PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
Hunger. That’s what drove us south. Why else would we have left? Except for hunger, we’d have stayed put. We belonged up there. Why would we want to come down here? That was where we’d always been, that was where all our relations were. We knew every nook and cranny of that place, we knew every thought that went through our neighbours’ heads. We knew every tree. Every canal. Why would we want to come down here?
They kicked us out, that’s why. Kicked us right where it hurts. Count Zorzi Vila. Stripped us bare. Robbed us blind. Of our livestock. Our calves. Our cows, with their udders bursting. You can’t imagine how much milk they produced. One squirt, and you’d have a bucketful. You’d sit down on the stool, you’d hardly touched a tit, you’d barely tickled an udder than a jet of milk streamed out, filling the pail, and you had to grip that pail firmly between your legs so it didn’t fall over.
Why are you laughing? Don’t you believe me? I just wish you’d been there to see it all.
And the oxen – our pairs of oxen could pull a plough faster than any caterpillar.
Now what are you laughing at?
Those oxen cut through that earth like butter. You just have no idea. I swear, up there we would plough a holding in one day, with just a couple of our oxen. Then, out of the blue, count Zorzi Vila stole them from us. Took over our livestock at the drop of a hat. Left us with nothing. And it was then – when they’d evicted us, then robbed us of our livestock – that Uncle Adelchi ran back into the house, and up into the loft, to take Uncle Pericles’ pistol out from its hiding-place under the beam, behind the loose tile. Then he came roaring down again to the threshing-floor, shrieking and shooting. And the factor scarpered; everyone scarpered. The factor went off hopping and skipping along with the rest, and trying to hide – because it was him that Uncle Adelchi was after. ‘I’ll get you,’ he shouted at the factor; ‘I’ll get you, wherever you are!’ And my grandmother – the only one who wasn’t scarpering, apart from the animals of course, they were standing quietly in the courtyard, all lined up to go, they didn’t know what was going on, poor things, and they were just chewing the cud – my grandmother went up to her son who was shooting and said: ‘Delchi – Delchi boy, Delchin.’
And Uncle Adelchi stopped shooting and stood there with the pistol in his hand and stared at it, as though wondering what he was doing. And my grandmother was saying: ‘Delchin, Delchin,’ and both of them were kneeling on the threshing-floor, wailing, with the others all gathered round them.
The factor came back, though, and Count Zorzi Vila gestured to him to keep clear. Then the carabinieri arrived. And that’s how they found the pair of them, kneeling in the middle of the threshing-floor, with my uncle weeping. They put him in chains and were starting to drag him off when Count Zorzi Vila began bawling at his steward in his usual high and mighty way: ‘Get a move on! What are we waiting for?’ and went back to tugging on the animals’ chains and off they all went, Uncle Adelchi with the carabinieri and our livestock with Count Zorzi Vila and his lot.
What did you say? That you can’t see Uncle Adelchi in a towering rage, firing like a madman and then starting to weep in his mother’s arms? That you remember him as tall and upstanding, commanding universal respect in his policeman’s uniform?
But this happened much, much later, and anyway such rage runs in the family. You don’t amble round all day saying to people: ‘Look, I’m in a towering rage.’ You keep it to yourself, hidden, coiled up, and it might never come out at all. Then, when you’re least expecting it, they get you smack on the spot where it’s all coiled up, and the rage comes out and gets the upper hand, and afterwards you say: ‘What was that all about? I didn’t mean it. Let’s turn the clock back, please, let’s go back to where we were a minute ago.’ But nothing will ever be the same again, and please God your mother would be there for you that day, so you could weep there in her arms.
Anyway, Uncle Adelchi wasn’t the saint that you remember, the man everyone turned to when a quarrel needed patching up. He was no peacemaker – he meant war, at least in his own house, which was also our own. And it was because of him, rather than the livestock, when all’s said and done, that we ended up coming down here.
