Numero zero

  As he talked, Braggadocio looked like a cat who had sneakily jumped on a butcher’s counter. If he’d had whiskers, they would have bristled and quivered.

  “And if you go on reading, you’ll see there was no trace of an ulcer in the stomach, and we all know that Mussolini had one, nor is there mention of traces of syphilis, and yet it was common knowledge that the deceased was in an advanced stage of syphilis. Note also that Georg Zachariae, a German doctor who had treated the Duce at Salò, had stated shortly afterward that his patient suffered from low blood pressure, anemia, enlarged liver, stomach cramps, twisted bowel, and acute constipation. And yet, according to the autopsy, everything was normal: liver of regular size and appearance both externally and upon incision, bile ducts healthy, renal and suprarenal glands intact, urinary tract and genitals normal. Final note: ‘Brain, removed in residual parts, was fixed in liquid formalin for later anatomical and histopathological examination, fragment of cortex given on request by Health Office of Fifth Army Command (Calvin S. Drayer) to Dr. Winfred H. Overholser of Saint Elizabeths Psychiatric Hospital in Washington.’ Over and out.”

  He read and savored each line as if he were in front of the corpse, as if touching it, as if he were at Taverna Moriggi and, instead of shank of pork with sauerkraut, he was slavering over that orbital region where the eyeball appeared deflated and torn with complete discharge of the vitreous humor, as if he were savoring the pons, the mesencephalus, the lower part of the cerebral lobes, as if he were exulting over the emergence of the almost liquefied brain matter.

  I was disgusted, but—I cannot deny it—fascinated by him and by the martyred corpse over which he exulted, in the same way readers of nineteenth-century novels were hypnotized by the gaze of the serpent. To put an end to his exultation, I said, “It’s the autopsy on . . . well, it could be anyone.”

  “Exactly. You see, my theory was correct: Mussolini’s corpse wasn’t that of Mussolini, and in any case, no one could swear it was his. I’m now reasonably clear about what happened between April 25 and 30.”

  That evening I really felt the need to cleanse myself, be with Maia. And to distance her in my mind from the other members of the team, I decided to tell her the truth, that Domani would never be published.

  “It’s better that way,” said Maia. “I won’t have to worry about the future. We’ll hold out for a few months, earn ourselves those few lire—few, filthy, and fast—and then the South Seas.”


  Late May

  MY LIFE WAS NOW RUNNING along parallel lines. By day the humiliating existence at the newspaper, in the evening Maia’s little apartment, also mine sometimes. Saturdays and Sundays to Lake Orta. The evenings compensated us both for days spent with Simei. Maia had given up making suggestions that would only be rejected, and confined herself to sharing them with me, for amusement, or for consolation.

  One evening she showed me a lonelyhearts magazine. “Great,” she said, “except that I’d love to try publishing them with the subtext.”

  “In what way?”

  “This way: ‘Hi, I’m Samantha, twenty-nine years old, professionally qualified, housewife, separated, no children, seeking a man, attractive, bright, and sociable.’ Subtext: I’m now thirty. After my husband left, I had no luck finding a job with the bookkeeping diploma I worked hard to get. I am stuck at home all day twiddling my thumbs. (I don’t even have any brats to look after.) I’m looking for a man, he doesn’t have to be handsome, provided he doesn’t knock me around like that bastard I married.

  “Or: ‘Carolina, age thirty-three, unmarried, graduate, businesswoman, sophisticated, dark hair, slim, confident and sincere, interested in sports, movies, theater, travel, reading, dancing, open to new experiences, would like to meet interesting man with personality, education and good position, professional, executive or military, max. sixty years with view to marriage.’ Subtext: At thirty-three I’m still on the shelf, perhaps because I’m skinny as a rake and would like to be blond but try not to worry about it. I struggled to get an arts degree but couldn’t get a job with it, so I set up a small workshop where I employ three Albanians, paid in cash; we produce socks for the local market stalls. I don’t really know what I like, I watch some television, go to the movies with a friend or to the local amateur dramatic society, I read the newspaper, especially the lonelyhearts pages, I like dancing but don’t have anyone to take me, and to land a husband I’m prepared to take an interest in anything, so long as there’s money so I can ditch the socks and the Albanians. I don’t mind if he’s old, an accountant if possible, but I’d also settle for a registry clerk or a retired policeman.

