Gli Animali

By  |  July 11, 2017
Photos © Matthew Neill Null Photos © Matthew Neill Null

Redneck Letter from Rome 


In isolated places, interlopers are a rare form of entertainment for the locals. “Why are you here?” the people will say, and in my experience, if someone asks you that, you’re in the right place. No one in New York or Berlin or Daytona Beach ever asks what you’re doing there. The answer is self-evident, which is why those places lack mystery. When I lived in West Virginia, I was the one saying, “How the hell did you end up here?” so it’s pleasing to be on the other side of the equation.

Not many go into the interior of Sardinia—the Gennargentu—especially this time of year, February collapsing into March. The coastline, yes; in the 1970s, the Aga Khan built up concrete resorts that ring the island like the infection about a scab, and the locals have ceded it to the European jet-set, but drive inland and you find an inviting nothingness. Prickly pear. Mouflon. Sheep grazing around the stone nuraghi that look like enormous beehives. The schist houses of Dèsulu, precarious in the gorge. We were there for the parades, a pre-Lenten carnival—Sardinia’s analogue to Mardi Gras.

“The Aga Khan spent one hundred million dollars,” a well-heeled sort once told me, her eyes shining with the vacancy you see in heirs and serial killers. “Go to the Costa Smeralda if you do nothing else.” I made a mental note to avoid Costa Smeralda like a city flying the plague flag.

After landing in the old port of Cagliari, where pale flamingoes up from Africa wade the tidal marshes and jab their bills in muck, we—my wife, my eighteen-month-old son, and I—drove inland on increasingly twisty roads, which reminded me of home. From time to time we waited in traffic: herdsman driving sheep and cattle across the road. The Gennargentu is the great massif of Sardinia, that mystery island, Italian but not. All I knew was that it was birthplace of the great Marxist Gramsci. I never thought of going there until Chris Trapani, a composer from New Orleans, a serious reader, and fellow at the American Academy in Rome, spoke of Sardinia and its carnival season. This is the best way: a person of taste mentions an appealing name, then begins the embroidery. Landscape. Music. Food. Questions. Chris leant me D.H. Lawrence:

Sardinia, which has no history, no date, no race, no offering. Let it be Sardinia. They say neither Romans, nor Phoenicians, Greeks nor Arabs ever subdued Sardinia. It lies outside the circuit of civilization…Sure enough, it is Italian now, with its railways and motor-omnibuses. But there is an uncaptured Sardinia still. It lies within the net of this European civilization, but it isn’t landed yet. And the net is getting old and tattered.

Lawrence wrote these words in January 1921, in a frustrating, complex little book called Sea & Sardinia—as frustrating and complex as the man himself. We would roughly follow Lawrence’s path, from the port of Cagliari and north to Nuoro, but then break off on our own to the high villages, Mamoiada and Fonni, Dèsulu and Oliena, for the days leading up to Shrove Tuesday. Beyond a single major highway, the map had these delicious blank spaces of which no one could tell you much. When a Roman woman of a certain age heard I was going to the interior, she said admiringly, “Ah yes, that’s where the radicals hid their hostages in the seventies. We were all Maoists then.” 

Before the trip, I found myself marking up Sea & Sardinia for its passages of inexplicable rage. Representative case: “And I realize that I hate limestone, to live on limestone or marble or any of those limey rocks. I hate them. They are dead rocks, they have no life—thrills for the feet. Even sandstone is much better.” Amusing as this is, I find myself wondering what he’s actually upset about. He doesn’t hold back on the Italian national character or the creeping “khaki democracy” of Europe. I couldn’t finish the book.

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In Mamoiada, the men of the village don skins of dark rams, hand-carved masks painted black, and massive vests of goat-bells of various sizes that sprout like bronze carbuncles from their backs. On closer inspection, the tongues of the bells prove to be the thigh bones of lambs. They rattle as the men walk. When the men dance in formation, it is a martial clatter of sound that shocks the senses if you stand too close—they stomp and jump. These men have become animals. Mamuthones e Issohadores. Others wear white masks and crimson waistcoats, throwing lassoes at the men dressed in skins and members of the crowd—my son squeals as a rope touches him. He is both drawn and repelled. We are in the Barbàgia—land of the Barbarians, of course. The residents of the interior, descendants of the Nuragi people, were never quite subdued by the Roman conquerors, who called them “stutterers” or latrones mastrucati (“thieves with rough garments of wool”). Mamoiada’s parade is the one best known to outsiders, drawing a tour bus or two.

