Blesok no. 55, July-August, 2007
My memory is proglottidean, like the tapeworm, but unlike the tapeworm it has no head, it wanders in a maze, and any point may be the beginning or the end of its journey. I must wait for the memories to come of their own accord, following their own logic. That is how it is in the fog. In the sunlight, you see things from a distance and you can change directions purposefully in order to meet up with something particular. In the fog, something or someone approaches you, but you do not know what or who until it is near.
But when I think of my life at the Oratorio I can see it all, like a film. No longer proglottidean but, rather, a logical sequence …
Life changed when I was eleven years old, with my evacuation, in 1943, to Solara. In the city, I had been a melancholy boy who played with his schoolmates for a few hours a day. The rest of the time, I was curled up with a book. In Solara, where I could walk to the town school by myself and romp through the fields and vineyards, I was free, and uncharted territory opened up before me. And I had many friends to roam with.
When the Allies were bombing the city, we could see the distant flashes from our windows in Solara, hear the rumbling of something like thunder. The war had made us fatalists, a bombing was like a storm. We kids kept playing calmly through Tuesday evening, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. But were we really calm? Were we not beginning to be marked by anxiety, by the stunned and relieved melancholy that grips anyone who passes alive through a field strewn with corpses?
At the Oratorio, where we spent our afternoons after school, we were basically free, rounded up only at six, for catechism and benediction; otherwise we did as we pleased. There was a rudimentary merry-go-round, a few swings, and a small theatre, where I trod the boards for the first time, in “The Little Parisian Girl.” Older boys also came to the Oratorio, and even young men – ancient to us – who played Ping-Pong or cards, though not for money. That good man Don Cognasso, the Oratorio’s director, required of them no profession of faith; it was enough that they came there instead of caravanning toward the city on bicycles, even at the risk of being caught in a bombardment, to attempt the climb up to the Casa Rossa, the bordello famous throughout the province.
It was at the Oratorio, after September 8th of 1943, that I first heard about the partisans. For a while, they were just boys who were trying to avoid either the Repubblica Sociale’s new draft or the Nazi roundups, which meant being sent off to work in Germany. Later, people began to call them rebels, because that was what they were called in official communiqués. Only when we found out that ten of them had been executed – including one from Solara – and when we heard via Radio London that special messages were being directed to them, did we begin to call them partisans, or patriots, as they preferred. In Solara, people rooted for the partisans, because the boys had all grown up in those parts, and when they came around, although they all now went by nicknames – Hedgehog, Ferruccio, Lightning, Bluebeard – people still used the names they had known them by before. Many were youths I had seen at the Oratorio, playing hands of scopa in flimsy, threadbare jackets, and now they reappeared wearing brimmed berets, cartridge belts over their shoulders, submachine guns, belts with two grenades attached, or even holstered pistols. They wore red shirts, or jackets from the English Army, or the pants and leggings of the King’s officers. They were beautiful.
By 1944, the partisans were appearing in Solara, making quick incursions when the Fascist Black Brigades were elsewhere. Even among the partisans, there were divisions. On occasion, the Badogliani came down, with their blue neckerchiefs; people said that they backed the monarchy and still charged into battle shouting “Savoy!” Other times, it was the Garibaldini, with their red neckerchiefs, singing songs against the King and his right-hand man, Badoglio. The Badogliani were better armed; it was said that the English sent aid to them but not to the other partisans, who were all Communists. The Garibaldini had submachine guns, like the Black Brigades’, captured in occasional clashes or in some surprise attack on an armory, and the Badogliani had the latest-model English Sten guns. One of the Badogliani once let me fire a round. Most of the time they fired to keep in practice, or to impress girls.
Gragnola. He frequented the Oratorio. He insisted that his name was pronounced Gràgnola, but everyone called him Gragnòla, a word that brought to mind a hail of gunfire. He replied that he was a peaceful man, and his friends answered back, “Come off it, we know …” It was whispered that he had connections to the Garibaldini brigades up in the mountains – he was even a great leader, someone said, and risked more by living in town than he would by hiding out, because if his activities were ever discovered he would be shot at the drop of a hat.
Gragnola acted with me in “The Little Parisian Girl,” and after that he took a liking to me. He taught me how to play tressette. He seemed to feel uncomfortable with the other adults at the Oratorio, and he spent long hours chatting with me. Perhaps he knew he was saying things so outrageous that if the others heard him they would take him for the Antichrist, and so he could only trust a kid.
He showed me the clandestine broadsheets that were circulating. He would never let me take them because, he said, anyone caught with one would be shot. That was how I learned of the Ardeatine massacre, in Rome. “Our comrades stay up in the hills,” Gragnola used to tell me, “so these things won’t happen anymore. Those Germans, they should all be kaputt!”
Gragnola had been a teacher, I did not know of what, in trade schools, going to work every morning on his bicycle and returning home in midafternoon. Then he had to stop: some said because he was devoting himself heart and soul to the partisans; others murmured that it was because he was consumptive. Indeed, Gragnola had the look of a consumptive, an ashen face with two sickly pink cheekbones, hollow cheeks, a persistent cough. He had bad teeth, he limped, he was slightly hunchbacked, with shoulder blades that jutted out, and his jacket collar stood apart from his neck, so that his clothes seemed to hang on him like sacks. Onstage, he always had to play the bad guy or the lame caretaker of a mysterious villa.
He was, everyone said, a well of scientific knowledge and had often been invited to teach at the university, but he had refused out of fondness for his students. “Horseshit,” he later told me. “Yambo, I only taught in the poor kids’ school, and only as a substitute, because with this foul war I never even graduated from college. When I was twenty, they sent me off to break the back of Greece, I was wounded in the knee, and never mind that because you can barely tell, but somewhere in that mud I came down with a nasty sickness and I’ve been spitting up blood ever since. If I ever got my hands on Fat Head” – this was his name for Mussolini – “I wouldn’t kill him because unfortunately I’m a coward, but I would kick his ass until it was out of commission for what little time I hope he has left to live, the Judas.”