  “Or this one: ‘Patrizia, age forty-two, single, shopkeeper, dark, slender, sweet and sensitive, would like to meet a man who is loyal, kind and sincere, marital status unimportant so long as he’s motivated.’ Subtext: Hell, at forty-two (and with a name like Patrizia I must be going on fifty, like every other Patrizia), not married, I make ends meet with the haberdashery shop my poor mother left me. I am slightly anorexic and basically neurotic; is there a man out there who will take me to bed? Doesn’t matter whether he’s married or not, so long as he fucks well.

  “And again: ‘Still hoping there’s a woman capable of true love. I’m a bachelor, bank clerk, age twenty-nine, reasonably good-looking and a lively character, seeking a pretty girl, serious, educated, able to sweep me off my feet.’ Subtext: I don’t really get along with women, the few I’ve met were morons, all they wanted was to get married. They say I have a lively character because I tell them exactly where to get off. I’m not a complete jerk, so isn’t there some sex bomb who doesn’t pop her gum and say ‘dese’ and ‘dose,’ who’s up for a good fuck without expecting too much else?”

  “You don’t seriously want Simei to publish stuff like that. Or rather, the announcements might be okay, but not your interpretations!”

  “I know, I know,” said Maia, “but there’s nothing wrong with dreaming.”

  Then, as we were falling asleep, she said, “You who know everything, do you know why they say ‘Lose Trebizond and clash the cymbals’?”

  “No, I don’t, but is this the kind of question to ask at midnight?”

  “Well, I actually do know. There are two explanations. One is that since Trebizond was the main port on the Black Sea, if trading ships lost their way to Trebizond, it meant losing the money invested in the voyage. The other, which seems more likely, is that Trebizond was the navigation point ships looked for, and losing sight of it meant losing direction, or your bearings, or where you’re going. As for ‘clash the cymbals,’ which is commonly used to mean a state of drunkenness, the etymological dictionary tells us that it originally meant being excessively lively, was used by Pietro Aretino, and comes from Psalm 150, Laudate eum in cymbalis bene sonantibus, ‘Praise him with the clash of cymbals.’”

  “Look who I’ve ended up with. You’re so curious, how did you deal for so long with celebrity romances?”

  “For money, filthy lucre. It happens when you’re a loser.” She held me closer. “But I’m less of a loser now that I’ve won you in the lottery.”

  What do you do with a screwball like that, other than go back to making love? And in doing so, I felt almost a winner.

  We hadn’t been watching television on the evening of the twenty-third, so it was only the following day that we read in the papers about the killing of the anti-Mafia judge Giovanni Falcone. We were shocked and, next morning at the office, also visibly upset.

  Costanza asked Simei whether we shouldn’t do an issue on the assassination. “Let’s think about it,” said Simei doubtfully. “If we talk about the death of Falcone, we have to talk about the Mafia, complain about the lack of policing, things like that. Right away we make enemies with the police and with the Cosa Nostra. I don’t know whether the Commendatore would like that. When we start a real newspaper, and a magistrate is blown up, then we’ll certainly have to comment on it, and in commenting on it we’re immediately in danger
of putting forward ideas that will be contradicted a few days later. That’s a risk a real newspaper has to run, but why us now? The wiser course, even for a real newspaper, is generally to keep it sentimental, to interview the relatives. If you watch carefully, that’s what they do on TV when they go doorstepping the mother whose ten-year-old son has been killed in a tank of acid: How do you feel, signora, about your son’s death? People shed a few tears and everyone’s happy. Like that lovely German word Schadenfreude, pleasure at other people’s misfortune, a sentiment that a newspaper has to respect and nurture. But for the moment we don’t have to concern ourselves with these miseries, and indignation should be left to left-wing newspapers, that’s their specialty. Besides, it’s not such incredible news. Magistrates have been killed before, and they’ll be killed again. We’ll have plenty of good opportunities. For the moment let’s hold back.”

