The Immortal Game
Gianni and Angela headed for Marostica straight after breakfast. The plan for the day was to leave Luciana’s place in convoy, as far as Verona. Lia would take Angela to Gardaland, the biggest fun park in the country while her mother drove Gianni to Lake Como. There they would meet Gianni’s uncle and delve into the family’s dark past.
Why was he doing this? It was one thing to bring a favourite grandchild on a business trip, introduce her to the magical mountain land of her ancestors: a thread of culture or curiosity might bind her to it when she got back to her high-tech fashion-driven teenage Australian reality. But why spoil the trip with old memories? The receptionist at the hotel had been telling him how dangerous it was when fog hid the cliffs and ravines on Monte Grappa. Gianni was beginning to feel he was up there like that, without a map.
It did not help that every time he saw Luciana or Lia he felt exalted by their loveliness. Were there no such beauties back home? Had he been perversely invigorated coming here? Angela probably thought he was and condemned him for it: that alone would ruin the trip. And now history was gripping him like an addiction. Back in Brisbane maybe his life lacked some depth and he lacked something in identity, but he was happy then.
They reached the big house at Marostica and he kissed the beautiful women. The four of them set off. He farewelled Angela and Lia outside the amphitheatre and proceeded with Luciana on what could well be a futile quest. As her BMW raced along the autostrada Luciana did her best to lower his expectations. She had only seen Enrico twice in the past twenty years. Although he was strange she quite liked him, but he repelled her mother. Who knew how it might go today.
“He was really surprised to hear from me,” she said, flashing her lights at the car in front. “And even more stunned when I told him why I was calling. Frankly, he does not want to see you. He does not want to go back into our past. I had to plead with him. I told him we’d just listen to whatever he felt like telling us. That it needn’t take long at all.”
“He agreed, then?”
“No, he was still unhappy. I said he should look on it as a kindness towards the son of the sister he loved so much. He replied, with ill grace, that he would think about it. Anyway, I must have touched a nerve because later he rang back and said he would do it. But he warned me that he doubted the conversation we are going to have would do any good at all, to any of us.”
Gianni pondered on this. It was a glorious day and everywhere he looked he saw rich farmlands freshly harvested, spanking new cars hurtling along the highway, peace and prosperity. It was an act of masochism, this intended immersion in wartime misery. But it was so long ago, so unreal and unrelated to the here and now that surely one could talk about it dispassionately. He wondered if there was something particular that troubled Enrico, some wickedness perhaps that he wished to keep hidden. Gianni had done quite a few bad things himself in his time, but he got over them. It would of course be more terrible in wartime, on a bigger scale, and whole families got caught up.
“How did your paths cross originally, yours and Enrico’s?” he asked.
“Our parents used to see each other quite a lot when I was little. Ettore’s family was part of that group, too. Until the sixties when the political climate worsened. We were from the right, and the trend increasingly was to the left. Enrico thought it best to get away, to where no one knew him.”
Gianni grunted and thought, Enrico the chicken. His contempt must have shown because Luciana came quickly back at him.
“Please make an effort to understand, Gianni. How it was when we were born. The devastation of the war then an unbelievable boom, millions moved north from Sicily and Naples. The great changes did not suit everyone. One outcome was terrorism, with political murders and kidnappings, throughout the 1970s. Far left and far right were both to blame. It was a truly dangerous period. Enrico made a sensible decision.”
Gianni said it seemed people here wallowed in history. It wasn’t healthy. Digging up the skeletons in the back yard. One side blaming the other. Wanting revenge. He couldn’t explain it to Angela. We had no such obsession back home.
“That’s nonsense. Besides, it’s your own fault, Gianni. Angela told me you’ve made this trip one big history lesson.”
“I didn’t want that!” He was hurt and defensive. “I just wanted her to see the place for herself, to have it as part of her personal story. Part of her own history. It was her idea, anyway. She begged to come with me once she heard about the Viale dei Martiri and how beautiful Bassano was, with the mountains and so on. She latched onto how my father had been a hero. What a mistake! He was no hero! Utterly gutless, more like!”
“You don’t know what really happened, Gianni,” Luciana cautioned. “Nobody does. It is possible that Enrico could help you get closer to what really happened to your parents, although I doubt it. I have never heard him talk about that troubled period.”
She told him that, by the way, Enrico was gay. It was not an issue today but it had been not so long ago. Enrico was sensitive and she hoped Gianni would take that into account. He shrugged off her hint that he himself lacked sensitivity and they talked instead, Gianni mostly, about their children in Verona. As Luciana turned off the main road at Bergamo she asked him about his life in Australia and he told her about Ric and Jill and his house and car. She concentrated on a local bus that kept stopping and then pulling out in front of her, until she was able to race past.
Eventually Lake Como appeared below them. After Lecco they passed through a long tunnel and a bit further on Luciana turned off up a slope and through a gate to a grand villa converted into flats, where Enrico lived. She parked under an enormous pine at the back of the building. As they got out Gianni inhaled a scent of resin and took in the tranquil green and the mountains tumbling down to the lake.
“It’s a better view from Enrico’s front balcony,” Luciana said as she buzzed the intercom. A tinny male voice answered and the door sprang open. They went in and up stairs to the second floor before turning along a passage. The doorway at the end stood a lightly built man in his early fifties with a hooked nose and beetling eyebrows. He moved a pace back as they approached, poised and impish.