Along the route, from a woman with little English, we are offered “the black drink” (which proves to be a young red wine) in plastic cups. Up on the second-floor balcony of an ugly concrete tract apartment of a type that litters Italy, another in traditional dress—black gown, stockings, shawled hair—smiles as she is lassoed by a particularly long throw. In Sardinia, where centenarians appear with startling regularity and residents live exceedingly long, healthy lives, we see many women dressed in such a way. All are of advanced age. In ten or twenty years, I imagine, this way of dress will disappear. I’ve not seen it on mainland Italy.

Each village of Barbàgia has its own characters. In Ottana, the character of Boas joins Mamuthones and Issohadores, deer-masked, with flaring antlers.

The parades begin with January’s Feast of St. Anthony. Soon spring breaks. Shepherds give thanks for long winter done. The green things are growing. The mountain looks a bit less imposing, the ewes will drop lambs, the cycle begins again. I am reminded of Sherman Alexie: “we worship / the salmon // because we / eat the salmon.”

If the origins are murky, this tradition surely springs from an ancient culture that keeps animals in the lowlands through harsh winters and drives them to mountain pasture in the warm—and if this autochthonous cycle syncs with the Christian calendar then, well, so much for the better. I am reminded of John Berger’s essay “Why Look at Animals?”:

The 19th century, in western Europe and North America, saw the beginning of a process, today being completed by 20th-century corporate capitalism, by which every tradition which has previously mediated between man and nature was broken. Before this rupture, animals constituted the first circle of what surrounded man. Perhaps that already suggests too great a distance. They were with man at the centre of his world. Such centrality was of course economic and productive…Yet to suppose that animals first entered the human imagination as meat or leather or horn is to project a 19th-century attitude backwards across the millennia. Animals first entered the imagination as messenger and promises.

Berger’s perfect essay on the parallel lives of animal and man, animals’ oracular and sacrificial functions, and the abyss between us should be required reading for all humanity. One feels the relationship most sharply in places like Sardinia and West Virginia, where people still live in proximity to animals and, thus, animals continue to provide our mythology, our mystery, our seasons. Otherwise, animals are merely fetishized as pets (pseudo-children, denied their otherness) or come as meat shrink-wrapped in the grocery aisle. These are the two options of urban-suburban life. When humans live apart from animals, we lose the sense of ourselves as part of an ecosystem, a community of species. We inflate our importance. I am reminded of what I’ve been told of musical families in the West Virginia of old. A horse’s skull was buried beneath the floor of the house. On Saturday night, the few sticks of furniture were pushed back, the people danced, and their feet on the boards made galloping sounds. Perhaps. My own people, modest and Methodist, did not dance. John Berger died while I was in Rome.


Mamoiada was winding down. Watching the parades, I couldn’t help recall the classrooms of college and Mikhail Bakhtin, one of the great influences on my own work. Bakhtin—with his ideas of heteroglossia, the language of the marketplace, the body—is the rare literary critic with anything to teach the working novelist. In his study of Rabelais (the French Renaissance polymath and writer best known for his bawdy, scatological Gargantua and Pantagruel), Bakhtin meditates on the importance of the medieval carnival and thus the “carnivalesque” style in literature, distinct as the carnival was from other ecclesiastical, feudal, or state-sponsored events:

The suspension of all hierarchical precedence during carnival time was of particular significance. Rank was especially evident during official feasts; everyone was expected to appear in the full regalia of his calling, rank, and merits and to take the place corresponding to his position. It was a consecration of inequality. On the contrary, all were considered equal during carnival. Here, in the town square, a special form of free and familiar contact reigned among people who were usually divided by the barriers of caste, property, profession, and age…Therefore such free, familiar contacts were deeply felt and formed an essential element of the carnival spirit. People were, so to speak, reborn for new, purely human relations. These truly human relations were not only the fruit of imagination or abstract thought; they were experienced. The utopian ideal and the realistic merged in the carnival spirit, unique of its kind…This led to the creation of special forms of marketplace speech and gesture, frank and free, permitting no distance between those who came in contact with each other and liberating from norms of etiquette and decency imposed at other times.