  Falcone having been eliminated twice over, we turned to more serious matters.

  Braggadocio came up to me, gave me a nudge: “See? This whole business confirms my story.”

  “What the hell has it got to do with your story?”

  “I don’t know yet, but it’s got to have something to do with it. Everything always fits with everything else, you just have to know how to read the coffee grounds. Give me time.”


  Wednesday, May 27

  ONE MORNING, AS SHE WOKE UP, Maia said, “But I don’t much like him.”

  By now I was ready for her synaptic games.

  “You’re talking about Braggadocio,” I said.

  “Of course, who else?” Then, almost as an afterthought, “How did you figure that out?”

  “My dear, as Simei would say, the two of us know a total of six people in common. I thought of the one who’d been the rudest to you and hit on Braggadocio.”

  “I could have been thinking about, I don’t know, President Cossiga.”

  “But you weren’t, you were thinking of Braggadocio. And anyway, for once I’ve caught your train of thought, so why do you want to complicate matters?”

  “See how you’re beginning to think what I think?”

  And, damn it, she was right.

  “Queers,” announced Simei that morning at the daily editorial meeting. “Queers are a subject that always attracts attention.”

  “You don’t say ‘queer’ anymore,” ventured Maia. “You say ‘gay,’ no?”

  “I know, my dear, I know.” Simei was irritated. “But our readers still say ‘queer,’ or rather, they think it, since it disgusts them even to say it. I know you don’t say ‘Negro’ any longer but ‘black.’ You don’t say ‘blind’ but ‘visually impaired.’ But a black is still black, and a visually impaired person can’t see a lucifer, poor thing. I’ve nothing against queers, same as Negroes, for me they are absolutely fine so long as they mind their own business.”

  “So why write about gays if our readers find them disgusting?”

  “I’m not thinking about queers in general, my dear, I’m all for freedom, everyone can do as they please. But some of them are in politics, in parliament, and in government. People think queers are just writers and ballet dancers, yet some are in positions of power and we don’t even know it. They’re a Mafia, helping each other out. And this is something our readers might like to know.”

  Maia wasn’t prepared to give in: “But things are changing, maybe in ten years a gay will be able to say he’s gay without anyone batting an eyelid.”

  “All sorts of things can happen in ten years, we’re all aware that morals are declining. But for the moment this is a matter of concern to our readers. Lucidi, you’ve plenty of sources, give us something on queers in politics—but be careful, don’t name names, we don’t want to end up in court, we just want to float the idea, the specter, create a shiver, a sense of unease . . .”

  “I can give you plenty of names if you wish,” said Lucidi. “But if, as you say, it’s just a matter of creating unease, according to what I’ve heard, there’s a bookshop in Rome where high-ranking homosexuals meet unnoticed, the place is mostly visited by normal people. And for some it’s also a place where they can get a bindle of cocaine. You pick up a book, take it to the counter, and the assistant will slip in the bindle along with the book. It’s well known that . . . well, mentioning no names, one was also a minister, and a homosexual, and he is given to snorting coke. Everyone knows, or anyone of any importance. It’s not a place for your garden-variety butt boy, nor the ballet dancer who’d camp around and attract too much attention.”

  “It’s fine to talk about rumors, with a few spicy details, just a bit of color. But there’s also a way of introducing names. You can say that the place is totally respectable since it’s frequented by eminent personalities, and there you can throw in seven or eight names of writers, journalists, and senators of impeccable character. Except that among these names you include one or two queers. No one can say we are libeling anyone, because those names appear as examples of people of integrity. Indeed, we can include a card-carrying womanizer whose lover’s name we know. Meanwhile we’ve sent out a coded message for those ready to listen, and someone will have understood that we could say much more if we wanted.”

  Maia was shocked. She left before the others, motioning to me as if to say, Sorry, I have to be alone tonight, I’m taking a sleeping pill and going straight to bed. And so I fell prey to Braggadocio, who continued regaling me with his stories as we strolled off and, by pure coincidence, ended up in Via Bagnera, as if the somber air of the place suited the morbid nature of his tale.