“I am Paolo,” he said, with a small bow. “Good day Luciana, do you remember me from last time? And you must be Gianni.” He considered Gianni carefully and then said, over his shoulder as he walked ahead of them, “We were expecting you a little later.”
“There was no traffic,” Luciana told the back of his head. “Anyway, this is to be just a quick visit.”
Paolo stopped at an archway into a larger room and, turning round to face them both, said, “You will of course stay for lunch, the small thing that I have prepared.”
Luciana assured him they would. The room they entered was dark with shutters drawn beyond high floor-to-ceiling windows. It took a moment to make out the figure reclining on a sofa at the far end of the room, and now slowly getting to his feet. Enrico, tall and angular, looked younger than Gianni had expected. He would have to be at least in his mid-seventies. Like Paolo he wore pale slacks and a pastel coloured shirt, undone at the cuffs.
“Luciana my dear,” Enrico said, “forgive me, forgive this obscurity, but I’m getting over a mild illness and the glare outside affects me. Are you Gianni? You must be. Don’t move. Let me look at you.”
Gianni, whom nobody ever patronised, was being treated like a child. He scowled at Enrico who in contrast appeared calm and detached. He studied Gianni as he might some piece of antique furniture he was contemplating buying.
“You don’t look like my sister at all,” he declared, “except for the line of the jaw.” Enrico stroked his own, for confirmation, and added “but you remind me of Tommaso. He was small and dark and you’re strong and fair-haired. Still, it’s him you take after.”
“Shall we shake hands on it?” Gianni said, with heavy irony. Enrico, with a left-hand wave of apology for not having done so before, held out his right hand like royalty. Gianni thought to give him one of his bone-crushing squeezes, but Enrico was quick and it was just his fingertips that were caught, for an instant. Paolo had left the room but reappeared with a silver tray on which were crystal glasses and a decanter of scotch. Via those eyebrows he interrogated first Gianni and then Luciana. They nodded. He set the tray down on a small table, poured out four equal measures and added icecubes.
“To my prodigal nephew,” Enrico said, raising his glass, “and the voluptuous Luciana. It is a great thrill to have you both, together, here in my house.”
Enrico clearly enjoyed unsettling people. Luciana had told Gianni it was his quirky behaviour that kept her mother away and she only ever saw him because he was Loredana’s brother. He now produced a huge pair of dark glasses and, with a sweep of his arm, told his visitors they must inspect his panorama. Paolo, anticipating this proposal, had already begun to open the shutters and light flooded in. Coming into view was a stretch of delectable blue water and then the hillside on the far side of the long tongue of lake. Enrico led his guests outside.
They stayed there for some time as Enrico pointed out places of interest to Gianni. The mood between them improved with Gianni appreciative and Enrico pleased at having a captive audience. He told Gianni something about his career in architecture and they discovered a mutual interest in furniture. Paolo came out to tell them lunch was ready.
He had laid on something special – three courses combining style, quality ingredients and culinary skill. It was a hobby, he said, but Enrico told them that Paolo had graduated from a top catering school and had thrived in hotels and restaurants around Europe before Enrico ‘found’ him. In a lull in the conversation Luciana suggested that the time had perhaps come. Enrico looked at her questioningly and she said, “To tell Gianni what he needs to know, about his father.”
Enrico’s mood at once changed, no longer the exuberant and elegant raconteur. He seemed evasive, unforthcoming, as though reacting to some affront. He had to deal with this issue since it was the reason they had come but Gianni sensed he had been hoping to stretch things out so whatever was to be said would be at the end, and might be limited to generalities. Enrico, manifestly unhappy, put his sunglasses on and looked out at the lake. He took them off and cleaned them and set them down next to his spoon, and studied the chandelier above his head. Finally he was ready.
“I didn’t know your father well,” he began, not looking at Gianni but instead snapping a grissini biscuit and crushing a small piece to a fine powder. “I met him for the first time in April of that year, 1944. So altogether it was only five months that we were ever acquainted. And most of that time he was away in the army, in Padova.”
“You were not the same age,” prompted Gianni.
“No!” agreed Enrico. “I was younger by a couple of years. So we didn’t have that much in common. I saw him on very few occasions. Maybe five or six times altogether. We never had a discussion about anything, it was …. Well, we talked mainly about your mother, my sister. She was the one link between us.”
Neither Gianni nor Luciana said anything. Enrico continued slowly, grimacing every now and then, as if it was painful to draw this out of his memory. He told them Tommaso had come to the house a couple of times, and they met once at the garage where Enrico worked. This was after the Armistice. Tommaso by then was somewhere up the mountain. It was a period when both of them, Tommaso and Loredana, had asked Enrico to be their go-between for the few opportunities they had to meet. It wasn’t possible for Tommaso to front up at their house and ask to see Loredana. Gianni asked why not.
“Not after he left the army,” Enrico said. “While he was in the army of course he would always have been welcome. It was the day he signed up for the army when he met both of us, and came to our house. We made him welcome, even if he was from a contadino family. Because he presented as a nice boy, happy, good looking, and honest as well. My mother liked him. But we were a government family, and he became a rebel, a partisan.”
“You were fascists?” Gianni suggested, more as a statement than a question. Enrico recoiled.
“Yes, of course we were. It was the normal state of affairs. We were loyal to the system that had governed Italy effectively for a generation. And we paid dearly for that loyalty.” He looked challengingly at Gianni who remembered what Luciana had told him about Enrico’s sensitivity and said nothing. “We were an ordinary family. The head of it was a local functionary, that’s all. One son was a soldier, another in the militia, not of high rank. Two daughters at home. Apart from Attilio, your foster-father who emigrated to Australia nothing was out of the ordinary. And despite our ordinariness, despite our simple loyalty to the lawful authority, we paid a horrific price.”
