I was born on 6 February 1937 in ___________, a small Apulian city hardly bigger than a market town, destitute and constantly covered in dust. Good Christians that they were, my parents immediately had me baptized, inscribing me in the parish register under the name Salvatore Messana: a name that circumstances would force me to change quite often, and if I still use a pseudonym (which the reader will pardon me for), this is precisely because I have decided to find my true identity. I still have a yellowed photo of this ceremony: a fascist in a black shirt, thrusting his chest out, is smiling besides me, having given a small sum to my family. The State in fact distributed money on every happy occasion, so as to make the Empire popular and thus increase the number of future bayonets. This was a very bad allocation of resources by the regime, if one considers what took place later; but it doesn’t displease me to consider this contribution as my first swindle at the expense of the government, as a kind of involuntary baptism by fire.
We all lived in a single room, with a floor of heavy stones continually covered by earthen dust. At nightfall, we slept, all twelve of us, distributed according to a quite precise hierarchy, some in a bed, the others on a straw mattress. During the day, the light came in through a window that had been made smaller to limit (or, more exactly, to block) the inconveniences of winter-time frosts and heat-waves [during the summer].
Under the staircase, right next to the door to our room, a kind of dark tunnel opened. At its entrance, a group of terra cotta receptacles were lined up. We would enter the tunnel in turn and, by the weak light of a candle, fill the receptacles with our excrement. At the sound of a trumpet that announced the passage of a court carrying barrels, my mother had the onerous task of hurrying to meet it and empty the receptacles. The public authorities had in fact created this strange service so that the absence of sewers did not become intolerable, and so it was always ready to collect all of the small community’s shit.
My father – a day laborer who did not find it abnormal to exhaust himself to the sole profit of a few landowners – left [for the war] quickly, summoned by flags, despite his responsibilities to his family and especially despite the fact that he had naively entrusted his modest income to a liar who had promised him an exemption without having the least ability to obtain one.
He was among the first to be sent to the combat zones. I saw him again (no doubt it would be more accurate to write that “he was presented to me”) in 1942.
He wore a wretched uniform, the gray-green colors of an infantryman; he stank of grease and the barracks, which was more repugnant than when he came back from the fields, sweaty like a workhorse. He had hardly passed through the threshold when I got the sudden impression of death, clear and deep although rationally inexplicable. Despite the passage of so many years, I can still perfectly recall having the certainty that this would be his last return home.
Everyone thought as I did, and he seemed to be aware of it. He kept quiet, as if he had missed the peacefulness of home; he smoked one cigarette after another, without caring that he was violating the religion of parsimony to which he had devoted his entire existence. He observed things and people with the small eyes of an Arab, very black, excessively sunken; he scrutinized everything attentively, but with an infinite sadness. At the end of his leave, resigned to his fate, he embraced us without particular emotion and went off to get himself killed in Russia, carefully avoiding to ask himself why.
We were poor, but we were able to eat. All told, I do not have very bad memories of these first encounters with the world. I even feel a tender nostalgia for that noisy group of children and the desperate affection born of a promiscuity that, today, I find intolerable and pitiful.
There was the war. At first it came in the form of a communiqué from the government that officially made me an orphan; then it came in all of its violence. We moved to Lecce, and stayed in an even smaller room, living with the daily anguish of hunger and the continual fear of some misfortune. The only distraction from the boredom that was mixed with terror was represented by the impromptu trips to the anti-aircraft shelters in which we spent interminable hours awaiting the signal that announced the end of the danger. Too small and too unaware to really be afraid, I was only worried about being forgotten when food was given out. I had even acquired a certain indifference concerning dead bodies, which were frequently robbed by those whom the people called “the jackals.”
They were the first criminals that I ever saw. They went into homes, using sticks upon or even killing people who were wounded; then they stole the most improbable objects, without scruples accumulating commodities that they then re-sold, thus winning the esteem and respect of the “good people.” This was also the reign of the black market: even rationed foodstuffs, as if by magic, ended up in the hands of speculators (thanks to the complicity of corrupt bureaucrats) without ever or almost never directly reaching their proper destinations. Cats were no longer considered domesticated animals, having become game that was sought out to the point of disappearing. Some people even affirmed that they cooked rats. In all sincerity, I have never had the occasion to eat one.
The founders of the Empire had declared war without at all bothering to explain to the population how it should behave during the bombardments or, in a more general fashion, in case of difficulty. With the result that, after a short time, finding shelter, a piece of soap or medicine became quasi-impossible. Each person worsened the situation by egotistically seeking to disentangle himself in the midst of the confusion. One day, a woman who had gone crazy – she’d taken me for her dead son several days previously – brought me into her place by force, without paying any attention to my protests, and soaked my head in gasoline under the pretext of killing the lice, which did indeed swarm upon it. Disagreeable but very useful, this operation was then repeated more and more often by my own family. Alas, they did nothing to try to impede the bugs that were attracted by the fresh blood of children and were left to truly run wild. I became used to their bites, and I observed the particular arrogance of the large flies, reigning everywhere as sovereigns and transmitting all kinds of diseases.
The aerial attacks allowed me to get to know Saverio, a very enterprising boy my age with brushed hair and very dark skin. His grandfather – a cynical drunkard who inexplicably succeeded in cultivating his vice in the midst of all that mayhem – sent him to steal candles from a large church whose name I have forgotten, but whose rich decorations and immense painted murals greatly impressed me. I contented myself with accompanying Saverio. By pretending to pray, I witnessed – without believing my eyes – the ease with which he made disappear, not only what he had been “ordered” to take, but also a small amount of money that, after having shared with me, he made use of. I do not know if I should remember him for his undeniable generosity or his curses for the remorse that invariably gnawed at me the following day, but what is certain is the fact that, although I am a hater of priests, I have never had the courage to steal money from a church! Saverio, on the other hand, never had such reservations; nothing intimidated him. I admired him and this admiration was, at least in part, at the origin of the misfortunes that I would come to know in his company.
The war ended as mysteriously as it had begun, but a great deal of time was necessary before a normal situation returned. In fact, it never returned because everything had definitively changed. The agricultural communities that had seen my birth had no future and were swept away by the events. We did not return to ___________, but stayed in Lecce, where my uncle and cousin had found work.
The Americans circulated throughout the town, their pockets full of money, as victors or colonizers, no doubt naïve, but no less annoying for that. Among the people who had kept their self-respect, there were few who liked or supported them. The majority of the others coveted their money with whorish smiles; the bosses, hoping to avoid riots, used them unscrupulously to discourage socialist and Communist agitators; the combative sub-proletarians fleeced them every time they had the opportunity to do so. It was towards these crooks that Saverio led me with a steady hand.