I once asked him why he came to the Oratorio, since everyone said he was an atheist. He told me that it was the only place he could see people. And, besides, he was not an atheist but an anarchist. At that time I did not know what anarchists were, and he explained that they were people who wanted freedom, with no masters, no kings, no state, and no priests. “Above all, no state, not like those Communists in Russia, where the state even tells them when they have to use the crapper.”
I asked him why he associated with the Garibaldini, who were Communists, if he was against the Communists. He replied that, No. 1, not all of the Garibaldini were Communists, there were socialists and even anarchists among them, and, No. 2, the enemies at the moment were the Nazi-Fascists, and it was no time for splitting hairs. “First we’ll win together; we’ll settle our differences later.”
Then he added that he came to the Oratorio because it was a good place. Priests were like the Garibaldini – they were an evil breed, but there were some respectable men among them. “Especially in these times, when who knows what’s going to happen to these kids, who until last year were being taught that books and muskets make perfect Fascists. At the Oratorio, at least, they don’t let them go to the dogs, and they teach them to be decent, even if they do make too much fuss about jerking off, but that doesn’t matter because you all do it anyway, and at most you confess it later. So I come to the Oratorio and I help Don Cognasso to get the kids to play. When we go to Mass, I sit quietly in the back of the church, because Jesus Christ I respect even if I don’t respect God.”
Gragnola and I talked about everything. I would tell him about the books I was reading, and he would discuss them passionately. “Verne,” he would say, “is better than Salgari, because he’s scientific. Cyrus Smith manufacturing nitroglycerin is more real than that Sandokan tearing his chest with his fingernails just because he’s fallen for some bitchy little fifteen-year-old.”
Gragnola taught me about Socrates and Giordano Bruno. And Bakunin, about whose work and life I had known very little. He told me about Campanella, Sarpi, and Galileo, who were all imprisoned or tortured by priests for trying to spread scientific principles, and about some who had cut their own throats, like Ardigò, because the bosses and the Vatican were keeping them down. Since I had read the Hegel entry (“Emin. Ger. phil. of the pantheist school”) in the Nuovissimo Melzi, I asked Gragnola about him. “Hegel wasn’t a pantheist, and your Melzi is an ignoramus. Giordano Bruno might have been a pantheist. A pantheist believes that God is everywhere, even in that speck of a fly you see there. You can imagine how satisfying that is – being everywhere is like being nowhere. Well, for Hegel it wasn’t God but the State that had to be everywhere; therefore, he was a Fascist.”
“But didn’t he live more than a hundred years ago?”
“So? Joan of Arc, also a Fascist of the highest order. Fascists have always existed. Since the age of … since the age of God. Take God – a Fascist.”
“But aren’t you one of those atheists who say that God doesn’t exist?”
“Who said that? Don Cognasso, who can’t even grasp the most trifling thing? I believe that God does, unfortunately, exist. It’s just that he’s a Fascist.”
“But why is God a Fascist?”
“Listen, you’re too young for me to give you a theology lecture. We’ll start with what you know. Recite the Ten Commandments for me, seeing as the Oratorio makes you memorize them.”
I recited them. “Good,” he said. “Now pay attention. Among those Ten Commandments are four, think about it, only four, that promote good things – and even those, well, let’s review them. Don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness, and don’t covet your neighbor’s wife. This last one is a commandment for men who know what honor is: on the one hand, don’t cuckold your friends, and, on the other, try to preserve your family, and I can live with that; anarchy wants to get rid of families, too, but you can’t have everything all at once. As for the other three, I agree, but common sense should tell you that much at a bare minimum. And even then you have to weigh them; we all tell lies sometimes, perhaps even for good ends, whereas killing, no, you shouldn’t do that, ever.”
“Not even if the King sends you off to war?”
“There’s the rub. Priests will tell you that if the King sends you off to war you can – indeed, you should – kill. And that the responsibility lies with the King. That’s how they justify war, which is a nasty brute, especially if Fat Head is the one who sends you off. But notice that the commandments don’t say that it’s O.K. to kill in war. They say don’t kill, period. And then …”
“Let’s look at the other commandments. The first commandment says you shall have no other God before him. That’s how the Lord prevents you from thinking, for instance, about Allah, or Buddha, or maybe even Venus – and, let’s be honest, it wouldn’t have been bad at all to have a piece of tail like that as your goddess. But it also means that you shouldn’t believe in philosophy, for instance, or in science, or get any ideas about man descending from apes. Just Him, that’s it. Now pay attention, because the other commandments are all Fascist, designed to force you to accept society as it is. Remember the one about keeping the Sabbath day holy? What do you think of it?”
“Well, basically it says to go to Mass on Sunday – what’s wrong with that?”
“That’s what Don Cognasso tells you, and, like all priests, he doesn’t know the first thing about the Bible. Wake up! In a primitive tribe like the one Moses took for a walk, this meant that you had to observe the rites, and the purpose of the rites – from human sacrifices on up to Fat Head’s rallies in Piazza Venezia – is to addle people’s brains! And then? Honor thy father and mother. Honor thy father and mother means respect the ideas of your elders, don’t oppose tradition, don’t presume to change the tribe’s way of life. See? Don’t cut off the King’s head, although, God knows, if we have a head on our own shoulders we should, especially with a king like that dwarf Savoy, who betrayed his army and sent his officers to their death. And now you can see that even ‘Don’t steal’ isn’t quite as innocent a commandment as it seems, because it orders you not to touch private property, which belongs to the person who got rich by stealing from you. If only it ended there. There are three commandments left. ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.’ The Don Cognassos of the world would have you believe that this commandment means ‘Don’t commit impure acts,’ and its only purpose is to keep you from wagging that thing that hangs between your legs, but to drag in the stone tablets for the occasional wank seems a bit much. What’s a guy like me supposed to do, a failure? That beautiful woman, my mother, didn’t make me beautiful, and I’m a gimp to boot, and I’ve never touched a woman who’s a woman, and they want to deny me even that release?