The long pause that followed had to be broken but Enrico seemed to have been turned into stone, his gaze fixed somewhere above Paolo’s head at the other side of the table. Luciana reached over and touched Enrico lightly on the forearm. She said, “You should tell him, Enrico.”
“As soon as the German forces surrendered in Italy the partisans came looking for people like us, people who had had any power at all before,” Enrico then broke out in a rush, as though it was urgent to get this over and done with. “I was the luckiest one in our family, because I had a knack of making friends. I knew one of the men who came, but that did not save me from his colleagues who broke two of my ribs. Your mother was in a hell of her own in Trieste at this time, pregnant, with you, but in a sense she was also lucky. My other sister was humiliated, her hair was shaved off amidst general ridicule. Luca was a prisoner of war in Africa in failing health, and when he returned more than a year later he was already dying.
“It was a beautiful spring day, when they came. The country was at peace and birds were singing, it seemed, for the first time in years. We heard shouts as a crowd came down our street. My father went out to see what was going on, to protect the family. He tried to get back inside. We were all watching from the window. They dragged him back. He was struck in the face several times until he fell to the ground; they made him stand up and then he was shot, repeatedly, near the front door. They came back next day for my brother Giancarlo. We saw him murdered, not far from the house. Like his father, in cold blood.”
In the silence that followed Gianni could hear the wind in the pines outside. Paolo was restless on the other side of the table. Gianni shifted his feet and the chair creaked. He could not think of anything good to say but in any case Enrico spoke first.
“We have that in common, Gianni – both our fathers died brutally. I will tell you what I know about how your father met his fate, the previous September. You have heard about the rastrellamento. Similar operations were carried out that month all over the north of Italy. The Germans knew that if the country was to be defended from external aggression they had to deal resolutely with internal aggression. The operations from the border with France in the west to the border with Yugoslavia in the east were like raking up autumn leaves. They had to be carried out quickly and without remorse. It was a task as much for Italian forces as for the German allies. Giancarlo had a minor role in the operation, in the Bassano area. It was he who told me what happened after the rastrellamento, and about your father.”
Enrico stopped while Paolo laid meringues, stacked like a miniature complex of mosques, at each place before sitting down again with a “voilà!” A murmur of appreciation greeted his theatrics. Enrico sampled a meringue, nodded at Paolo and then went on, “In Bassano the partisans made a huge mistake. They were so arrogant, and believed themselves invulnerable on Monte Grappa. All summer they camped up there – the communists and the socialists and the catholics and others – and they squabbled among themselves. Every now and then one band or another would run down the mountain, blow up something or assassinate somebody, and then dash back up to their safe refuge. But it wasn’t safe at all. They had laid their own trap. They had put a noose around their own neck. In military terms it was the easiest thing to surround them and go after them. The operation there was fundamentally over in half a day.”
The account was cold, indisputable. Gianni understood already that any meaningful partisan resistance had been swept away in no time but he resented Enrico’s glibness. He was delivering lines, like an actor. He even seemed to be wearing make-up although it might be skin cream for some ailment. Gianni thought: people are frightened of reality and hide it with make-up and masks and artifices. Perhaps as a form of protection, the way some lizards change colour. Lithe Enrico was a lizard. Gianni’s hands were crossed on his own leathery forearms. He might be a lizard, too. He felt like attacking this other one. He leaned forward now, both elbows on the table.
“Was my father caught then, in that raking-up operation on the mountain?” he asked. Enrico had paused again to tackle his dessert, with no indication that he had anything else to say. Now he looked sharply up at Gianni.
“No, as a matter of fact he wasn’t. He was one of few who slipped through the encirclement. He was born on the mountain and he knew it very well. He used to amaze us with his local knowledge of tracks and caves and things. He was clever enough to get down without being seen or without running into any patrols. He was foolish enough to want to see your mother, my sister. He went to our house, into our house. It was just as foolish of him, after that, to go back up the mountain. That’s when he was caught.”
A dawning realisation seemed to strike Gianni then because he sat back, spoon up like a talisman and exclaimed, “He had that one chance to see her! That was when….”
“When you were conceived, yes,” Enrico acidly finished off the sentence that Gianni, now wide-eyed, had left hanging. “It was the only time they were ever properly alone together. You presumably cannot consider that an error or you wouldn’t be here now. That’s understandable from your point of view. But it was an act as violent as it was foolhardy.”
“Violent? How can you say that?” demanded Gianni indignantly. “Weren’t they in love?”
Enrico seemed to be thrown further on the defensive. He shook his head and proceeded in a milder, more reasonable tone. “I am giving you the facts, as they were told to me. By Giancarlo, that evening when I got home. He was in the house when Tommaso came although he had no idea Tommaso was there. He was upstairs asleep. Then he heard noises. When he came down Loredana was in an awful state, a mess, clothes torn and bruising and so on. Giancarlo was very upset by the treatment she had received. Tommaso had fled and Giancarlo at once gave the alarm. The next day a unit of soldiers located your father, knowing which direction he had taken.”
“So at the time you weren’t there, in the house?” Gianni asked. It was an innocent thing to check on although the words seem to gain menace after he had uttered them. He hadn’t meant that. He was using the polite grammatical form, despite this being his uncle. Enrico was a formal person and he had set the tone from the outset. Now he appeared to be rattled by the directness of Gianni’s question, as though his reliability as a witness was in doubt.
