The story I’m about to tell now will clarify (or perhaps further confuse) the dynamic of an episode described many pages back in this story.
Until some time ago, I was a teacher, working in the maximum-security wing (MS) of Rebibbia Prison in Rome, where Mafiosi and Camorristi are among the inmates. That wing is isolated from the rest of the penitentiary. As a number of my colleagues maintain—and in fact they work year after year to keep their assignments to that wing—those are great classes to teach, in fact, they’re better than the others, it’s an objective fact, the students are, on average, better disciplined and more eager than in the wing where common criminals are locked up, full of out-of-control young men and demented mad dogs of every ethnic persuasion: of course they are, the people in the MS wing are solid, straight-ahead folks, who respect hierarchies, and in their midst the simple fact of having a college degree assures you a certain traditional type of respect, that has evaporated everywhere else in Italian society. A teacher, of whatever gender, is still “someone”: maybe deep down, that’s not really true, and their modest salaries tend to lower their standing down to the threshold of the ridiculous, but at least in their explicit demeanor, the students of the MS, with their legacy of ceremonious manners, still give every sign of holding old-fashioned views, and they comport themselves with a courtesy that may well be contrived, but what courtesy isn’t, after all?
What with the tireless demeaning of external niceties, in Italy, we’ve all been plunged into the inferno of authentic feelings. Which, most of the time, are as authentic as a hock of spit or a fart.
Now, in the MS, among the many unusual students, there was one who was more unusual than the rest, even though in many ways he was perhaps typical, categorical. Diminutive in stature, elderly, though probably not as old as his appearance might have suggested, bespectacled, with an almost incomprehensible way of speaking, both because of the thick dialect and because of his raucous voice, he kept insisting that we had to write a book together, he and I. He asked me about it at the end of practically every class I taught: “Allora, prufesso’, quann’è c”o scrivimm’ chist’ libro? Ch’agg’a fa’, tutt’ i’ solo?” (All right then, Professor, when are we going to write this book? What, do I have to do it all alone?) “Excuse me, what did you say?” And he’d say it all over again, with his singsong drawl.
This man was known as Prince, or the Prince, sometimes with, sometimes without the definite article. His plan, inspired by the crackpot idea of righting the wrongs that he felt had been done to him, and with the mirage of earning a mountain of cash, was to write a sort of response to Roberto Saviano’s formidable bestseller Gomorrah, which, to hear my student tell it (and he was named in the pages of that book, by given name and surname, as the perpetrator of odious murders, that is, the very reason for his being incarcerated, and therefore, my student), was riddled with falsehoods, and so it was imperative that the truth be established at the earliest possible opportunity. My student, then, hoped to undertake what was once known as a counterinvestigation, by the light of his own firsthand experiences, and publish an Anti-Gomorrah, a Counter-Gomorrah, a Gomorrah à rebours, turned inside out like a glove, narrated from the point of view of the Camorristi. And he wanted me to be his mentor, his editor or ghostwriter. “Che ne dice, prufesso’? Ce finimmo anch’ nuie, primm’n classifica?” (What do you think about it, Professor? Do you think we’ll wind up at the top of the bestseller list, too?)
A subtler motivation that I later gave some thought (and about which I’m still thinking as I write this book of mine, all mine, nearly all mine) was that the student in MS claimed to hold a sort of copyright on the crimes he was involved in and guilty of. An author’s copyright in the narrow, legal sense of the term. “Inzomma, chill’ i mmuorti l’agge fatt’io… iooo, colle mani mie… e liquattrini se l’ha dda fa’ qualcun altro?” After all, I killed those men myself, with my own hands… and now someone else is going to make money off it?
“Well, I guess that…”
“Ma pecché?” But why?
Among my Camorristi students, this expression was widely used, at once disconsolate and mocking, when confronted with the absurdity of life: “Ma pecché?” A question destined inevitably to fall into the void, to be greeted with silence, the great universal vacuum devoid of explanations, and yet it had to be asked, both hands pressed together almost as if praying, then rocked up and down, all the while turning the corners of the mouth down in a grimace of almost amused disgust. “No, I ask you: ma pecché…?”