“God could have said, for instance, ‘You can screw, but only to make babies,’ especially since at that time there weren’t enough people in the world. But the Ten Commandments don’t say that. So, on the one hand, you can’t covet your friend’s wife and, on the other, you can’t commit impure acts. When is screwing allowed? I mean, really, you’re trying to make a law that works for the whole world – when the Romans, who weren’t God, made laws it was stuff that still makes sense today – and God tosses down a Decalogue that doesn’t tell you the most important things?
“And now we come to the last commandment: ‘Don’t covet other people’s stuff.’ But have you ever asked yourself why this commandment exists, when you’ve already got ‘Don’t steal’? If you covet a bike like the one your friend has, is that a sin? No, not if you don’t steal it from him. Don Cognasso will tell you that this commandment prohibits envy, which is certainly an ugly thing. But there’s bad envy, which is when your friend has a bicycle and you don’t, and you hope he breaks his neck going down a hill, and there’s good envy, which is when you want a bike like his and work your butt off to be able to buy one, even a used one, and it’s good envy that makes the world go round. And then there’s another envy, which is justice envy, which is when you can’t see any reason that a few people have everything and others are dying of hunger. And if you feel this fine sort of envy, which is socialist envy, you get busy trying to make a world in which riches are better distributed. But that’s exactly what the commandment prohibits you from doing. The tenth commandment prohibits revolution. Therefore, my dear boy, don’t kill and don’t steal from poor kids like yourself, but go ahead and covet what other people have taken from you. That’s the sun of the coming day, and that’s why our comrades are staying up there in the mountains, to get rid of Fat Head, who rose to power funded by agrarian landowners and by Hitler’s toadies, Hitler who wanted to conquer the world so that that guy Krupp who builds Berthas this long could sell more cannons. But you, how could you ever understand about these things, you who grew up memorizing oaths of obedience to Il Duce’s orders?”
“No, I understand, even if not everything.”
“I sure hope so.”
I noticed that Gragnola always wore a long, thin leather sack that hung from his neck, beneath his shirt.
“What’s that, Gragnola?”
“Were you studying to be a doctor?”
“I was studying philosophy. I was given the lancet in Greece by a doctor in my regiment, before he died. ‘I don’t need this anymore,’ he told me. ‘That grenade has opened my belly. What I need now is one of those kits, like women have, with a needle and thread. But this hole is past stitching up. Keep the lancet to remember me by.’ And I’ve worn it ever since.”
“Because I’m a coward. With the things I do and the things I know, if the S.S. or the Black Brigades catch me, they’ll torture me. If they torture me, I’ll talk, because evil scares me. And I’ll be sending my comrades to their death. This way, if they catch me, I’ll cut my throat with the lancet. It doesn’t hurt, only takes a second – sffft. I’ll be screwing them all: the Fascists because they won’t learn a thing, the priests because I’ll be a suicide and that’s a sin, and God because I’ll be dying when I choose and not when he chooses. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.”
Gragnola’s speeches left me sad. Not because I was sure they were evil but because I feared they were good. He lived in a world made sad by an evil God, and the only times I saw him smile with any tenderness were when he was talking to me about Socrates or Jesus. Both of whom, I would remind myself, were killed, so I did not see what there was to smile about.
And yet he was not mean; he loved the people around him. He had it in only for God, and that must have been a real chore, because it was like throwing rocks at a rhinoceros – the rhinoceros never notices a thing and continues going about its rhino business, and meanwhile you are red with rage and ripe for a heart attack.
When was it that my friends and I began the Great Game? In a world where everyone was shooting at everyone else, we needed an enemy. And we chose the kids up in San Martino, a village on the peak above us.
The people of San Martino made ideal enemies, since in our minds they were all Fascists. In reality, that was not the case; it was just that two brothers from San Martino had joined the Black Brigades, while their two younger brothers had remained in the village and were the ringleaders of the bunch up there. But, still, the town was attached to its sons who had gone off to war, and in Solara it was whispered that the people of San Martino were not to be trusted.
Fascists or not, we used to say that the boys of San Martino were no better than animals. The fact is that if you live in such an accursed place you have to get up to some mischief every day, just to feel alive. They had to come down to Solara for school, and we who lived in town used to look at them as if they were Gypsies. Many of us would bring a snack to school, bread and marmalade, and they were lucky if they had been given a wormy apple. In short, they had to do something, and on several occasions they bombarded us with rocks as we approached the gate of the Oratorio. We had to make them pay. So we decided to go up to San Martino and attack them while they played ball in the church piazza.
But the only way to San Martino was by the road that went straight up, with no bends, and from the church piazza you could see if someone was coming. Thus we thought that we would never be able to take them by surprise. Until Durante, a farmer’s kid with a head as big and dark as an Abyssinian’s, said yes, we could, if we climbed the gorge.
At the time, no one climbed up the gorge – and forget about coming down – because you would lose your footing at every step. Where there were no brambles, the earth fell away beneath you; you might see a thicket of acacia or blackberry with an opening right in the middle and think you had found a path, but it would be just a random patch of stony ground, and after ten steps you would start to slip, then fall to one side and tumble at least twenty metres. Even if you survived the fall without breaking any bones, the thorns would scratch your eyes out. On top of that, it was said to be thick with vipers.
Climbing up would clearly require training. It took us a season: we started with ten metres the first day, memorizing each step and each crevice, trying to place our feet in the same places on the way down as we had on the way up, and the next day we worked on the next ten metres. We could not be seen from San Martino, so we had all the time we wanted. It was important not to improvise; we had to become like the animals that made their homes on the slopes of the gorge – the grass snakes, the lizards.
Two of my friends got sprains, and one almost killed himself and skinned the palm of his hand trying to stop his fall, but in the end we were the only people in the world who knew how to climb the gorge. One afternoon, we risked it: we climbed for an hour or more and arrived out of breath, emerging from a dense thicket at the very base of San Martino, where between the houses and the precipice there was a walkway, with a wall along it to prevent the locals from falling over the precipice in the dark. Our path reached the wall at the very point where a gap opened, a breach wide enough for us to slip through. Beyond that was a lane that went past the door to the rectory, then opened right onto the church piazza.