“No, as I said, I came back later. I mean ..…. I was out when Tommaso came. I’d been on my way to see a friend at Schievenin.” The unusual name journeyed around the space above the table in a bubble of its own.
“At Schievenin?” Luciana repeated after a short pause, doubtfully. “That’s on the mountain. Where the military were raking up.” Enrico, hostile, turned to her. It seemed he was about to tell her to hold her tongue. Instead he took a breath and let it out heavily.
“Schievenin is a village on the mountain, yes,” he said, almost with resignation. “I had friends there. Tommaso lived there, too. The village was razed to the ground in reprisals that week. I’d heard a rumour about that, and was on my way to check it out.”
There followed another stilted, drawn-out silence. It was a strange pattern to this jerky conversation, that each remark of Enrico’s brought a momentary hush. Gianni needed to take in and weigh what he had been told. He was unwilling to risk – in the way he normally would – upsetting either the narrative or the equanimity of the person talking to him. Then Paolo, pushing his chair back as if to get up and clear things away, burst out, “Gianni, can’t we leave it at that? Can’t we leave the past alone, finally?”
For a moment Gianni had been tempted to do just that. But he changed his mind, putting the palm of his hand down on the tabletop. “No, otherwise no one will ever learn anything. Things need to be said. Even if it hurts.”
The others all looked uncomfortable. Paolo saw an opportunity, a distraction from whatever was causing Enrico to suffer. He demanded, “You mean, no secrets? Even private ones? We have to have some secrets, Gianni, don’t you think? We can’t bare everything.”
“I do need to know this, Paolo. Maybe we all do. If we know history … “
“We avoid repeating its mistakes? That’s wishful thinking! We’re talking about times of war, about human frailties!”
During the exchange Enrico had been staring at Gianni in a distracted and stricken sort of way as though something must be settled, but not like this. Gianni turned to him and said, “I wanted to clear up the sequence of events. Leading up to my father’s arrest.”
Enrico made an “mmm” noise as though affectedby some jabbing pain in his stomach and Gianni went on, “You wouldn’t have seen him, Enrico, would you? As he headed for your house?”
Enrico, curving forward in his seat, glanced away, out through the other window at the umbrella pine against the azure sky. When he spoke it was with some difficulty that made him clear his throat.
“I did see him in fact. We met by accident in Fener, where he had been hiding. He asked me about Loredana, and I told him she was home. He set off to see her straight away.”
“You didn’t tell him Giancarlo was home,” Gianni whispered. Whether it was a statement or a question didn’t matter. It demanded a truthful response. He felt like one of those trial lawyers, one of those in the movies. His own cleverness struck him, took his breath away. He could feel Luciana watching him, and guessed her admiration. He set his features into a cold judicial calm.
Enrico put his hand to his forehead and with his other elbow on the table leaned over his plate. He shut his eyes. Paolo jumped up to check that he was all right but Enrico motioned him away. He had both hands under his chin now and was staring at the little bowl of flowers that formed the mid-point between the four of them. Still concerned, Paolo retrieved the plate from in front of him and those of the others and clattered them onto the trolley as though he wanted to ease this tightening in the air they were all trying to breathe. He came back and looked as if he was about to them all offer coffee. Enrico raised one hand a few centimetres, he was going to speak.
“Gianni,” he said, and now he used the familiar ‘tu’ form, “I want to tell you something. I’m glad you came today. I’m glad, in a very unusual way. You have given me a chance to get something off my chest. I wasn’t going to. But something has been eating away at me, a foul cancer, for many many years. You must listen to what I have to say.”
It was a surreal moment, with Paolo still as a statue with one hand on the trolley and Gianni and Luciana not breathing as they waited for Enrico to go on. A motorcycle started its engine noisily in the compound below them. For the first time the ticking of a clock could be heard in another room. Enrico continued to stare at the flower arrangement as if it might give him inspiration.
“I don’t know why I didn’t tell him Giancarlo was there. I truly don’t. I have thought about it a thousand times. I didn’t tell him, and that’s something I have regretted for a very long time.”
Enrico hunched up and crossed his hands over to cup his elbows. He had dropped his head lower to look down where his plate had been and now he raised his head to appeal directly to Gianni, anguished lines creasing his forehead.
“It wasn’t a betrayal, Gianni. It wasn’t a trap that I wanted him to walk into. It might look like that. I really wanted to help him see Loredana, because you were right, they were in love.”
He searched the room with his eyes as though there might be someone else there, not one of the three close in and hanging on his words, who might come to his aid. He seemed to recover his equanimity and said, defiantly, “But I didn’t agree at all with his partisan way of life, and neither did Loredana. The partisans were bandits and rebels. None of them could be allowed to get away with it, not even him.”
Gianni may have been about to protest but then Enrico shook his head, not once but three times. “It doesn’t make sense now although I thought it did then. What was best for him, what was best for us. I know these are contradictions. Of course he was going to his doom. It is inexcusable that I did what I did. Gianni, I’m sorry!”
And with that Enrico broke down and all three of them, with Paolo there first, were up and around him, to help him from the chair. He seemed in danger of collapsing from it as he now sobbed uncontrollably. He fumbled sightlessly for the handkerchief in his top pocket. He let Paolo help him to his feet and take his weight, the two leaning in on each other and shambling from the dining room into the room they had been in before. Gianni touched Luciana lightly on the arm and they went in after them.