Anti-Gomorrah, or Gomorrah Unchained, in the end, was never written by the odd couple formed by the vindictive student and his all-too-clever Italian teacher, so it never skyrocketed to the top of the bestseller lists, either. I’d dismiss the thought that he might have gone ahead and written the book alone, or with the contribution of some other man of letters, though you never know, and it might be on the verge of being published . . .
I’m not going to bother to explain here, with what patience and evasive maneuvers, dully, I managed to let the matter drop, each time the book we were supposed to write together came up, changing the topic relentlessly. Since he is an intelligent person, he understood and in his turn, slowly, stopped asking. But every now and then, as if he were still trying to tempt me toward his project, showing me all the wonderful material I’d be missing out on by not giving him a hand with his book, he would relish telling me some never-before-heard criminal episode that could have made the book succulent and even edifying.
For instance, the time that he had shot his eldest son, then seventeen, in the legs because he was hanging out with disreputable individuals, tangled up with drug dealing: an exemplary act, from his point of view, which had been meant to show that, of the many crimes he might have committed, trafficking in narcotics was not and could not be one of them, by his very ideology. Or the miraculous episode of a five-story building thrown up in complete violation of code overnight. Or else the stakeout mounted by a gang of paid assassins, come all the way from Smyrna, on the Anatolian coast, to surveil a modest villa near Bacoli, actually inhabited by two old women, the owners of a dry cleaner and now retired, the Montesano sisters, upright citizens, well known in the quarter, and not at all the debt-riddled drug dealer that the Turks had come to kill.
And then there was a varied body of anecdotes involving former soccer players from SSC Napoli, open-sea speedboats, five sisters, all of them sluts, shipping containers full of immigrants, perfectly counterfeited Rolex watches, street sweepers paid faithfully by the city government for thirty years without ever having held a broom in their hands, and then little by little he’d work his way up to episodes of violent crime: woundings and murders planned, committed, misfired, called off, or carried out by mistake or in too much of a hurry. La prescia, ah, la prescia, haste ruins everything, my student would sigh, with no idea that Franz Kafka was convinced of the same thing.
(But the deadly sin Kafka speaks of isn’t haste, it’s impatience.)
Until one fine day, during the cigarette break between lessons, Prince made a fleeting reference to a side business in fireworks. The Camorra was even interested in such leisure-time pursuits as fireworks: making them, warehousing them, peddling them, and setting them off at parties and festivals. For that matter, these were objects that belonged to the same family as guns and bombs. My student, however, had exited the business after a certain point in time.
“For me, they’re practically bullshit” (author’s note: from here on in, for the reader’s convenience, I’ll just report the Prince’s statements in proper Italian, instead of dialect). “That is, I mean, fireworks themselves, per se: really, just complete bullshit.”
“Why? I like them!”
“Oh, you do? Well, good for you, good for you. I don’t. Those blasts, those explosions…”
“You ought to be used to them…”
“You never get used to them. They get on my nerves. They make my eyelids quiver, and then they just won’t stop. I’ve got delicate nerves, actually. And I don’t like chaos.”
“You’d never think you come from where you come from…”“…you hear from a distance those shots and those blasts, and who can say whether it’s someone involved in serious business, or if it’s just for fun?”
“I think you might be misunderstanding. I’m not talking about the schiamazzo, the ruckus and voices. The confusion is something else, and it’s much more serious: you hear from a distance those shots and those blasts, and who can say whether it’s someone involved in serious business, or if it’s just for fun?”
“Ah… now I get it.”
“I don’t have anything against having fun. But in that case, go fishing, if you’re looking for enjoyment, or get a dog. Take a woman to bed, I don’t know. Don’t go around blowing up everything in sight. That’s stuff that’s made to kill people. And sometimes it does.”
“What accidents are you talking about! By stupidity. You know how much gunpowder there is in a Bomba Maradona? Enough to knock down an apartment building. Ten kilos!”
“You sure are being funny today, Professor.”
