I want to talk to you this morning about what was for me a chilling little book by Francesca Marciano entitled Casa Rossa. If you are a frequent listener to the Old Mole, you may recall that I talked not so long ago about Marciano's first novel, Call Of The Wild. That book was about a band of journalists, film-makers, wildlife lovers and travelers living in Nairobi, and until the very end of that book, I thought Marciano might be simply one of the rather spoiled white American and European voyeurs who seemed unable to extricate themselves from the beauty of Africa and the comparatively luxurious life-style they were able to live there. In fact, towards the end of the book, I realized that Marciano was clearly critical of those whom she was describing and critical of the horrendous economic colonization of Africa.
This book too begins as a rather simple tale of an eccentric painter who stumbles onto a run-down villa in a tiny Italian village in Puglia which is located in the heel of Italy. Enchanted by the both the beauty and the isolation, he buys and restores the villa and surrounding land, and decides to escape the big cities of Europe once and for all so that he can live a hermit's life as a painter.
As usual, I don't intend to give you much of the story line, hopefully even less than you could get from reading the jacket cover (and I hope you are not in the habit of ruining the experience of books by reading the jacket covers). Suffice it to say that the painter marries a woman who quite soon escapes from him, but not before bearing a daughter whom she has to leave in order to find her own freedom. The daughter, Alba, in turn finally escapes from her father and the rural life by marrying a film producer who lives in Rome. Quite quickly, they have two daughters, and the novel is primarily about these two girls growing up in Rome with extended stays at the little village where there grandfather still lives and paints.
Again, I will not be telling you much that you would not discover in the first few pages if I tell you that the film-producer father commits suicide, setting up what seems in many ways to be a simple little mystery as the two daughters, grieving the loss of their wonderful father, try to decide why he died, suspecting from the first that their mother killed him, if not literally, then by causing him to despair to the point of suicide.
In fact, this book is about a lot more than these two lonely, seeking girls, though their loneliness and their journey make up the backdrop for a much bigger, heart-rending story of political struggle and the wild and often futile forms it takes when the enemy is huge and amorphous and armed with both lethal weapons and the vast legal machinery of the state. It came as a surprise to me how quickly and insightfully this novel turned political (just as it surprised me to when I began to get the picture Marciano was painting for the reader in Call of the Wild). The younger daughter, Alina, begins to flirt with Marxism and leftist politics, though in quite and innocent and diletantish manner, and then the older daughter, Isabella, partly in order to flee from what she sees as her sister's attempt to barge into her life and the troupe of dancers she is hanging with, enters into a much more serious and clandestine life of political activity.
Quite quickly, I realized as a reader that I was being afforded a window into the the political life in Italy in the late 70's and early 80's, a window that few Americans ever get from the standard press. All of us probably remember some of the sensational news about the Red Brigade and the series of political assassinations that occurred in Italy, but we probably know much less about the group trials that followed those acts or of the treatment of the prisoners who were detained, often enough, simply as material witnesses. Techniques that we have come to be all too familiar with, to some extent during the war in Viet Nam, and more recently in vivid form in Iraq. All who were arrested were held in strict isolation, questioned and grilled and at least psychologically tortured in various ways in the attempt to get or manufacture evidence against the rest. Often enough, those who actually perpetrated the crimes, the kidnappings and assassinations, buckled and made deals with the state, naming names and helping in the prosecution of others, receiving in return either light sentences or no sentences at all, while those who refused to betray their mates were convicted and given ridiculously long sentences as punishment for their silence. The standard ploy was to charge all arrested with all of the acts that had been done, using the threat of conviction on all charges as leverage to force information, to force each to betray all. So that if one was even loosely associated with a group, but refused to list all others whom they knew (or thought) to be in the group, he or she was tried on all charges leveled at the group.
Isabella belongs to one such group, and because of her integrity, her refusal to name names, she and others of her group who refuse to cooperate are tried on a host of charges. All who were arrested and charged were held in isolation and questioned relentlessly until the trials begin, and then housed in bullet-proof glass cages in the court rooms as the state presented its case, using the silence of those accused as proof of guilt. I suppose not so ironically, it is often those who are most directly responsible for the acts who cooperate with the prosecution, and those who are at most indirectly connected who band together, holding fast to their moral stance and to the guilt of the state, who refuse to break and betray. Their reward is, of course, outrageous blanket sentences.
I have to tell you readers that this is not a happy book, neither in the rather lonely and agonized lives of the two girls described, nor in the political scenes overviewed. In her book on Africa, Marciano noted how impotent the little band of white Europeans and Americans felt about making any real change in Africa, about doing anything to make things better. “We're like ghosts here; we can't contribute to anything, we don't really serve any purpose.” I suggested that Marciano may be talking not only of how powerless they felt, but also how easy it is to feel powerless and unable to effect real change anywhere in the world against the gigantic and ruthless and apparently nationless economic forces that seem to govern events. Marciano makes it clear where her heart is, but the reader feels her frustration as well. Quoting from the book as Alina thinks of her sister in jail, “I couldn't stop thinking about Isabella, how she had lost her faith, her identity, her lover, and now was losing her youth, all because of remaining faithful to her idea of integrity. And how she hadn't managed to change anything, to make the world remotely a better place.”
As I have done before, I want to warn readers that this is book that they should read when they are feeling strong. I think it has important things to tell us about the world, about political struggle, as well as about relationships and guilt and fidelity. There were times when I wished I had not begun it, just as there are times when I wish that I could turn away from newspapers and from the world out there. In the end, I think this is a book worth reading, written by an author who will continue to see things as they are and to struggle.