved in the crime, every school companion he describes becomes a possible murderer. Of his closest friend, Arbus, the kind of genius who never needs to study, we hear that “one of the few things [he] did study, and systematically, were the different ways of killing people.” When the young Albinati visits his home, finding a ravishing but quite emotionless sister and a provocative mother who humiliates her acned son to flirt with his friend, it all begins to look extremely foreboding. Another boy, Salvatore, first takes Albinati to the local branch of the neo-Fascist party, then invites him to his home to sit on his bed and look through a stack of photos that show nude bodies “in dazzlingly white close-ups . . . as if they were dead.” The girls, we read, were “lying down with their long hair draped along their backs or else bent over, both hands pulling their buttocks wide open.” “I don’t think Salvatore really liked girls,” Albinati comments.

The very intensity with which puberty is evoked becomes sinister; it seems all these boys are potential rapists. Ravaged by an “overwhelming sensuality” but blocked by a “powerful strain of modesty,” the author reports feeding on a “guilty innocence . . . like a termite concealed in the heart of a plank of tender wood.” The mere thought of, for example, a damp swimming costume has him in a frenzy of excitement. To make matters worse, this explosion of sensuality is cloaked in parental silence. The families who spend heavily to keep their boys in the protected space of the ­SLM are en­tirely focused on career and social standing and profoundly unsettled by the swiftly changing mores of the times. Home becomes “the venue of embarrassment.” The mothers in particular, disoriented by the dwindling of their maternal role, are casting about for something to do with their sexuality. One mother more or less sticks her tightly skirted butt in Edoardo’s face. Another both provokes and ignores him.

At school, little help can be expected from the priests, whose presumed celibacy both fascinates and horrifies the boys. One teacher, whose priesthood seems “a form of self-mortification, in the aftermath of a long-ago crime,” is glimpsed late at night on a busy road inviting prostitutes into the school’s Fiat 850.

Even the priests break the rules then. It doesn’t matter. You confess and are absolved. One boy caresses another’s crotch during lessons. Everyone sees; no one does anything. The boy on the receiving end follows the lesson “placidly . . . like a large grazing ruminant.” In line with the rising tide of liberalism outside the school, the priests’ apparent severity actually conceals a pathetic weakness; no one is ever punished. When a student has his glasses broken by older bullies, a new pair is delivered a few days later by the school custodian. Slowly the boys learn the principle that only a sinner is worthy of a priest’s, or God’s, consideration. If a little lamb doesn’t get lost, it can’t be “searched for, found, and saved; unless a pilgrim wanders off the straight path . . . he can just go fuck himself, him with all his rectitude.” Since small misdemeanors are barely noticed, the only option for a boy craving attention is to go for bigger ones.

To preserve this perverted state of affairs, a gap between what is said and what is felt must be actively cultivated. “Confession was, for me, the utmost moment of artificiality,” Albinati tells us. The important thing is always to say what is expected, not to feel it. As a result, it becomes hard to know what one is feeling. “With the communion wafer in your mouth or your dick in your hand,” you simply don’t know what’s supposed to happen in terms of emotion. When the frustrated Arbus decides to leave school a year early, he spends his last day inking a blasphemy on his desk in letters “fifteen inches high.” But since he still has to sit for his final exam, the priests have a lever to force him back to school to apologize. Arbus complies, but even as he eats humble pie, everyone understands that this is “a mere formal statement.” “There are no sincere phrases,” Albinati declares.

We are at page four hundred and still no sign of the ­CR/M. Expectation is winding up. All the boys’ early sexual encounters seem to look forward to the crime. Too shy to ask a girl out alone, Albinati involves his classmate Pik, who seems dangerously autistic; they set up a date with two girls, one of whom takes them to her house, since her parents are away. Pik, who has barely spoken to a girl before, is thrilled with the thought that they are going to “fuck.” Albinati can’t dissuade him. The girls allow themselves to be taken to separate bedrooms, and the evening ends in tears when, not knowing how to behave, the boys simply jump on them. It’s still comedy, just about, but under the looming cloud of the ­CR/M.

At a spiritual retreat organized by the school, the boys have fun acting out a flagellation depicted in a painting in one of the bedrooms. The chosen victim is a boy suspected of being gay. The others whip his bare back with knotted cords. The game turns nasty. The victim begs them to stop. “Abjure your God!” they shout. Albinati is appalled but doesn’t intervene. It goes on and on. As the boy’s skin flushes red, his tormentors see blood. At last the boy abjures. He is shocked, bewildered, and his face is “split into two bands,” suffering above and “a mindless little smile” below, at which Albinati realizes that “he had liked it. A lot, really a lot.” The flagellation becomes the occasion of the boy’s coming out.