By the time they reached the sofa Enrico had his emotions under control and was able to dismiss Paolo. He sat down unaided. For a brief while his concentration seemed to waver as he gazed about, his teeth on his bottom lip. Then he focused on his two guests with greater composure. They had lowered themselves uninvited to chairs on either side of him. He inhaled deeply.
“Gianni,” he began, “Everything about this story is a torment. Including for you, I have no doubt. You need to know what happened after your father was arrested and imprisoned. Back then I needed to know, too, but at first Giancarlo was very loath to tell me and it was only to get rid of a pestering brother that weeks later he told me the full story.
“Tommaso was taken to the main barracks in Bassano, and he was interrogated there. Some of that would have been physically severe, although usually they found other ways to break people’s spirit. They especially wanted to know from Tommaso the whereabouts of Vipera, and confirmation that this was his friend Sandro Peruzzo. Have you ever heard of him?”
Gianni shook his head and Enrico explained that Peruzzo had survived the rastrellamento, and the war. For a few years in the nineteen forties he had made a name for himself as a partisan hero and had had brief fame in local politics, as a member of the Communist Party. He was killed in a traffic accident.
“Despite the interrogations,” Enrico continued, returning to his theme, “Tommaso by 26 September had told his captors nothing, about Vipera or his own group of partisans, the Matteotti Brigade. They kept him alive while they carried out the hangings on that day. They told him about them and made an offer to spare him if he revealed what he knew. Even that didn’t work.”
“What did happen, with the hangings?” Gianni asked, very subdued.
Enrico sighed. “You have seen the avenue, of course you have. On the day of the executions the trees and lampposts along that road were prepared, with nooses of telephone wire. In the afternoon an open truck with thirty or so prisoners – some of them were captured partisans while others were so-called hostages – made a journey down the line of trees. A priest was on board to give them comfort, and there were two German soldiers. They were all apparently stoical about what was to happen to them. At each point a noose was put around someone’s neck and the truck then started forward and yanked the prisoner off to his death. One of them had to be hanged twice as he was too tall and he landed on his feet. Nobody was allowed to watch, everyone was chased away and the windows of houses along the other side of the avenue had to be shuttered. But the bodies were left hanging for twenty hours, and people saw them there next day. It was a gruesome sight. Some of the corpses had had cigarettes stuck in their mouths afterwards to make them look more undignified.”
Gianni regarded Enrico grimly. Enrico went on, “Tommaso still would not say anything. He was told his last chance to cooperate would be the following day when an expert torturer was coming for that purpose. In the morning they came to his cell and found him covered in his own blood. He had slashed his wrists with something sharp but had failed to do much damage. But he found another way: he mutilated his tongue and was incapable of speaking. He was at once taken outside and shot.”
Gianni had let out a cry of anguish as Enrico finished his account. Enrico, now much the calmer of the two, leaned forward and gripped Gianni’s arm.
“It was an act of great bravery, Tommaso’s,” he said. “Your father could have reasonably given in then. But he would have known he risked saying things under torture that he had promised himself not to say. Sooner or later you do break. He chose another path, one certain to lead to his own death.”
“Jesus!” Gianni exclaimed dolefully, and paused again. “It’s almost impossible to comprehend. I mean, here of all places, how people could do that to each other. What you’ve told me… the bestiality of it, it seems unbelievable. When wherever you look, here, you find instead kindness and humanity and civilised behaviour.”
“Of course you can’t understand it.” Enrico was peremptory, like a schoolteacher. “These things are cyclical, they come around. You have lived in abnormal times. You have seen nothing but continuous peace and every year has promised to be richer and happier than the one before. Normal times, however, are violent. I can promise you, the cycle of violence, even of bestiality, will return. That’s the point Paolo was making just now. It’s fundamental to human nature.”
Gianni’s first instinct was to contradict this specious argument. But could there be something to what Enrico was saying? Europe destroying itself, then getting so rich and prosperous? Luciana had talked of terrorism in Italy. Was it all too good to last? Enrico carried on, more confident now, “When I was growing up violence was everywhere. I remember, I was about six, Giancarlo for no reason smacking both palms against my ears and lifting me like that by my head off the ground. Often he, and my father as well, would kick me around, ours was a rough family, like most others. The government was rough, they had squadristi to beat up anybody who disagreed. The strong bashed the weak, trod on them, robbed them, that was normal. Ruthless men were in charge. Violence was everywhere, as war came – the violence of hunger, the daily fights for everything in short supply, the terrifying and destructive bombings. We were all trapped in that particular cycle of violence.”
Gianni again wanted to say something but Enrico cut in. “Under such threats and pressures, Gianni, people have to make choices to survive, really hard ones. I made choices and I survived and I have lived with pain and regrets ever since. Your father made a choice and he didn’t survive. Maybe on some level what he did was good. We won’t know, in this life, whether his reward is greater than mine.”
“You keep talking about traps, Enrico …”
“It’s true!” Enrico declared, as though he had realised something. “The partisans were in a trap on the mountain. And whatever you might think, the Germans were in a bigger and more lethal trap themselves. We’re all trapped by who we are, by our circumstances, by what we have to do….”
Gianni guessed that Enrico was trying to make an escape along this particular route, to excuse himself in some indirect fashion. He interrupted to ask if he knew what had happened to Tommaso’s family. Enrico responded that before the rastrellamento Tommaso’s father had been sent to Germany and had died there some months later. His mother and the other children had emigrated to Brazil after the war. Their house had been destroyed, as all the others in the village.