When we burst onto the piazza, the San Martino boys were in the middle of a game of blindman’s bluff. A masterstroke: one of them could not see at all and the others were jumping here and there in their efforts to avoid him. We launched our munitions, hitting one boy directly on the forehead, and the others fled into the church, seeking aid from the priest. That sufficed for the moment, and back down the lane we ran, through the gap, and down the gorge. The priest arrived in time to see our heads disappearing into the shrubs, and he hurled some terrible threats at us, and Durante shouted “Hah!” and clapped his left hand against his right biceps.
But now the San Martino boys got wise. Seeing that we had come up the gorge, they placed sentinels at the breach in the wall. It is true that we could get almost right up to the wall before they were aware of us, but only almost: the last few metres were in the open, through blackthorn scrub that slowed our progress, giving the sentinel enough time to raise the alarm. They were ready at the end of the lane with sun-baked balls of mud, and they launched them at us before we could gain the walkway.
It seemed a shame to have worked so hard learning to climb the gorge only to have to give it all up. Until Durante said, “We’ll learn to climb in the fog.”
Since it was early autumn, there was as much fog in those parts as a person could want. On foggy days, the town of Solara disappeared, and the only thing that rose above all that gray was the San Martino bell tower. Being up in that tower was like being in a dirigible above the clouds.
Climbing the gorge in the fog was much harder than climbing it in sunlight. You really had to learn every step by heart, be able to say such-and-such a rock is here, watch out for the edge of a dense thorn thicket there, five steps (five, not four or six) farther to the right the ground drops away suddenly, when you reach the boulder there will be a false path just to your left and if you follow it you will fall off a cliff. And so on.
We made exploratory trips on clear days, then for a week we practiced by repeating the steps in our heads. I tried to make a map, as in an adventure book, but half my friends could not read maps. Too bad for them, I had it printed in my brain and could have traversed the gorge with my eyes closed – and going on a foggy night was essentially the same thing.
After many test runs, we attempted our first expedition. Who knows how we made it to the top, but we did, and there they were, in the piazza, which was still free of fog, shooting the breeze – because in a place like San Martino either you hang out in the piazza or you go to bed after eating your soup of stale bread and milk.
We entered the piazza, gave them a proper pelting, jeered them as they fled to their houses, and then climbed back down, victorious and exultant.
After that we risked other raids, and they were unable to post sentinels even when it was just dark, because most of them were afraid of the dark, on account of hellcats. We who attended the Oratorio could not have cared less about hellcats, because we knew that half a Hail Mary would basically paralyze them. We kept that up for several months. Then we got bored: the climb was no longer a challenge, in any weather.
It was noon on a Sunday. Something was happening, everyone already knew: two German trucks carrying soldiers had arrived in Solara; the men had searched half the town, and then taken the road up toward San Martino.
A thick fog had settled in early that morning, and even the voices of sparrows in the tree branches came to us as if through cotton wool. There was supposed to be a funeral, but the people in the procession would not venture onto the cemetery road, and the gravedigger sent word that he would not be burying anyone that day, lest someone make a mistake while lowering the coffin and cause the gravedigger to fall into the grave himself.
Two men from town had followed the Germans to find out what they were up to, and had seen them make their way slowly – headlights on but penetrating less than a metre – as far as the start of the ascent toward San Martino, and then stop, not daring to go on. Certainly not with their trucks, because they had no idea what was on either side of that steep incline, and they didn’t want to roll off a precipice – maybe they even expected treacherous curves. Nor did they dare to attempt it on foot, not knowing what was where. Someone, however, had explained to them that the only way up to San Martino was by that road, and in that weather no one could possibly get down any other way, because of the gorge. So then they placed trestles at the end of the road and waited there, headlights on and guns levelled, so that no one could pass, while one of them yelled into a field telephone, perhaps asking for reinforcements. Our informers said that they heard him repeat “volsunde, volsunde” a number of times. Gragnola explained at once that they were certainly asking for Wolfshunde; that is, German shepherds.
The Germans waited there, and around four in the afternoon, with everything still a thick gray but also still light, they caught sight of someone coming down, on a bicycle. It was the parish priest of San Martino, who had been taking that road for who knows how many years and could even come down using his feet as brakes. Seeing a priest, the Germans held their fire, because, as we later learned, they were looking not for cassocks but for Cossacks. The priest explained, more with gestures than with words, that a man was dying on a farm near Solara and had called for extreme unction (he showed them the necessaries in a bag attached to the handlebars), and the Germans believed him. They let him pass, and the priest came to the Oratorio to whisper with Don Cognasso.
Don Cognasso was not the sort to get involved in politics, but he knew what was what and, in just a few words, told the priest to tell Gragnola and his friends what there was to tell, because he himself would not and could not get mixed up in such matters.
A group of young men quickly gathered around the card table, and I slipped in behind the last few, crouching a little to avoid notice.
According to the priest, there was a small detachment of Cossacks with the German troops. They had been taken prisoner on the Russian front, but for reasons of their own the Cossacks had it in for Stalin, and many of them had been persuaded (motivated by money, by hatred of the Soviets, by a desire not to rot in a prison camp, or even by the chance to leave their Soviet paradise, taking horses, carts, and family with them) to enlist as auxiliaries. Most were fighting in eastern areas, like Carnia, where they were much feared for their toughness and ferocity. But there was also a Turkic division in the Pavia region – people called them Mongols. Former Russian prisoners, if not actually Cossacks, were roaming around in Piedmont, too, with the partisans.
Everyone by now knew how the war was going to end, and, besides, the eight Cossacks in question were men with religious principles. After having seen two or three towns burned and poor people hanged by the dozen, and after two of their own number had been executed for refusing to shoot at old people and children, they had decided that they could no longer remain with the S.S. “Not only that,” Gragnola explained, “but if the Germans lose the war, and by now they’ve lost, what will the Americans and the English do? They’ll capture the Cossacks and give them back to the Russians, their allies. In Russia, these guys are kaputt. They’re now trying to join the Allies, so that after the war they’ll be given refuge somewhere, beyond the clutches of that Fascist Stalin.”