“Oh, come on, I just felt like kidding around…”
“But people get hurt. And they get hurt for no good reason… no benefit to anyone. That’s what I can’t
I understood his line of reasoning because I had heard it many times before, in prison, in particular in the maximum-security wing. It was an argument that was Machiavellian in its purity, one that you find distilled to a similar degree of purity only in certain implacable pages of the great Florentine political analyst or distilled into the famous saying that’s variously attributed to Talleyrand or Fouché concerning the deplorable execution of the Duke of Enghien with Napoleon’s approval: “It was worse than a crime, it was a mistake.” That which legitimizes an act, or makes it deplorable, is strictly its efficacy with respect to the chosen objectives, whatever they may be. If it is successful, it is good. If it fails, it is bad. If it serves a purpose, it’s beneficial. Otherwise, it’s harmful. It’s a flat, simple morality, which instead of corresponding to a complex table of values, obeys one and one alone: self-interest, results. Blowing up ten kilos of plastic explosive, unless it’s under the car of a business rival—can anyone tell me what the hell good that does? To celebrate what? Blasting powder is supposed to destroy something, otherwise it’s just plain buffoonery. Once an operation has been completed the way it’s supposed to, in and of itself, it becomes a
positive thing. In other words, shooting guns, blowing up explosives, these are serious matters and need to be done with care and judgment, with the objective of wounding and killing.
I was following his line of reasoning but I took care not to give him the impression that I agreed with it.
“Then I gave up the whole thing after an accident. That’s right, it was thirty years ago. I never wanted to hear a thing about fireworks, rockets, and roman candles after that. I lost so damned much money… ” And he made a gesture, imitating a bonfire that burns a pile of cash to a crisp. “It ain’t as if I lost an eye or a finger… a hell of a lot of money is what I lost.”
Once again, we were talking about matters economic… transparent and hard as fine crystal. You can lose a hand if you’re involved in a business deal, but you can’t lose money, otherwise what kind of a deal are we talking about here? So, not Machiavelli, then, but maybe Bentham, or Adam Smith…?
“A whole warehouse blew sky high… and the explosions lasted for the rest of the night. We could see it from a distance, flaming, screeching… not even the fire department could get close to it, with all those rockets sailing through the air!”
In spite of the scorn he’d originally manifested toward firework displays, he couldn’t
keep from smiling.
“But where was this warehouse, in the countryside?”
He gave me a wink. “Well, you’ll never guess…” he said, waving his hands in the air and winking first one eye, then the other.
And then a curious thing happened, odd but not all that uncommon, and typical of inmates, even the shrewdest and wisest ones: the perverse love of storytelling got the better of discretion and caution. What the Camorrista revealed to me quavered with a tone of pride and defiance: all the supposed rationality of criminal activity gave way with a thump to the pleasure of having put together a scheme so astounding that it almost seemed like a practical joke, and to the delight of explaining it to an outsider, running the risks that went with that.
“Ah, you won’t believe it…forget about the countryside! We’d put the warehouse on top of the loony bin! Now, that’s some crazy shit, am I right or am I right?” And he started laughing in a guttural fashion. “Ka, ka, ka…”
A series of hacking coughs is what his laughter sounded like, or the noise you make when, deep in your throat, you collect a gob of phlegm in preparation to spit it out. Two or three inmates stepped closer to us, clinging to the thin plumes of smoke rising from their cigarettes. Unlike his Neapolitan compatriots, and their famed cheery character, it was fairly rare for the Prince to show any sign of hilarity.
“The crazy house, the loony bin, ka, ka! That one was truly crazy!” he went on, beating the pun to death.
“You mean that the fireworks…”
“Yes, yes, the fireworks… and what fireworks! Real bombs, rocket ships, space missiles… Katyushas… ka, ka, ka!”
“… were where, again?” I asked, determined to get a clearer explanation. “What do you mean… by the crazy house?”
“What do I mean? What do I mean… ” and the others around us started laughing too. It must have been a well-known story, this one with the loony bin and the fireworks. One of the new arrivals slapped me on the shoulder.