Heightened sensuality breeds mental proliferation. As an adolescent Albinati is always thinking “a great number of different discordant thoughts at the same instant,” something that brings happiness, confusion, guilt. The novel itself is an exercise in such proliferation and its accompanying emotions. Just when you thought he couldn’t delay the arrival of the ­CR/M any further, the author launches into a long analysis of the transformation of the Italian bourgeoisie in the 1970s. In this book long means long. The breakdown in the family is discussed. “Relations between the generations, bonds of authority . . . are now practically null.” Yet children are more financially dependent than ever. Parents “disburse more and more money in exchange for being increasingly ignored.” Money is at the center of everything: “We have it, thank heavens, but we are not to speak of it. Ever.” Grand moral statements are made about wealth. “There exists a scrupulous and exacting ethical standard according to which all the things we own are nothing but loans.” After being on the side of boyish transgression, Albinati suddenly seems like the priest in the pulpit. From twelve years at Catholic school, he observes, he developed two contradictory attitudes: “utter hatred for emphasis” and “the involuntary tendency to take on the tone and the pacing of a sermon.” When he leaves the ­SLM to spend his last school year in a state school, he is surprised to find that his new companions can all see he’s been in “a school run by priests.” It’s “stamped on your forehead,” they tell him. Certainly it’s evident in every turn of this ­novel. “If you’re sick of this . . . just skip,” Albinati advises.

Finally, a third of the way into the book, the crime is suddenly center stage. It is told in fourteen terse pages. At once we are shocked by the stupidity, clumsiness, and randomness of it all, confused because we don’t recognize any of the culprits as the boys already described at school, and surprised by their possession of a gun and their boasting of previous kidnappings and international criminal connections. In general they don’t seem to know what they want from the girls or why they’re taking them to the villa by the coast. They don’t understand the consequences of locking other human beings naked in bathrooms and torturing them. “I didn’t realize that . . . would mean the end of any dialogue with them,” one killer ­later reflects, using, Albinati reminds us, “that word so beloved of the priests.” They experiment with injecting fluids into their victims. One girl is dragged across the rooms with a leather belt around her neck. The boys are bored. They don’t know what to do next.

Fiction “is the exact opposite of chaos,” Albinati observes, a desperate attempt to put order in the world. If we want to know which parts of his novel are made up, he suggests, we should look out for “the ones that don’t sound quite as absurd as the others.” The crime as told is utterly absurd—­hence very much for real.

What now then, with eight hundred pages still to go? One expects more and more about the ­CR/M. Intermittently it arrives: some detail about one of the killers’ megalomaniac confessions to any number of murders and rapes, some consideration of the likelihood that the killer who escaped joined the Spanish Foreign Legion and died of a heroin overdose in 1994. But the main thrust of the book is now to establish the crime as emblematic of its era, in Italy in general and in this area of Rome in particular, where quite suddenly there was a spate of violent crime. All the changes taking place in society are found to be reflected in the ­CR/M. More and more possible underlying causes are discovered and considered. It is as if the crime’s very absurdity demanded that a huge amount of explanation be flung at it, none of which quite convinces. Meantime, the ­CR/M comes to seem “something familiar . . . in line with the times.” One begins to wonder why there aren’t more.

Albinati’s mind ranges far and wide. We go back to the bourgeoisie, to feminism and the reaction against feminism, the cinema’s passion for violence, the public’s morbid attraction to images of death. We discuss the passage from sexual desire to violence, from violence to torture, from torture to murder. Ethical, biological, and anthropological approaches are considered, at length. We discover that the sleepy Quartiere Trieste, where Albinati’s home and school were located, had become a battleground for opposing gangs of Fascists and Communists. Fascism is described as a state of mind where an action, any action, is justified quite simply because it is action. Everyone had grown used to violence. We hear the tale of a Fascist drug dealer who is encouraged to take part in a gang rape and then murdered in his bed. A classmate’s sister offered herself as the bait. We wonder whether Fascism and gang rape aren’t forms of collective homosexuality. This was a “chaotic and violent” time. “No one knew any longer what was right and what was wrong.” As the years go by, a surprising number of Albinati’s ex-­schoolmates become involved in crime. One dies in an explosion on the roof of an asylum for the criminally insane. Was it an act of terrorism? One is jailed for arson. Another kills himself on the umpteenth attempt after various misdemeanors.

While in the first part of the book all anecdotes anticipated the crime, the crime now colors everything that comes after. Albinati describes an affair with a German girl on a student exchange in Spain. She is a virgin. They try to make love, but it’s too painful for her. ­Later they meet by chance in Rome. Egged on by a friend, the German girl now sleeps with him, explaining that she has a happy sex life with a boyfriend in Germany; there was never any pain with him, because she loves him. Then she is upset that she has betrayed him. She lies lifeless on the sheets. “In every relationship between male and female . . . rape is present,” Albinati tells us. “We live in a society of rape.” “The sex act possesses a dangerous affinity with the act of murder.” Rapists can consider themselves “educators,” “pedagogues.” They are merely getting “to the heart of the matter.”