“Indeed,” the priest said, “these eight have heard about the partisans, who are fighting with the English and the Americans, and they’re trying to reach them. They have their own ideas and are well informed: they don’t want to join the Garibaldini; they want to be Badogliani.”
They had deserted who knows where, then headed toward Solara simply because someone had told them that the Badogliani were in the area. They had walked many kilometres, off the roads, moving only at night and so taking twice as long to get anywhere, but the S.S. had stayed on their heels, and it was a miracle that they had managed to reach us, begging food at the occasional farmhouse, communicating as best they could (although they all spoke a smattering of German, only one knew Italian), and always on the verge of running into people who might be spies.
The day before, realizing that the S.S. was about to catch up with them, they had gone up to San Martino, thinking that from there they could fight off a battalion for a few days, and, after all, they might as well die bravely. Also, someone had told them that a certain Talino lived up there, and he knew someone who might be able to help them. At this point, they were a desperate bunch. They reached San Martino after dark and found Talino, who, however, told them that a Fascist family lived there and that, in a village that small, secrets didn’t last long. The only thing he could think of was to have them seek refuge in the rectory. The priest took them in, not for political reasons, or even out of the goodness of his heart, but because he saw that letting them wander about would be worse than hiding them. But he couldn’t keep them long. He didn’t have enough food for eight men, and he was scared witless, because if the Germans came they would waste no time in searching every house, including the rectory.
“Boys, try to understand,” the priest said. “You’ve all read Kesselring’s manifesto – they’ve put it up everywhere. If they find those men in any of our houses, they’ll burn the town, and, even worse, if one of them shoots at the Germans they’ll kill us all.”
Unfortunately, we had indeed seen Field Marshal Kesselring’s manifesto, and even without it we knew that the S.S. were not exactly subtle, and that they had already burned several towns.
“And so?” Gragnola asked.
“So, seeing that this fog has by the grace of God descended upon us, and seeing that the Germans don’t know the area, someone from Solara has to come up and get those blessed Cossacks, lead them back down, and take them to the Badogliani.”
“And why someone from Solara?”
“In primis, because, to be frank, if I speak about this with anyone in San Martino, word will begin to get around, and in these times the fewer words getting around the better. In secundis, because the Germans have closed the road and no one can get out by that route. Hence the only thing left is to go through the gorge.”
Hearing mention of the gorge, the men all said, “What, do we look crazy? In fog like this? How come that Talino fellow can’t do it?,” and things of that kind. But the damn priest, after reminding them that Talino was eighty and couldn’t come down from San Martino even on the sunniest of days, added – and I say it was in revenge for the frights we boys from the Oratorio had given him – “The only people who know how to get through the gorge, even in fog, are your boys. Seeing as they learned that deviltry in order to make trouble, let them for once use their talents for the good. Bring the Cossacks down with the help of one of your boys.”
“Christ,” Gragnola said, “even if that’s true, what would we do once we got them down – keep them in Solara so that on Monday morning they could be found among us instead of among you, and the Germans could burn our town instead?”
In the group were Stivulu and Gigio, two men who had connections to the Resistance. “Calm down,” said Stivulu, the sharper of the two. “The Badogliani are, as we speak, in Orbegno, and neither the S.S. nor the Black Brigades have ever laid a hand on them there, because they stick to the high ground and control the entire valley with those English machine guns, which are astounding. From here to Orbegno, even in this fog, for somebody like Gigio, who knows the road, if he could use Bercelli’s truck, which has got headlights made specially for fog, that’s a two-hour trip. Let’s go ahead and say three, because it’s already getting dark. It’s five now, Gigio gets there by eight, he warns them, they come down a little way and wait by the Vignoletta crossroads. Then the truck’s back here by ten, let’s go ahead and say eleven, and it hides in that cluster of trees at the foot of the gorge, near the little chapel of the Madonna. One of us, after eleven, goes up the gorge, gets the Cossacks from the rectory, brings them down, loads them into the truck, and before morning those fellows are with the Badogliani.”
“And we’re going through all this rigmarole, risking our necks, for eight Mamelukes or Kalmyks or Mongols or whatever, who were with the S.S. up until yesterday?” asked a man with red hair, whose name, I think, was Migliavacca.
“Hey, buddy, these guys have changed their minds,” Gragnola said, “and that’s already a fine thing, but they’re also eight strong men who know how to shoot, so they’re useful. The rest is horseshit.”
“They’re useful for the Badogliani,” Migliavacca snapped.
“Badogliani or Garibaldini, they’re all fighting for freedom, and, as everybody’s always saying, the accounts will be settled later, not sooner. We’ve got to save the Cossacks.”
“You’re right, too. And, after all, they’re Soviet citizens, so they belong to the great fatherland of socialism,” said a man named Martinengo, who had not quite kept up with all the turning of coats. But these were months when people were doing all sorts of things. Take Gino, who had been in the Black Brigades, and one of the more fanatical members, and then ran off to join the partisans and returned to Solara wearing a red neckerchief. But he was impulsive, and came back when he should have stayed away, to meet a girl, and the Black Brigades caught him and executed him in Asti at dawn one day.
“In short, it can be done,” Gragnola said.
“There’s just one problem,” Migliavacca said. “Even the priest said that only the kids know how to climb the gorge, and I wouldn’t involve a kid in such a delicate situation. Questions of judgment aside, a kid’s likely to go around blabbing about it.”
“No,” Stivulu said. “For example, take Yambo here – none of you even noticed him, but he’s heard everything. Yambo knows the gorge like the back of his hand, and he’s got a good head on his shoulders, and, what’s more, he’s not the type to talk. I’d stake my life on it, and, besides, everyone in his family is on our side, so we’re not running any risks.”
I broke out in a cold sweat and started to say that it was late and I was expected at home.