“Do you know where my father is buried… is his name anywhere?” Gianni asked, almost plaintively. It occurred to him this was something he really needed to take away from the encounter with Enrico.
“No. I don’t. There’s no trace. There were mass burials, after the rastrellamento. But there was another reason, Gianni. We, I mean the family and especially Giancarlo, did everything to make sure Tommaso’s name didn’t feature anywhere. Giancarlo said it was because he had raped Loredana, and to prevent any shame coming to the family from such an association with a partisan. But it was to muzzle her, too. To keep her in the dark. To keep her from going to look for him. I couldn’t accept Giancarlo’s version. Nevertheless there was nothing whatever I could do. I said nothing.”
During Enrico’s account Gianni had gone from desperation to incredulity to censure. He stood up at the end of it wanting do something wild, first clenching his fists and then flinging his fingers free. After taking a couple of paces away, swearing under his breath, he came back and sat down. Profoundly sad now, he repeated his mother’s name out loud.
“Loredana! What happened to my mother, Enrico? How did she end up in Trieste?”
“Papa ordered her away, after Christmas when she began to swell up. He was horrible to her, so was Giancarlo.” Enrico was gazing out of the window again, with a distant expression. “I tried to see her. It was after the garibaldini broke into our house and killed them both. Before that it would have been impossible, I was a prisoner too, in a way. My mother begged me to find her, she was in utter misery. It was June, I went as fast as I could but they wouldn’t let me into Trieste. Three times I tried to get past roadblocks. Foreign soldiers were everywhere, Americans, even soldiers from New Zealand. In the end I talked to a priest from a town near Trieste who had permission to go into the city, and I waited for him to come back.”
After every sentence Enrico had been pausing, and for longer periods. His memories seemed to buffet him like wild weather. He concluded in a torrent. “A week later I saw the priest again. He had met people who knew her. In the red light district. She was in advanced pregnancy and already ill. She refused to leave. She wouldn’t come home, and anyway where else could she have gone? There were Slavs all around, ready kill Italians, any Italians at all. The priest himself was extremely nervous. She couldn’t be persuaded. There was nothing I…anyone could do. Two months later she was dead!”
Enrico seemed in danger of breaking down again. Luciana whispered to Gianni that they ought to go and he nodded. Both he and Enrico were too moved to speak as they got to their feet. Gianni took a pace forward to embrace his uncle and they hugged for a few seconds. Paolo helped Enrico back to his seat on the sofa. Luciana sat down beside him, to comfort him. Gianni went to stare out at the lake. He felt nothing but blame and condemnation for Enrico.
Now that departure was imminent Paolo had come to life again and was bustling to help them get through their awkward farewells. The hosts were thanked for their hospitality. Luciana kissed Enrico and Gianni muttered goodbye as he shook his hand. Paolo led them to the front door.
“It may just have been worth it,” he said to Gianni frostily. “He has made his confession and I hope that it will heal him in some way. He didn’t expect absolution – he has lost his faith completely. But in a way you have played God today.” He took and released Gianni’s hand in a clear sign he would be happy never to see him again. Then the door clicked shut.
Luciana and Gianni hardly spoke until they were well past Lecco and even then only about things to do with the journey back. As they pulled away at the autostrada barrier a cameo scene confronted them: two carabinieri stood by a sports car with its roof down and were questioning the two young men inside. It was not an unpleasant exchange. The driver was gesticulating and both policemen were smiling amiably. Luciana drew level, changing gear. She caught Gianni’s eye and inclined her head towards the scene.
“I read somewhere, Gianni, that forgiveness is one of the deep and defining characteristics of Italians, of our culture. Foreigners find that peculiar. We have so many ways and so many words – perdono, indulto, amnestia – to forgive people, to let them off the hook.”
“So police here are kind? Ours certainly aren’t,” Gianni conceded, not sure what she was getting at. She did not elaborate but then wondered if he would mind a small detour. He agreed, surprised, and asked where were they going.
“It’s not far,” Luciana told him. “To a little town on Lake Garda called Salò.”
“Salo’…. Wasn’t that….?”
“Yes. It was where Mussolini set up his headquarters at the end of 1943. When the German paratroopers rescued him, after he had been arrested and imprisoned. His new government was called the Republic of Salò.”
As they approached the town, a jewel set on a little promontory, Luciana pointed out to some of the villas used during the war as government ministries, and the high school that had been the headquarters of the Decima MAS. She parked and they found a bar looking out over the lake. She ordered coffees and paid for them, brushing aside Gianni’s attempt to do that, and sat down with her back to the water. She gave him a Mona Lisa smile.
“I came here once before. It was after your first visit, and before Ettore. I met a German boy whose family stayed every year on Lake Garda. His father had spent time at Salò as a soldier. I’ve not thought about him, until today. He brought me here and we went on the ferry. It rained and we squabbled.”
It occurred to Gianni that the boyfriend story might be a good omen. The sun was gilding her hair and she looked younger.
“I expect he was mad about you.”
“We quickly got over each other. Now, tell me what you made of Enrico. And of what he had to say.”
“Your mother was right to want to avoid him.”
“Gianni, what’s the worst thing you have ever done?”
That was a loaded question. He would have snapped back at anyone but Luciana for asking it. It baffled him, this hold she had over him. He had hopes for her. It was ridiculous. If he were not careful he would make a fool of himself. She was so gorgeous. What could he say to her now? His worst thing…? He had made bad decisions, ones that had lost him money. She seemed to want him to come up with something he should feel sorry about. There was not much he could think of.