There is an obsessive quality to all this that neither seeks nor requires the reader’s assent. Skip if it’s too much, we’re told again. Many will be tempted to do so. Antony Shugaar’s translation, a simply enormous task, comes across well enough with Albinati’s engaging narrative style, but less so in the extended op-ed-like sections where the Italian author blends a driving spoken voice with sophisticated prose that risks sounding wooden in translation. For pages at a time, the reader longs to get back to the story, any story.

And the main story in this book, we understand now, is that of Albinati himself. More and more he is present as writer rather than schoolboy, as a man wrestling with his past and seeking to understand the world that made him what he is. We discover that for most of his working life he has been a teacher in a prison. He is constantly around men who have raped and killed. He started writing this book, he tells us, in 2005, on returning to live in Quartiere Trieste, just a couple of blocks from where that Fiat 127 was abandoned with the girls in the trunk. This was the same year that one of the criminals killed again. The apartment where the author used to study with the killer’s brother is opposite his new home.

The mad abundance of reflection and anecdote now makes any summary unthinkable; nevertheless, a pattern emerges. Whatever stories he tells of his own life, Albinati puts himself in a bad light. He is driven to sex and feels guilty. After sex his partners seem dead. (“Implicit in the sex act . . . is the possibility that it will end with a lifeless body.”) Writing about his relationship with Arbus’s sister, he is “terrified at the idea of contaminating her.” He allows a local priest to bless his apartment while he has pornography up on his computer screen. He listens to theological discussions on his car radio and slows down to examine the bodies of prostitutes soliciting on the roadside. But “self-accusation” is a “pleasure,” hence possibly itself a sin.

Every subject under discussion is presented in terms of crime and punishment, confession and absolution, contamination and purity. Albinati dreams of being punished for crimes he didn’t know he’d committed. He fantasizes about punishing fellow Italians who double-park their cars or don’t pick up their dogs’ shit from the sidewalk. He sees woman’s physical weakness as “a sin to be expiated.” When observing the Italian habit of pruning trees to the bone, he is sure it is a form of punishment for their vitality. The Bible is full of sexual violence, he reminds us, often left scandalously unpunished. Masochism, or self-punishment, he claims, is the characteristic impulse of the middle classes. Inevitably, there are ref­er­ences to Sade and ­Kafka, to Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, in particular Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata, whose narrator kills his wife out of disgust over their compulsive sex life.

Albinati’s writing itself strives for provocation and transgression. We’re told of a man who ejaculates into the mouth of his dead sister in the morgue. We’re told that “sex is a singular sort of prison whose bars keep you from getting in, rather than getting out.” Remembering one scene from adolescence, he has to interrupt his writing to masturbate. “The degree of moral involvement in a rape can stretch out to touch the whole of society,” he tells us. “You need only open a newspaper to become part of this corrupt community.”

A conflicted mind-­set prevails that we can sum up thus: All violence is wrong. All sex is violent. Sex is an imperative that cannot be avoided. Ergo, we are all in the wrong. Especially men. Repression only makes things worse. The truth must be told. Given this predicament and the consequent struggle between longing and disgust, what can one do but seek to annul oneself, to transcend oneself, escape from oneself? How can this be done? Through sex (“I make love to annihilate myself”). Or through religious experience (the endlessly repeated liturgical formulas that lull and enchant the mind). Or perhaps both, since developing sexual taste, we’re told, is not unlike learning how to pray. Or, finally, through violence: “Only destruction allows transcendence.”

Story after fascinating story culminates in moments of transcendence. Confessing to burning down a forest one hot summer day, an old classmate speaks of his euphoria. Recalling a lover, the author remembers “falling into a deep and wonderful void.” A friend explaining how he almost killed his mother tells of a moment of huge mental release. It is the same urge to self-annulment that pushes these characters to sex, to crime, to worship. And indeed to writing. “Only rampaging narrative . . . an impetuous flow of words can . . . reopen the path that leads to a happy state of forgetfulness.”

I can think of no author who has prompted in me such frequent shifts from admiration to irritation and back; who has aroused so much pleasure with his stories and reflections, and so much annoyance with his emphatic, exaggerated, paradoxical claims, not to mention the sheer length of this interminable book. Yet it’s hard to feel, as the pages roll by, that this is not absolutely willed on the author’s part. The book itself becomes the reader’s Catholic school, at times a kind of prison where the same concepts are repeated ad infinitum, at times a kind of violence; in any event, not so much a novel about a crime (“I never really did give a damn about it,” he tells us on page 1,094) as the memoir of a man who cannot help but see every human transaction in terms of criminality. Unsurprisingly, we leave him at Mass on Christmas Day, eyeing a woman from behind.

 is the author of many novels, translations, and works of non-fiction, most recently A Literary Tour of Italy and Out of My Head: On the Trail of Consciousness.

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