Earthquake Country

By  |  August 31, 2017
Photos © Matthew Neill Null Photos © Matthew Neill Null

Redneck Letter from Rome 


 

The novelist Ignazio Silone wrote that, “An earthquake achieves what the law promises but does not in practice maintain—the equality of all men.”

Silone would know. He came from a mountain town in Abruzzo, and his mother was one of thirty thousand who perished in the 1915 Avezzano Earthquake. He saw landlords and barristers dig through the wreckage among the peasants, filthy, panicked. He saw the looters as well. I’ve been to his emptied town, Pescina (inspiration for his amazing antifascist novel Fontamara), which never quite recovered. After the quake, Pescina sent its children to Rome, to the Fiat plants up north, to America. I thought of Silone on October 30, 2016, when I woke in my Roman apartment to an earthquake shaking my bed across the floor and swinging the ceiling fan like a chandelier on an ocean liner—well, I thought of Silone after I verified I wasn’t dead.

This has been a good season for earthquakes. Last January, I was in a lounge chair at Fiumicino Airport, trying to work out the kink in my back before a flight to America when the chair began to vibrate. Far from the epicentre it felt pleasant, like a Magic Fingers bed. I didn’t even have to part with four quarters. I was getting ahead in life.

Upon publication in 1936, Fontamara was a sensation in left-wing circles; the critic Alfred Kazin describes this in Starting Out in the Thirties. Homesick for Abruzzo, the communist activist Silone wrote the novel while exiled in Switzerland for speaking out against Mussolini, and Fontamara happened to be published just as the Spanish Civil War broke out. Then, as now, in book-world timing is everything. As Kazin notes, Fontamara made you want to join the Internationals, storm a trench, and slaughter the right in toto.

Today the novel feels fresh despite a setting that is so different from our glossy, city-obsessed lives. The earthquake’s democracy is still in sharp contrast to our segregated society. Only disaster—say, a brutal Texas hurricane—brings the classes together, to touch for a moment.

So Fontamara is good medicine. One is not so much forced as seduced into facing the brutality of life. Novels that inspire political movements (or are inspired by them) tend to be self-congratulatory schlock, but Fontamara is the rare bird, a deft political novel that is as stylistically impressive as it is moving to the heart, perhaps because it dwells in the native idiom of the Abruzzese peasantry—then, by degrees, warps and exaggerates that idiom. When the town’s electricity is turned off for non-payment (the peasants have been keeping the bills only for “domestic purposes,” i.e. wiping their asses), the narrator explains that “young people don’t know the story, but we old folk know it. All the innovations the Piedmontese brought us southern peasants in the space of seventy years boil down to two: electric light and cigarettes. They took the electric light away again . . .” This voice is wry, ironic, with depths of hidden sadness. It goes on to explain that “the children [of the town] thought it a tremendous joke. Our children don’t have many diversions, so when an opportunity comes their way they take full advantage of it—the passing of a motorcyclist, the coupling of two donkeys, or a chimney on fire, for instance.” Poor country people are the best talkers because they have nothing else to fill their time. It reminds me how my grandfather, drafted into the Army Corps of Engineers and sent to Papua New Guinea to build bridges and airstrips among cannibal tribes for the Pacific Theatre, came back and said, “The only thing I learned in the army was that you can get two cups of tea out of a teabag.” Well, some have learned less in three years, so at least he had that. Country living, much like the novel, is a tissue of gossip, laughter, pain, and dreams. It has no illusions. It knows that brutality is the rule, not the exception.

In Fontamara, fascist bureaucrats find a way to cheat the peasants out of their water source, convincing them to sign contracts they cannot read, promising, “There’s nothing to pay.” As for the peasants, they aren’t coddled and idealized, they’re often dirty and conniving and coarse, pliant in their morals and in their beds, but they are true people, abused by the rich, the respectable, the fascisti. They know that it bodes a peasant well to hold her tongue when it comes to politics, because in Italy, as in the United States, a change in political leadership means a reshuffling of the deck, little more. Overheated rhetoric will, in the end, seduce and betray the careless peasant. Masters have long memories. The debt shall be called up, and the peasants of Fontamara know this. Better to keep quiet, keep your head down. They rebel anyway, walking into the fire they know will destroy them. They have to. They’ve been cheated out of their most basic need: the river, the source of their water, all they have. The fields are dying. It is too much.