Gragnola pulled me aside and rattled off a slew of fine words. That it was for freedom; that it was to save eight poor wretches; that even boys my age could be heroes; that, after all, I’d climbed the gorge many times and this time wouldn’t be any different from the others, except there would be eight Cossacks coming down behind me and I would have to be careful not to lose them; that, in any case, the Germans were way over there, waiting at the end of the road like dumb-asses with no idea where the gorge was; that he would come with me even though he was sick, because you cannot turn your back when duty calls; that we would go not at eleven but, rather, at midnight, when everyone in my house was already asleep and I could slip out unnoticed, and the next day they would see me back in my bed as if nothing had happened. And so on, hypnotizing me.
Finally I said yes. After all, it was an adventure I would later be able to tell stories about, a partisan thing, a coup unlike any of Flash Gordon’s in the forests of Arboria. Unlike any of Tremal-Naik’s in the Black Jungle. Better than Tom Sawyer in the mysterious cave.
But, since I had a good head on my shoulders, I immediately set a few things straight with Gragnola. He was saying that, with eight Cossacks in tow, we risked losing them on the way down, and so we should get a nice long rope to tie everyone together, as mountain climbers do, and that way each could follow the next even without seeing where he was going. I said no, if we were roped together like that and the first man fell, he would pull everyone else down with him. What we needed were ten pieces of rope: each of us would hold tight to the end of the rope of the person in front of us and to the end of the rope of the person behind us, and if we felt one of them falling we would immediately let go of our end, because it was better that one should fall than all of us. “You’re sharp,” Gragnola said.
I asked him excitedly if he was going to come armed, and he said no – in the first place, because he would never hurt a fly, but also because if there were, God forbid, an engagement, the Cossacks were armed, and, finally, in the event that he was unlucky enough to get caught, they might not put him up against the wall right away if he was unarmed.
We went and told the priest that we were in agreement, and to have the Cossacks ready by one in the morning.
I went home for dinner around seven. The rendezvous was for midnight by the little chapel of the Madonna, and it would take me forty-five minutes of brisk walking to get there. “Do you have a watch?” Gragnola asked. “No,” I told him, “but at eleven, when everyone goes to bed, I’ll wait in the dining room where there’s a clock.”
Dinner at home with my mind aflame, after dinner a show of listening to the radio and looking at my stamps. At eleven, the house was immersed in silence, and I was in the dining room, in the dark. Every now and then, I lighted a match to check the clock. At eleven-fifteen, I slipped out, and set off through the fog toward the little chapel of the Madonna.
Gragnola was there, and complained that I was late. I realized he was trembling. Not I. I was now in my element. He handed me the end of a rope, and we began climbing up the gorge.
I had the map in my head, but Gragnola kept saying, “Oh, God, I’m falling.” I moved my feet as if following the score of a piece of music; that must be how pianists do it – with their hands, I mean, not their feet – and I did not miss a step. But he, even though he was following me, kept stumbling. And coughing. I often had to turn around and pull him by the hand. The fog was thick, but from half a metre away we could see each other. If I pulled the rope, Gragnola would emerge from dense vapors, which seemed to dissipate all at once, and appear suddenly before me, like Lazarus throwing off his shroud.
The climb lasted a good hour, but that was about average. The only time I warned Gragnola to be careful was when we reached the boulder. If, instead of going around it and rejoining the path, you mistakenly went to the left, feeling pebbles beneath your feet, you would end up in the ravine.
We reached the top, at the gap in the wall, and San Martino was a single invisible mass. We go straight, I told him, down the lane. Count at least twenty steps and we’ll be at the rectory door.
We knocked at the door as we had agreed: three knocks, a pause, then three more. The priest came to let us in. He was a dusty pale color, like the clematis along the roads in summer. The eight Cossacks were there, armed like bandits and scared as children. Gragnola talked with the one who knew Italian. He spoke it quite well, though with a bizarre accent, but Gragnola, as people do with foreigners, spoke to him in infinitives.
“You to go ahead of friends and to follow me and child. You to say to your men what I say, and they to do what I say. Understand?”
“I understand, I understand. We’re ready.”
The priest, who was about to piss himself, opened the door and let us out into the lane. And at that very moment we heard, from the end of the village where the road came in, several Teutonic voices and the yelp of a dog.
“God damn it all to hell,” Gragnola said, and the priest did not even blink. “The toadies made it up here, they’ve got dogs, and dogs don’t give a rat’s ass about fog – they go by their noses. What the hell do we do now?”
The leader of the Cossacks said, “I know how they do. One dog every five men. We go just the same, maybe we meet ones without dog.”
“Rien ne va plus,” said Gragnola the learned. “We do go slow. And we do shoot only if I say. We prepare handkerchiefs or rags, and other ropes.” Then he explained to me, “We’ll hurry to the end of the lane and stop at the corner. If no one’s there, we’ll go right through the wall and be gone. If anyone comes and they’ve got dogs, we’re fucked. If it comes to it, we’ll shoot at them and the dogs, but it depends how many they are. If, on the other hand, they don’t have dogs, we’ll let them pass, come up behind them, bind their hands, and stick rags in their mouths, so they can’t yell.”
“And then leave them there?”
“Yeah, right. No, we take them with us into the gorge, there’s nothing else for it.”
He quickly explained all that again to the Cossack, who repeated it to his men.
The priest gave us some rags, and some cords from the holy vestments. “Go, go,” he was saying, “and God protect you.”
We headed down the lane. At the corner, we heard German voices coming from the left, but no barks or yelps.
We pressed flat against the wall. We heard two men approaching, talking to each other, probably cursing the fact that they could not see where they were going. “Only two,” Gragnola explained with signs. “Let them pass, then on them.”
The two Germans, who had been sent to comb that area while the others took the dogs around the piazza, were going along almost on tiptoe, with their rifles pointed, but they could not even see that a lane was there, and so they passed it. The Cossacks threw themselves on the two shadows and showed that they were good at what they did. In a flash, the two men were on the ground with rags in their mouths, each one held by two of those demoniacs, while a third tied their hands behind them.
“We did it,” Gragnola said. “Now you, Yambo, toss their rifles over the wall, and you, push the Germans behind us, down where we go.”