I must admit I didn’t find this in Mamoiada. I had a good time, but for all its pagan trappings, the Shrovetide carnival seemed a bit tame and curated, clearly hoping to draw in tourists, as is the Mardi Gras of New Orleans, something that was once chaotic, dangerous, and scatological, that is now sanctioned by the Chamber of Commerce and has a police protocol. The spirit of Bakhtin and Rabelais hasn’t much been found in the public square, at least by me. And definitely not in Mamoiada that day.

Lent was here, the party was over. What else was there to do? Two separate people mentioned a village where carnival is celebrated on March 1st. “It isn’t sanctioned by the church, but they do it anyway, they just don’t care.”

It was way the hell into the mountains, but we had time.

As soon as we entered the town, a warren of stone houses perched on a ridge, maybe home to five hundred, I got the feeling of something vaguely sinister ahead, as you do before entering a particularly violent bar or a house party in meth-land.

This could be Bakhtin’s land, I wondered.

I wasn’t disappointed.

The entire town, it seemed, was hanging out in the one piazza, and most were reeling about footless drunk. It was noon. A man kept gunning his dirt bike through the crowd, looping through medieval lanes at incredible speed. Goats, decked in ribbons and covered in spray-paint, were being led on halters into town. More animals appeared.   

Dov'è la sfilata?” Where’s the parade?

The answer was, there is none, people are just enjoying each other, that’s how we do things.

Okay. We decided to walk around, unsure of what to do with ourselves. There were no carabinieri, which was strange, as the police always seem to be hanging about in Italy. Sometimes in small villages they’re the only people you see in the street.

When my son saw l’asinel, he was near-apoplectic with happiness, trying to throw himself out of his stroller. The donkey, tethered to a stone house up an alley too small for cars but ample for the dirt bike, wore a dirty sheepskin and garlands of plastic flowers.

“Henry!” I said. “Come fa l’asinel?”

He belted out, “EEE-AWW, EEE-AWW!”

The donkey agreeably brayed back at her biggest fan.

A man in a cape and Zorro mask stepped out of the house. “Siete americani?” Then he basically asked what the hell we were doing in O—. This was a local affair, unadvertised.

Before we knew it, we were led inside La Casa dell’Orso, house of the bear, which seemed to be a five-hundred-year-old party house. The place was a wonderful wreck, walls peeling, the only furniture a long table and rough-cut slabs to sit on. A split suckling pig was roasting in an open fire place. To my surprise, the house was full of twenty-somethings, drinking wine and passing joints. (Once my kid arrived, the smokers drifted like ghosts to the courtyard out back.) A welcome sight. I’m used to rural American places where the young people have left and your company tends to be AARP-discount age.

They insisted we sit at the table, and in our broken mutual languages, we talked about the beauty of the island. We talked about “the continent” (Italy proper). We talked about fishing—alas, the trout of Sardinia are small, they said, but the boar are plentiful and large. We talked about Donald Trump, Sanders, and Clinton—our tawdry national spectacle had reached even here, and one was wearing an orange fright wig and an American flag as a cape: The President. “You like the Donald?” “No,” we said, “è pazzo. Sanders è l’uomo.” Which they liked, laughing. A young farmer called “Cacciatore” (the hunter) was pointed out as the lucky owner of l’asinel, as well as the suckling pig he was now lifting from the fire on its iron brace. I told him I had been a hunter, too, and he whipped out his iPhone and started showing me videos of the chase, his hounds nipping at a huge and snarling boar, just as a good old boy does when he’s bragging on his Plott hounds and how quickly they treed the bear. My son sat on my lap. A teenage girl fed him cracklings, then fatty gobs of meat, throwing him into new fits of joy. Outside the dirt bike was gunning. In the piazza, after a day of heavy drinking, the hour of fist-fights was approaching. I heard a bottle shatter. After a time we said goodbye to our new friends and l’asinel, making excuses, trying to get out of town before the true madness began. It was just that kind of place.

Outside, we discovered a grown man (and not a young man either), a grease-paint zombie, nodding off in my son’s stroller. We roused him, but he refused to get out until we pushed him a bit. His wife was screaming at him. He was laughing. He tried to kiss my wife, smearing her a bit with his greasy beard, and his own wife began punching him in the shoulder. With no laughter either. In time he reeled off. Whenever I push my son in his stroller, I see a stain of paint we could never quite wash off, and I think of unhinged Sardinia where Rabelais lives.  

“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 Virgnia, Null and his family currently reside in Rome, Italy.