There was nothing we could do about the livestock. Before the business with the count and the factor, my Uncle Pericles had already gone to make inquiries at the Fascist Headquarters and the union, first at Rovigo and then at Ferrara, because the Rovigo lot hadn’t got a lot of clout. It was Ferrara that mattered, and if at Ferrara they said to you: ‘Look, Peruzzi, there’s nothing to be done, this is how things are, it’s all to do with that new 90 lira rate, the only person who can help you is Rossoni,’ then you saw that was that, because the Ferrara lot were Balbo’s men, they were on the side of the landowners, and if they said to you ‘Go and see Rossoni’ – they’d always hated him – it was to put the blame on him: ‘You see? He couldn’t do anything for you either.’ Anyway, Rossoni was in Rome, which might as well have been Babylon. Was my Uncle Pericles going to go all the way down to Rome?
In fact, though, when he saw his younger brother being dragged away in chains by the carabinieri – Uncle Adelchi was twenty-five or twenty-six, whereas Uncle Pericles, who was born in ’99, was thirty-two and already had a couple of kids to think about – and not only his younger brother, but the livestock with him, and my grandmother turning trustingly towards him, as though he, Pericles, were her one hope of salvation, and shouting ‘Pericles, Pericles!’ he might well have felt like saying: ‘Well, what am I supposed to do about it?’ because he would never have expected Adelchi to crack up like that. Yes, he’d seen him rushing into the house, but he hadn’t taken much notice, because he didn’t really set much store by that brother – always conveniently somewhere else, never around when you needed him – and he would have liked to give him a good thrashing whenever he heard him screeching and shrieking at his sisters. But when he saw him reappearing from the door which led on to the staircase and not even closing the mosquito net, and shrieking and shooting, and stumbling slightly as he came down the outside stairs, and shooting like a madman, and the factor making himself scarce and Adelchi shouting ‘I’ll get you,’ and shooting some more – well, put like that it all seems to take an age, but actually it happened in a flash – seeing his brother at that moment, Uncle Pericles actually burst out laughing: ‘Just look at Adelchi.’ And suddenly he felt love for him.
So when his mother turned to him with that ‘Pericles, Pericles,’ he would have liked to come back with ‘What am I supposed to do about it?’ but then she immediately added: ‘Go to Rome, Periclin,’ and she’d never used that diminutive before, even when he was a child. And then he said: ‘All right then, tomorrow we’ll be going to Rome,’ – and it was a matter-of-fact sort of statement, not a suggestion, directed at Uncle Themistocles, his older brother; you won’t remember him, you can’t have known him because his sons took him back to Northern Italy in the Sixties, to Turin. They worked at the Fiat factory, but he was too old for that.
What did you say? How many of us were there? Quite a crowd. My grandfather had produced seventeen children, eight girls and nine boys, and his brother had produced another seventeen, also eight girls and nine boys. At first we were rock-solid, just one big family, but with time the cracks began to show. They stayed up north, they didn’t come down to the Pontine Marshes. But that wasn’t why we split: they didn’t come south because we were split already, and we never made it up. It was to do with politics. Anyway, there were seventeen of us children, and it was different in those days, children weren’t a financial burden. In those days children meant prosperity, because they were tantamount to so many hands to work the land. What did you say? They were also so many mouths to feed? Of course they were, but that wasn’t a problem, you just gave them whatever was around. And if a child was strong, it more or less brought itself up. If a child got ill, you didn’t go off to some special doctor and buy some special medicine. My grandmother would light a candle and set herself to pray; and the child would get better, grow up and be put to work. And if it didn’t get better, it would die. You’d cry, pray, bury it and have another. That’s what everyone did, not just us. To work the land, what you needed was a pair of hands, there was no other way. Tractors and all those modern contraptions came later, they weren’t around in those days, and if you’d been there, you would have done as we did. That was how it had been done for centuries, saeculorum amen. There was no welfare then, just hunger.
What did you say? That large families made things worse, they just meant more people sharing the same hunger? For us, each one was a pair of hands, what more can I say? We were hungry and we needed hands to produce food, which was our wealth. But even now, you say, it isn’t just the rich who don’t have so many children? Well, we don’t in Italy, but in Africa – where they’re still poor, and get themselves drowned trying to get to Lampedusa – they carry on having children like nobody’s business. Just try telling them not to. You think they don’t know that a child is all too likely to die of hunger, or of AIDS? That’s why they have so many: ‘Sooner or later one of them is bound to pull through.’ You have children because they’re useful to you, and the poorer you are, the more useful they are; it’s when you’re rich that you can get by with just a few.