When I walk my son to his little school in Monteverde, I’m happily surprised by the sheer number of hammer-and-sickles spray-painted all over leprous Mediterranean stucco. Youth unemployment is shockingly high in Italy, near 40%, and there’s much nostalgia for the Partido Communista Italia of yesterday, the singsong “pee-chee-ee,” the largest communist party in Western Europe until the fall of the Soviet bloc. Here they have grit. When a bloody taxi strike broke out in the Piazza Navona, I thought, Fontamara lives. Italians have no illusions about class. America is a younger culture and like a child is content to live on candyfloss.

It seemed right and natural to read more of Silone around tax time. As happens each year, I, unlike many a presidential candidate, cut my check to Moloch’s furnace, i.e. the IRS. Seemed like a pretty big cut to me and ridiculous to boot—as I would be destitute if not for a couple of European publishers picking up translation rights—but the long arm of the U.S. Treasury reached across the waters and found its ink-stained wretch.

If our current figurehead inspires seditious thoughts, I do think about the First Lady’s well-being from time-to-time. We have a common heritage! I have a Slovenian grandfather and recently visited relatives in Postojna, not far over the Italian border from Trieste. My cousin Iztok claims Mrs. Trump is secretly Austrian. “No one’s heard the name Knauss!” he says. I don’t doubt him; in a country of two million people you know everybody. (Iztok also told me, “If you don’t read Charles Bukowski, you’re nothing to me!” I had never dreamt of a young Slav reading Bukowski in the barracks during his hated mandatory year of service in Tito’s army, a quiet act of rebellion in back-of-beyond Serbia, but this is an expansive world and strange things happen.) Quick back-of-the-envelope math shows me that, considering that it would take $183 million a year to keep Melania Knauss Trump and Barron safely ensconced in their New York penthouse (Gram Parsons: “On the thirty-first floor a gold-plated door / Won’t keep out the Lord’s burning rain”), here’s my contribution to their safety this year: Four-point-five minutes. You, my Slovenian cousins, are welcome. Relax on that long elevator ride to the top.

As the cafoni (the peasants) of Ignazio Silone's Fontamara remind us:

At the head of everything is God, the Lord of Heaven. Everyone knows that. Then comes Prince Torlonia, lord of the earth.

Then come Prince Torlonia’s guards.

Then come Prince Torlonia’s guards’ dogs.

Then, nothing at all.

Then, nothing at all.

Then, nothing at all.

Then come the cafoni. And that’s all.

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In early May, my family and I traveled to Norcia in the far east of Umbria, hoping to trout-fish near Serravalle and see the fields of blood-red wild poppies on the Piano Grande, a high mountain plain. I wondered if it measured up to photographs or if the tourism people were messing with the saturation levels. No one I encountered in Rome had ever been there. A good sign. When this happens in Italy, I end up finding a place of extreme beauty or grim apartments, nothing between. 

Norcia had suffered the series of earthquakes. I booked a room in a sixteenth-century farmhouse two kilometers out of town.

On the way we saw Norcia’s town walls reduced to rubble, then a destroyed house, but we wouldn’t see the real devastation until morning.

That evening, the inn-keeper handed me a skeleton key as long as a pistol. I thought it was a joke they played on tourists. The medieval door, original to the place, was thick enough to stop bullets. The owner knew West Virginia to my surprise (I usually tell Italians I’m from the mountains of America, “like Abruzzo,” but he pressed for more) and had been to Morgantown, where a family-member worked for Mylan Pharmaceuticals, a company known for open-handed giving to the state university and for jacking up the price of the EpiPen by 400%. Its CEO is the daughter of our senator, Joe Manchin. She makes $19 million a year. I carry an EpiPen for my son’s allergy.

I told this kindly, innocent inn-keeper that Mylan is a good place to work.

A lifetime ago, my mother went to an after-prom party at Joe Manchin’s house. Joe and my mother hail from Marion County, where the mine disasters of 1907 and 1968 killed an astonishing number of men, including John Manchin, an uncle of the current senator. The Manchin family has been a political operator since the 1940s, going back to the patriarch A. James Manchin, the great speechifier, who was impeached as State Treasurer in 1989 and resigned after losing West Virginia $279 million in bad investments. Senator Joe Manchin is his nephew. A. James Manchin served under the corrupt Governor Arch Moore, who was finally convicted in 1990 of extorting a cool half-million from a coal company. He did three years in Federal prison. Arch Moore’s daughter Shelley Moore Capito is our other senator. One family is Democrat. The other is Republican. Prince Torlonia’s guards.