“I used to lose my temper a lot, when I was young. I got into fights. I put one kid in hospital. That was the worst, I suppose.”
She nodded. “I remember. When you came here. You think you are strong, but it is a great weakness, to use physical strength like that.”
“You think I’m no better than Giancarlo, don’t you?” Gianni said bridling, and that was a mistake. Luciana gave a small sigh of contempt, and did not try to avoid him with the smoke that she blew from her cigarette, holding him all the while in a hard stare.
“Giancarlo fought for his country. He had ideals, he risked his life, and he paid for what he did with his life. He did, as Enrico told us, use violent methods, at a time of violence. But you are right, Gianni, to mention him. You behaved like one of Giancarlo’s squadristi, one of his thugs. You are a creature of those times, not these.”
“I’m not proud of myself,” he said indignantly. “There’s a lot I could say in justification. Like how tough it was for migrant kids. We had to fight, or go under. But you don’t want to hear that.”
“You’re in a trap, Gianni, one of those Enrico was talking about. You’re in more of a trap than your father was.” Gianni was about to object but she persisted: “Your father got out of his traps. He got off the mountain. He escaped the torturers. He became a true hero. But you … you’re a bully, you can’t help yourself.”
“Why did we come here, Luciana?”
“I needed to talk to you. To find out what sort of person you have become. I was a little curious, I admit it. I should ask you: why did you come here?”
Gianni asked: “You want to know more about me?” She nodded.
Gianni saw an opening. Hoping he came across as sincere and serious, and in as few words as seemed necessary, he told her about Attilio and sugarcane and furniture, how he the nephew became the business partner and created a substantial enterprise. He was successful, but still unsatisfied. He had come here for business reasons, Angela was incidental. But then her being here had become the central issue. It had opened his eyes to a whole new dimension, to things that had unexpectedly become very important.
A ferry had pulled in at the quay near them. The passengers came down the gangplank and swirled past, beautifully dressed Italians, Germans with expensive cameras, a man in a white suit led by a borzoi with a jewelled collar. Gianni suggested they go for a walk. He guided her along the strip between the houses and the water to the head of the promontory. They stood under a large magnolia while a variety of craft drifted about the lake. This might be the last of the summer heat. Not far from them at the water’s edge a young couple sat close together, the girl ruffling her boyfriend’s hair.
“My past has become important to me, Luciana, and I’m coming to terms with it. With who I really am. You’ve helped me. It’s made me wonder about my future. Whether I need to base myself in Australia, importing furniture. It occurred to me, today actually, that I could base myself in Italy, and export. The truth is, my fate is bound up in this country. I realise that now.”
“You would want to live here?”
“Yes! It could be the right thing to do. Not just in the business sense.”
They were both surprised. Gianni heard his own voice as though it was someone else’s. Words were coming out of his mouth almost involuntarily. Ideas that had been wraiths in his mind were suddenly parading out there in flesh and blood. Luciana seemed to have caught his drift, and was shocked by it.
“Are you by any chance including me, Gianni, in all of this?”
He had been looking at her with a certain intensity and had probably given the game away, whatever game it was. At the back of his mind was the fact that this beauty was married to a decrepit old man. She would find herself on her own. How good it would be if he were there then for her.
“Well, yes, in a way. Eventually. It’s too early, too presumptuous. But I’m being honest with you…..”
“We should be getting back,” she said, already making a move away. “Ettore will be getting worried. And Angela, too, I wouldn’t be surprised.”
They walked back to the car and were soon on their way. Gianni tried not to let his disappointment show and got her talking on other matters. After a time he asked what had happened to her fiancé, the older man he vaguely remembered from his visit last time. That had not been Ettore, had it? She said certainly not, but they were of similar age and impeccable behaviour. The romance with the man Gianni was referring to had been practically over when Gianni came on the scene.
“You told me about your German boyfriend,” Gianni remarked. “It reminds me Angela has got one, too.”
“Yes, I was thinking about him before, too. He’s nice. She told me yesterday she wants to go to Germany, next year probably. One of her friends did that, staying with a family. Don’t stand in her way, Gianni. She’s growing up and you can’t know what her interests are. You can’t possibly share them. You have to accept that whether you like it or not.”
There was so much he had to accept and did not much like, Gianni decided.
Luciana collected them from the hotel that evening, for the chess pageant in the main square at Marostica. On the way she told them about its origin, how it dated back to the fifteenth century and was the idea of the local lord. He did not want two of his nobles to fight a duel to the death for the hand of his daughter so he made them play out a game instead. Angela, leaning forward from the rear seat, asked how it was managed. Luciana said the moves were called out and the human pieces advanced on command to the designated new places. The knights were men on horses, each with someone to hold the reins and lead them to the appropriate square. The rooks were on wheels.
“And the two nobles – do they decide which move to make next?” Angela wondered.
“Well, two people play the part of the noblemen, yes,” Luciana said. “But the game is already worked out in advance. Usually it is a famous one.”
“A different game each time?
“No, they almost always play the same one. It’s called ‘The
Immortal Game.’ It was one played in London in 1850 or around then, by two European champions. It was extraordinary because of the sacrifices one of the players made. He deliberately lost a bishop, both rooks and then his queen before going on to win.”