I was terrified, and now Gragnola became the leader. Getting through the wall was easy. Gragnola passed out the ropes. The problem was that, except for the first and the last in line, each person had to have both hands occupied, one for the front rope and the other for the back rope. But if you have to push two trussed Germans, you cannot hold a rope, and for the first ten steps the group went forward by shoving, until we slipped into the first thickets. At that point, Gragnola tried to reorganize the rope system. Each man who was leading a German tied his rope to his prisoner’s gun belt. Each who was following held onto the prisoner’s collar with his right hand, and with his left held onto the rope of the man behind him. But, just as we were preparing to set off again, one of the Germans tripped and fell onto the guard in front of him, taking the one behind with him, and the chain was broken. Under their breath, the Cossacks hissed what must have been curses in their language, but they had the good sense to do so without shouting.
One German, after the initial fall, tried to get back up and distance himself from the group. Two Cossacks began groping their way after him and might have lost him, except that he did not know where he was going, either, and after a few steps he slipped and fell forward, and they had him again. In the confusion, his helmet fell off. The leader of the Cossacks made it clear that we should not leave it there, because if the dogs came they could follow the scent and would track us down. Only then did we realize that the second German was bareheaded. “God damn those bastards,” Gragnola murmured. “His helmet fell off when we took him in the alley. If they get there with their dogs, they’ll have the scent!”
Nothing for it. And, indeed, we had gone only a few metres farther when we heard voices from above, and dogs barking. “They’ve reached the alley, the animals have sniffed the helmet, and they’re saying we’ve come this way. Stay calm and quiet. First, they have to find the gap in the wall, and if you don’t know it it’s not easy. Second, they have to get down. If their dogs are cautious and go slow, they’ll go slow, too. If the dogs go fast, they won’t be able to keep up and will fall on their asses. They don’t have you, Yambo. Go as fast as you can, let’s move.”
“I’ll try, but I’m scared.”
“You’re not scared, just nervous. Take a deep breath and move.”
I was about to piss myself, like the priest, but at the same time I knew that everything depended on me. My teeth were clenched, and in that moment I would rather have been Giraffone or Jojo than Romano the Legionnaire; Horace Horsecollar or Clarabelle Cow than Mickey Mouse in the House of Seven Haunts; Signor Pampurio in his apartment than Flash Gordon in the swamps of Arboria, but when you are on the dance floor there is nothing to do but dance. I started down the gorge as fast as I could, replaying each step in my mind.
The two prisoners were slowing us down; with the rags in their mouths they had a hard time breathing and paused every minute. After at least fifteen minutes we came to the boulder, and I was so sure of where it was that I touched it with my outstretched hand before I could even see it. We had to stay close together as we went around it, because if anyone veered right he would come to the ledge and the ravine. The voices above us could still be heard distinctly, but it was unclear whether that was because the Germans were yelling louder to incite their reluctant dogs, or whether they had made it past the wall and were approaching.
The two prisoners, hearing their comrades’ voices, tried to jerk away, and when they weren’t actually falling they were pretending to fall, trying to roll off to the side, unafraid of injuring themselves. They had realized that we could not shoot them, because of the noise, and that wherever they ended up the dogs would find them. They no longer had anything to lose, and, like anyone with nothing to lose, they had become dangerous.
Suddenly, we heard machine-gun fire. Not being able to come down, the Germans had decided to fire. But they had almost a hundred and eighty degrees of the gorge in front of them and no idea which way we had gone, so they were firing all over the place. Also, they had not realized how steep the gorge was, and they were firing almost horizontally. When they fired in our direction, we could hear the bullets whistling over our heads.
“Let’s move, let’s move,” Gragnola said. “They still won’t get us.”
But the first Germans must have begun climbing down, getting an idea of the slope of the terrain, and the dogs must have begun heading in a more precise direction. Now they were shooting down, and more or less at us. We heard some bullets murmur through nearby bushes.
“No fear,” the Cossack said. “I know the Reichweite of their Maschinen.”
“The range of those machine guns,” Gragnola offered.
“Yes, that. If they do not come more far down and we go fast, then the bullets will not reach to us anymore. So quick.”
“Gragnola,” I said, with huge tears in my eyes, “I can go quicker, but the rest of you can’t. You can’t drag these two with us, there’s no point in me running down like a goat if they keep holding us up. Let’s leave them here, or I swear I’m taking off on my own.”
“If we leave them here, they’ll get loose in a flash and call down the others,” Gragnola said.
“I kill them with the butt of machine gun, that makes no noise,” the Cossack hissed.
The idea of killing those two poor men froze me, but I regained my composure when Gragnola growled, “It’s no good, God damn it, even if we leave them here dead, the dogs will find them, and the others will know which way we’ve gone. There’s only one thing to do: cause them to fall in some other direction, so the dogs will go that way and we might gain ten minutes or even more. Yambo, to the right here, isn’t there that false path that leads to the ravine? Good, we’ll push them down there, you said that anyone going that way won’t notice the ledge and will fall easily, then the dogs will lead the Germans to the bottom. Before they can recover from that blow, we’re in the valley. A fall from there will kill them, right?”
“No, I didn’t say that a fall from there would definitely kill them. You’ll break bones, if you’re unlucky you might hit your head …”
“God damn you, how come you said one thing and now you’re saying another? So maybe their ropes will come loose as they’re falling, and when they come to a stop they’ll still have enough breath to yell and warn the others to be careful!”
“Then they must fall when they are already dead,” the Cossack, who knew how things worked in this dirty world, commented.
I was right next to Gragnola and could see his face. He had always been pale, but he was paler now. He stood there gazing upward, as if seeking inspiration from the heavens. In that moment, we heard a frr frrr of bullets passing near us at the level of a man’s head. One of the Germans shoved his guard and both fell to the ground, and the Cossack started complaining because the first one was butting him in the teeth with his head, gambling everything and trying to make noise. That was when Gragnola made his decision and said, “It’s them or us. Yambo, if I go right, how many steps before the ledge?”
“Ten steps, ten of mine, maybe eight for you, but if you push your foot out in front of you you’ll feel it start to slope away, and from that point to the ledge it’s four steps. To be safe, take three.”