“The insane asylum!”
In collusion with a number of corrupt male nurses and correctional guards, my student and his gang had used as a factory and warehouse for illegal fireworks the structures on the roof of an old criminal insane asylum. As absurd as that choice might sound at first, it was perfect in its way: no one ever went up on the roof of the insane asylum, the wash-houses had been abandoned for years, and you could work there in blessed peace, and what’s more, undisturbed, carrying material in and out: a building contractor based in the area, and also under the Prince’s control, had obtained a regular permit and contract to clear the roof of asbestos: water tanks, plumbing, roofing, corrugated panels, and so on.
“It was all legal! It was all legitimate! Ka, ka, ka…”
And the amazing thing is that all this madness had taken place, as the Prince had said, in the “loony bin,” with the real loonies and the alleged loonies and the serial stranglers and the paranoids and the ones who believed they were Satan, the illegal structures and the Bin Laden bombs and Maradona bombs all together in the insane asylum, one floor above another, like in some satirical short story.
Maybe that’s why the Prince had thought of it in the first place, this ramshackle piece of madness, the idea of setting up the fireworks factory there.
In spite of the fact that the story was amusing, the umpteenth episode of a paradoxical reversal of the proper order of things (just like the time that the Carabinieri discovered, by their surveillance films, that certain Mafiosi were regularly meeting in the offices of the Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino Commemorative Association…), I still felt a sense of discomfort, a powerful, creeping, growing sense of uneasiness, which was not however due to the usual twisted use of a government institution, it was not due to any misgivings of that sort, I haven’t had any such worries for a long time now, or else I sift through them very painstakingly before letting them prey on me, before I start expressing vacuous and hypocritical pangs of indignation, and after all, there in prison, you have a genuine professional obligation to set them aside, between parentheses . . . what the hell, even as I chuckled along while listening to the story of the Prince’s fireworks factory (“ka, ka… ka!”), deep in my heart, in fact, even farther down, in my stomach, I felt a twinge of cold and fear for something slithering out of the past straight toward me, slyly, treacherously, like a bleeding creature whose limbs have been lopped off. It continued inching along, yes, right toward me…
“Then I went out of business, and that was that… all because of that asshole.”
The shiver traveled out to my hands. I could feel them tingle. My voice
spoke of its own will.
“Whose fault… who… all because of which asshole?”
The answer to that question was already present, just lurking behind the scenes of my consciousness, which was refusing to allow it in, to let that name make its appearance onstage, even though it was pressing, pushing, to be uttered. The name was there, and it was pressing dolorously on the membrane of my awareness. That name, forgotten for years, and yet familiar, surprising how well known, the way an old pencil case from school days discovered in the cellar might have been: you remember that, don’t you? You used it every blessed day for years, you opened it a million times and dropped it on the floor and picked it back up . . . before retiring it. And yet it remained yours, and yours alone. Forever. I stammered, in a faint voice: “Who… who was this asshole, excu-scuse me? And why was he an asshole?”
The Prince was no longer snickering and he had resumed his usual ferocious expression. Grim, disgusted.
“Because he managed to blow himself up with the whole warehouse!”
His lips curled into a grimace of contempt for such boundless idiocy. I asked for no clarifications about how the accident had unfolded. From that instant on, I had no doubt that he was talking about Stefano Maria Jervi, my old classmate from my days at SLM, the precocious youngster, the adolescent sultan with the flaming eyes. Jervi, the brother of the stunningly beautiful Romina, identified, once he was nothing more than a corpse, as a militant of the UGC, the Unit. di Guerriglia Comunista—the Communist Guerrilla Unit.
“The criminal insane asylum of Aversa…” I murmured, pensively, while I was reminded of an episode that might have dated back to the last year of middle school, or even my sophomore year of high school, when all of us, I, Jervi, Arbus, Pik, Rummo, Regazzoni, and everyone else, would have been sixteen.
From The Catholic School by Edoardo Albinati. Used with the permission of the publisher, FSG. Copyright © 2019 by Edoardo Albinati.