They parked under trees near the centre and walked to the tiny piazza, temporarily sealed off, with seating for five thousand people. Dainty red-roofed buildings hemmed them in, the town hall at one end of the square, at the other the imposing Lower Castle, gently floodlit. Looming above them was the Upper Castle, also floodlit.
It was dark when things finally started with a babble of drums and dimming of lights. A spark flamed at one corner of the tennis-court-sized chessboard in the central space and fire raced round and spangled its perimeter. An archer shot a blazing arrow towards the battlements of the castle and then its whole silhouette became a single line of flame. The pageant began with trumpets and drums. The chessboard was spotlit and the processions began. Knights and halberdiers and falconers marched on in hugging tights and two-coloured tunics, noblemen and their wives and pageboys and musicians followed and finally the Lord of Marostica and his Lady. Delegates from Tuscany, Piedmont and Lombardy and others who owed fiefdom advanced, hundreds of participantsl in period costumes, all played by local citizens. Then came the sbandieratori, the flagbearers and dancers also in tunics and tights. Pennants were tossed up, caught then simultaneously launched like spears in criss-crossing flights of silk over the chessboard to be snatched mid-air by a dancer opposite and re-launched after more circling.
The chess game followed this parade. The history of the duel and how it was resolved boomed out in Venetian dialect. The kings and queens, bishops and pawns fidgeted and gossiped. The tall turreted rooks were shuffled into alignment by pages. A groom held the reins of each horse and a busy ostler scooped the droppings. The game began with moves shouted from a dais where the two contesting noblemen flaunted. The pieces performed their stilted slow-motion dance. Sometimes a bishop tracked diagonally across the maze or a knight was led through an awkward rightangle.
After two hours it was over and the actors withdrew in courtly order. The crowd lingered in the evening’s conjured enchantment. As the tiers emptied Luciana suggested a final excursion. She drove them steeply through olives and chestnuts to the Upper Castle. They passed through a portal to a broad flagstoned courtyard, bathed in moonlight. They crossed the central space and gazed down on Marostica whose walls began high up here and swooped down the slopes to left and right to meet at the Lower Castle.
“It’s so beautiful,” Angela said to Lia. “You’re lucky to have so many old things like this, still preserved.”
“The beautiful parts of our history help us deal with the ugly ones,” Lia replied.
“What do you mean?” Angela asked in surprise.
“Well, you see the Lower Castle?” She touched Gianni on the arm to get him to look, too. “In the year your father died, four boys were executed by a German firing squad in that castle, for the same sort of crime as his. For being partisans. Their bodies were left out in the piazza during the day, as a warning to the townspeople.”
Angela shivered and Luciana from the other side put her arm around her. “Don’t worry,” she told the young girl. “That fragment of history is safe in the past. It is now mixed with all the other battles and victories and sacrifices of our ancestors. You see what we have today, with this chess. We can celebrate these things. It becomes a game. We just need to wait and then all our history can be like this.”
“It is both a game and a celebration,” Lia agreed. “It is a way not to forget.”
Next morning they were to drive to Milan. Gianni left Angela to pack her things after breakfast while he made a last pilgrimage. Crossing the road outside the hotel he entered the memorial precinct of the Avenue of Martyrs and sat on a stone bench by the cenotaph. Monte Grappa loomed across parkland below him. He closed his eyes and tried to imagine how it would have been during that week in September. Jackboots and shrieks of fear would have echoed in these streets. Not far away was the barracks where his father was tortured and behind which he was shot. Somewhere here a pit had been dug for the victims of the week’s atrocities. His eyes were dry and he opened them.
He walked between the low parapet and the glossy tonsured trees, down to the end. A dazzle from a first-storey window made him glance away and bequeathed him for an instant a scintilla of thought. One like it might have occurred to a man about to be wrenched by the neck from the back of a truck, it was an infinitesimally small and dense why? Not: Why Me? Just: Why? Contained in that spark was everything in the universe and that had ever been. All the coincidences and continuities that join the now to the past in an atom that might split. And where the junctures are unreliable, there are ghosts.
In the roadway he went back slowly past one trunk after another. Lieutenant someone. Giuseppe, Pietro, Giuseppe, Pietro, Ignoto. Grainy images from an unreachable era. It did not matter that Tommaso had no memorial. Everything here, the mountain, the park with its possible grave pit, the marble plaque, recalled him. At the gateway he looked across the broad street to the hotel and saw beautiful blonde Angela on the threshold, hand raised to make him see her. She took a pace towards him.
He was silent for much of the drive to Milan. His thoughts were like gunfire in the night, random bursts in stretching blankness. What did it mean to give up your life as all those people did back there, back then? He had no answer. Set against theirs his own existence was feeble. With one powerful difference: he was alive!
Next day Angela came with him to all his appointments, reading a book in an office while he had what were largely unproductive meetings. They found time to see the Last Supper at Santa Maria delle Grazie, and to visit the Castello Sforzesco.
At the airport before the flight to Frankfurt Angela told him about her plan to come to Europe on a family exchange. As soon as she was old enough, probably next year.
“Because of Hans.”
“Yes. I’ve got his address and everything. Nonno, he’s coming to Australia this Christmas.”
Gianni said “Ah!” and stopped himself from wondering aloud what he had unleashed with this trip. Just in time Luciana’s words checked him. She was growing up.
He remembered how she looked, that morning at the hotel doorway. Standing across the open space, in the future, advancing, her hair the same colour as Loredana’s. Behind him so much history, and his father there close, looking over his shoulder and smiling.