“O.K.,” Gragnola said, turning to the Cossack. “I’ll go forward, two of you push these two toadies, hold them tight by the shoulders. Everybody else stays here.”
“What are you going to do?” I asked, my teeth chattering.
“You shut up. This is war. Wait here with them. That’s an order.”
They disappeared to the right of the boulder, swallowed by the fog. We waited several minutes, heard the skittering of stones and several thuds, then Gragnola and the two Cossacks reappeared, without the Germans. “Let’s move,” Gragnola said. “Now we can go faster.”
He put a hand on my arm and I could feel him trembling. Now that he was closer I could see him again: he was wearing a sweater that was snug around his neck, and the lancet case was hanging over his chest, as if he had taken it out. “What did you do with them?” I asked, crying.
“Don’t think about it, it was the right thing. The dogs will smell the blood and that’s where they’ll lead the others. We’re safe, let’s go.”
And when he saw that my eyes were bulging out: “It was them or us. Two instead of ten. It’s war. Let’s go.”
After nearly half an hour, during which we kept hearing angry shouts and barking from above, but not coming toward us, indeed getting farther away, we reached the bottom of the gorge, and the road. Gigio’s truck was waiting nearby, in the cluster of trees. Gragnola loaded the Cossacks onto it. “I’m going with them, to make sure they reach the Badogliani,” he said. He was trying not to look at me – he was in a hurry to see me leave. “You go on from here, get back home. You’ve been strong. You deserve a medal. And don’t think about the rest. You did your duty. If anyone is guilty of anything, it’s me alone.”
I returned home sweating, despite the cold, and exhausted. Maybe I was running a fever. I have to confess, I have to confess, I kept saying to myself.
The next morning was worse. I had to get up more or less at the usual hour, and Mamma could not understand why I was so addle-brained. Several hours later, Gigio showed up at our house. I signalled to him to meet me in the vineyard. He couldn’t hide anything from me.
Gragnola had escorted the Cossacks to the Badogliani, then returned, with Gigio and the truck, to Solara. The Badogliani had told them that they should not go around at night unarmed: they had learned that a detachment of Black Brigades had gone to Solara to assist their comrades. They gave Gragnola a musket.
The trip to and from the Vignoletta crossroads took a total of three hours. They returned the truck to Bercelli’s farm, then set out walking on the road to Solara. After all that tension, they were trying to cheer each other up, slapping each other on the back, making noise. And so they failed to notice that the men from the Black Brigades were crouching in a ditch, and they were caught, barely two kilometres from town. They had weapons on them when they were taken and could not explain them away. They were thrown into the back of a van. There were only five of the Fascists, two up front, two in back facing them, and one standing on the front running board, to help see better in the fog.
The Fascists hadn’t bothered to tie them up, since the two who were guarding them were sitting with submachine guns across their laps, and Gigio and Gragnola had been thrown down like sacks. At a certain point, Gigio heard a strange noise, like fabric tearing, and felt a viscous liquid spray him in the face. One of the Fascists heard a gasp, turned on a flashlight, and there was Gragnola, lancet in hand, with his throat cut. The two Fascists started cursing, stopped the van, and with Gigio’s help dragged Gragnola to the side of the road. He was already dead, or nearly, spilling blood everywhere. The three others had come over, too, and they were all blaming each other, saying that he couldn’t croak like that because command needed to make him talk, and they would all be arrested for having been so stupid, failing to tie up the prisoners.
While they were yelling over Gragnola’s body, they forgot Gigio for a moment and he, in the confusion, thought, Now or never. He took off across the ditch, knowing there was a steep slope beyond it. They fired a few shots, but he had already rolled to the bottom of the ditch like an avalanche, and then hidden among some trees. In that fog, he would have been a needle in a haystack, and the Fascists weren’t too interested in making a big deal out of it, because it was obvious by then that they had to hide Gragnola’s body and go back to their command pretending they hadn’t taken anyone that night, in order to avoid trouble with their leaders.
That morning, after the Black Brigades left to meet up with the Germans, Gigio had taken a few friends to the site of the tragedy, and, after searching the ditches awhile, they found Gragnola. The priest of Solara would not allow the corpse in the church, because Gragnola had been an anarchist and by now it was known that he was a suicide, too, but Don Cognasso said to bring him to the little church at the Oratorio, since the Lord knew the proper rules better than his priests.
Gragnola was dead. He had saved the Cossacks, got me back safely, and then died. I knew perfectly well how it had happened, he had foretold it too many times. He was a coward and feared that if they tortured him he would talk, would name names, sending his comrades to the slaughterhouse. It was for them he had died. Just like that, sffft, as I was sure he had done with the two Germans – a kind of Dantesque poetic justice, perhaps. The courageous death of a coward. He had paid for the only violent act of his life, and in the process purged himself of that remorse he was carrying within him and would no doubt have found unbearable. He had screwed them all: Fascists, Germans, and God, in a single stroke. Sffft.
Even in my memories, the fog is thinning. I now see the partisans entering Solara in triumph, and on April 25th comes the news of Milan’s liberation. People swarm the streets, the partisans shoot into the air, they arrive perched on the fenders of their trucks. A few days later, I see a soldier, dressed in olive drab, bicycling up the drive between the rows of horse-chestnut trees. He lets me know that he is Brazilian, then goes happily off to explore his exotic surroundings. Were there Brazilians, too, with the Americans and the British? No one had ever told me that. Drôle de guerre.
The news of the German surrender arrives. Hitler is dead. The war is over. In Solara there is a huge party in the streets, people hugging each other, some dancing to the sounds of an accordion.
I emerge from the tragedy, amid a crowd of radiant people, with the images of the two Germans falling into the ravine and of Gragnola, virgin and martyr – out of fear, out of love, and out of spite.
I lack the courage to go to Don Cognasso and confess … and, besides, confess what? Something I did not do, or even see, but only guessed at? Not having anything to ask forgiveness for, I cannot even be forgiven. It’s enough to make a person feel damned forever.
Translated from the Italian by: Geoffrey Brock