  “So, listen, here I seem to be running up against a series of events that go against my theory, though you’ll see it’s not quite like that. Anyway, Mussolini, now reduced to offal, is stitched more or less back together, and buried with Claretta and the rest of them in the main Musocco cemetery, but in an unmarked tomb so no one could turn it into a place of Fascist pilgrimage. This must have been the wish of whoever had let the real Mussolini escape, to minimize talk of his death. They certainly couldn’t create the myth of Barbarossa hidden away in a cave, which might work well for Hitler since no one knew what had happened to his body or whether he had actually died. But while letting it be thought that Mussolini was dead (and partisans continued to celebrate Piazzale Loreto as one of the magical moments of the liberation), they had to be prepared for the idea that one day the deceased would resurface—as new, as good as new, as the song goes. And there’s no way of resurrecting anything from patched-up pulp. But at this point that spoilsport Domenico Leccisi appears on the scene.”

  “He was the one who snatched the Duce’s corpse, wasn’t he?”

  “Exactly. A twenty-six-year-old goon, the last firebrand of Salò, full of ideals but no ideas. He wants to give his idol a decent burial, or at least create a scandal to publicize the resurgence of neofascism, and he puts together a band of crazies like himself to go to the cemetery one night in April 1946. The few watchmen are fast asleep. He goes straight to the grave, obviously he has inside information. He digs up the body, now in a worse state than when it was boxed up—after all, a year had gone by, and I’ll let you picture what he must have found—and pitter-patter hush-hush he carries it away as best he can, leaving a scrap of decomposed tissue and even two bones lying along the cemetery path. I mean to say, what idiocy.”

  I had the impression Braggadocio would have truly enjoyed being involved in that macabre transportation: his necrophilia had prepared me for anything.

  “Shock, horror, newspaper headlines,” he went on, “police searching everywhere for a hundred days, unable to trace the fetid remains, despite the trail of stench that must have been left along the route they’d taken. But the first of the accomplices, Mauro Rana, is caught after just a few days, and then the others, one by one, until Leccisi himself is arrested in late July. And it’s determined that the corpse had been hidden for a short while at Rana’s house in the Valtellina, then, in May, handed over to Father Zucca, the Franciscan prior of the Con
vent of Sant’Angelo in Milan, who had walled it up in the right-hand nave of his church. The problem of Father Zucca and his assistant, Father Parini, is quite another story. There are those who saw them as chaplains to a high-society and reactionary Milan, involved with neofascist circles in trafficking forged banknotes and drugs, while for others they were goodhearted friars who couldn’t refuse to perform what was the duty of every good Christian—parce sepulto, to spare the corpse. I have very little interest in all this, but what does interest me is that the government, with the agreement of Cardinal Schuster, orders the body to be interred in the Capuchin convent of Cerro Maggiore, and there it remains, from 1946 to 1957, eleven years, without the secret ever getting out. You must realize that this is a crucial part of the story. That idiot Leccisi had risked dragging out the corpse of Mussolini’s double, not that it could have been examined in that state, yet for those pulling the strings in the Mussolini affair, it was better to keep things hushed up, the less said the better. But while Leccisi (after twenty-one months’ imprisonment) sets out on a glorious parliamentary career, the new prime minister, Adone Zoli, who had managed to form a government thanks to the votes of the neofascists, agrees in exchange to allow the body to be returned to the family, and it is interred in Mussolini’s hometown of Predappio, in a shrine that even today is a rallying point for diehard old Fascists and young fanatics, black shirts and Roman salutes. I don’t think Zoli knew anything about the existence of the real Mussolini, so he wasn’t worried about the cult of the double. It may have happened differently, I don’t know. Perhaps the business of the double was being handled not by the neofascists but by others much higher up.”

  “Wait, what’s the role of Mussolini’s family in all this? Either they don’t know the Duce’s alive, which seems impossible, or they agreed to bring home a bogus corpse.”

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