2017 08 31 null mystic3 

Why are some places cursed and others blessed? The blessed never ask this question. They don’t have to. This has been the concern of my work. A small plea, now, for a dying town.

The pass to the Piano Grande was sealed off. We tried a backroad to get there, only to hit a wall of a dozen destroyed houses at San Pellegrino. Nearby, indifferent, horses stood in a light rain, a dozen fresh colts buttoned to their mothers. A roadside shrine stood, despite a jigsaw pattern of cracks. We tried another way, then gave up and drove to Norcia proper, a smear of red and gray on the valley, a rare lowland settlement in this region of hill-towns and towers.

“The Papal States,” my wife read from the guidebook, “banned buildings over three stories after the earthquake of 1859.”

Norcia, home to four thousand people, the birthplace of mystics such as St. Benedict, was hit hard by earthquakes last August and October, but I didn’t expect what I found—compared to histrionic American journalism, the news reports were understated if anything. When we couldn’t enter town, we parked by trailers that served as temporary housing for the banks and the post office. The center was desolate in the rain. Churches and houses were ripped open, the town walls breached. It was hard to navigate the streets. You’d hit a zono rosso fence at every turn. We were trying to get to the cathedral.

Salve!” We were approached by a trio of soldiers who patrolled the town. Italian soldiers are always poor handsome boys from the South, and these ones wore jaunty Tyrolean hats with a single long feather sticking up from the brim—a tribute to the crack alpine divisions of the First World War’s Isonzo Front, that brutal mountain campaign from which the Italian military draws much pride, despite losing the front’s twelfth and final battle.

The soldiers showed us a looping path to the central piazza, and one of the black-haired boys insisted on having his picture taken with my wife.

Once a great church, the wrecked fourteenth-century Basilica of St. Benedict was unspeakably sad. Construction crews were salvaging what they could (not much, really). All was exposed to the elements. In the chaos following the earthquake, the basilica had been looted for art by the Mafia. Hence the soldiers. A nearby campanile was ratchet-strapped together to keep from falling, but it had a noticeable list and seemed destined for the fall. The rain picked up, as in a bad movie.

Yet shops were open. Norcia is famous for its prosciutto and black truffles, its pecorino and wild boar—in Italy, a pork store is called a norcineria in tribute. Norcia also produced a good share of itinerant surgeons and tooth-pullers of the Medieval age. At the time, good Catholics were not allowed to practice on cadavers, but the hog-butchers had a professional excuse to learn anatomy—and any cannibal will tell you of our bodies’ resemblance to the hog, that superior lifeform. So the men of Norcia offered their knowledge to the sick. I’ve also heard that the hog-butchers prepared the castrati for their careers, but this rings of (highly-entertaining) slander, seeing how a main source is a sixteenth-century comic poem by Francesco Berni. Such gossip fossilizes and becomes history. Gossip is as important as architecture; gossip is the architecture of place. The best Italian writers—Silone, Leonardo Sciascia, the poet Montale—know this well. (I was about to write that gossip is earthquake-resistant, but that isn’t quite true. A phrase like that is pleasing to the ear and the eye but ultimately counterfeit.) We had found such a place of deep history and strong tradition, small, isolated, teetering on the edge. The regular people were clinging on. Before rain drove us out, we spent way too much money on their excellent food, trying to give them something, anything, in that stupid capitalist way, as tourism drives the town. (“Get down to Disney World,” the second President Bush exhorted us after September 11. “Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”) But the future seems clear: Norcia may cease to exist or, at best, limp on in reduced form. The shopkeepers proudly showed us pictures of the dogs with champion-size truffles, the size of grapefruits or better, lifted delicately in their jaws. We bought lentils and gritty honey from Castelluccio, a destroyed village.

Come back in June, the shopkeepers said, when the flowers bloom and the pass is open. We know it will be open, they say, the authorities say so, and the fishing on the Nera is fine. Last year, the government promised to rebuild Norcia. Since then, Prime Minister Renzi lost his reform gamble and the deck of politicians has been reshuffled, yes, but hopes are high among the shopkeepers of Norcia. They don’t seem to have read Ignazio Silone, demolisher of hope. 


“Redneck Letter from Rome” is a part of our weekly story series, The By and By.

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Matthew Neill Null is a a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a recipient of the O. Henry Award, the Mary McCarthy Prize, and the Joseph Brodsky Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He is author of the novel Honey from the Lion (Lookout Books) and the story collection Allegheny Front (Sarabande). Originally from West Virignia, Null and his family currently reside in Rome, Italy.