Numero zero

  “You know, I still haven’t worked out the family situation. I think they knew their husband and father was alive somewhere. If he’d been hidden away in the Vatican, it would have been hard to visit him—none of the family could walk into the Vatican without being noticed. Argentina is the better bet. The evidence? Take Vittorio Mussolini. He escapes the purges, becomes a scriptwriter, and lives in Argentina for a long period after the war. In Argentina, you understand? To be near his father? We can’t be sure, but why Argentina? And there are photos of Romano Mussolini and other people at Ciampino Airport in Rome saying goodbye to Vittorio on his departure for Buenos Aires. Why give so much importance to the journey of a brother who before the war had already been traveling as far as the United States? And Romano? After the war he makes a name for himself as a jazz pianist, also playing abroad. History certainly hasn’t concerned itself about Romano’s concert tours, and who knows whether he too had been to Argentina? And Mussolini’s wife? She was free to move around, nobody would have stopped her taking a holiday, perhaps in Paris or Geneva so as not to draw attention, and from there to Buenos Aires. Who knows? When Leccisi and Zoli create the mess we’ve seen and suddenly bring out what’s left of the corpse, she could hardly say it belonged to someone else. She makes the best of a bad job and puts it in the family vault—it serves to keep the Fascist spirit alive among the old guard while she waits for the real Duce to come back. But I’m not interested in the family story; this is where the second part of my investigation begins.”

  “So what happens next?”

  “It’s past dinnertime, and a few pieces of my mosaic are still missing. We’ll talk about it next time.”

  I couldn’t figure out whether Braggadocio was a brilliant narrator who was feeding me his story in installments, with the necessary suspense at each “to be continued,” or whether he was still actually trying to piece the plot together. I preferred not to insist, however, for in the meantime all the comings and goings of malodorous remains had turned my stomach. I went home.


  Thursday, May 28

  “FOR ISSUE NUMBER 0/2,” Simei announced that morning, “we need to think of an article about honesty. It’s a fact, now, that the political parties are rotten, everyone’s after kickbacks, and we have to make it known that we’re in a position, if we so wish, to initiate a campaign against those parties. We have to come up with a party of honest people, a party of citizens able to talk a different kind of politics.”

  “We’d better tread carefully,” I said. “Wasn’t that the idea behind the postwar movement that called itself the Common Man?”

  “Ah, the Common Man, that was swallowed up and emasculated by the Christian Democratic Party, which at that time was powerful and extremely cunning. But the Christian Democrats today are on their last legs—no more heroes, they’re a bunch of jerks. In any event, our readers don’t remember a thing about the Common Man,” said Simei. “It’s the stuff of forty-five years ago, and our readers don’t have a clue what happened ten years ago. I’ve just been reading an article celebrating the Resistance in one of the main newspapers, and there are two photographs, one of a truckload of partisans and the other of a group wearing Fascist uniforms and giving the Roman salute, who are described as squadristi. But no, squadristi were the squads of the 1920s, and they didn’t go around dressed like that; those in the photo are Fascist troops of the ’30s or early ’40s, as anyone my age would instantly recognize. I’m not suggesting all journalists have to be people my age who have witnessed such events, but I’m perfectly capable of distinguishing the uniforms of the bersaglieri of La Marmora from the troops of Bava-Beccaris, though both of them died out well before I was born. If our newspaper colleagues have such poor memories, then why count on our readers to remember the Common Man? But let’s go back to my idea: a new party, a party of honest people could trouble a great many.”

  “League of the Honest,” said Maia with a smile. “That was the title of an old prewar novel by Giovanni Mosca. It would be interesting to reread it. It’s about the union sacrée of decent people whose task it was to infiltrate the ranks of the dishonest, expose them, and convert them if possible to the path of honesty. But to be accepted by dishonest people, members of the league had to behave dishonestly. You can imagine what happened. The league of honest people gradually turned into a league of crooks.”

  “That’s literature, my dear,” snapped Simei, “and Mosca, does anyone still remember him? You read too much. We can forget your Mosca, but if the idea appalls you, you don’t need to worry about it. Dottor Colonna, you’ll give me a hand to write a lead article that’s hard-hitting. And virtuous.”

  “Can do,” I said. “Appealing to honest folk is always excellent for sales.”

  “The league of honest crooks,” sneered Braggadocio, looking at Maia. The two of them were not made for each other. I felt increasingly sorry for this little walking encyclopedia who was a prisoner in Simei’s den. But I could see no way to help her right now. Her problem was becoming my chief concern (maybe hers too?), and I was losing interest in the rest.

  At lunchtime, walking to a bar for a sandwich, I said to her, “Do you want us to put a stop to it? Why not expose this whole pathetic story, and to hell with Simei and company?”

  “And who do we go to?” she asked. “First of all, don’t destroy yourself on my account. Second, where do you go to expose this business when every newspaper . . . I’m just beginning to understand, aren’t they all exactly the same? Each protects the other . . .”

  “Now don’t get like Braggadocio, who sees plots everywhere. Anyway, forgive me, I’m just talking . . .” I didn’t know how to say it. “I think I love you.”

  “Do you realize that’s the first time you’ve told me?”

  “Stupid, don’t we think the same way?”

  It was true. At least thirty years had gone by since I’d said anything like that. It was May, and after thirty years I was feeling spring in my bones.

  Why did I think of bones? It was that same afternoon that Braggadocio told me to meet him in the Verziere district, in front of the Church of San Bernardino alle Ossa, which stood along a passageway at the corner of Piazza Santo Stefano.

  “Nice church,” said Braggadocio as we entered. “It’s been here since the Middle Ages, but after destruction, fire, and other mishaps, it wasn’t until the 1700s that it was rebuilt. The original purpose was to house the bones of a leper cemetery not far from here.”

  I should have guessed. Having told me about Mussolini’s corpse, which he could hardly dig up again, Braggadocio was seeking other mortuary inspirations. And indeed, along a corridor, we entered the ossuary. The place was deserted, except for an old woman praying in a front pew with her head between her hands. There were death’s heads crammed into high recesses between one pilaster and another, boxes of bones, skulls arranged in the shape of a cross set into a mosaic of whitish stone-like objects that were other bones, perhaps fragments of vertebrae, limb joints, collarbones, breastbones, shoulder blades, coccyges, carpals and metacarpals, kneecaps, tarsal and ankle bones, and suchlike. Bone edifices rose on every side, leading the eye up to a merry, luminous Tiepolesque vault, where angels and souls in glory hovered among billowing, creamy pink clouds.

  On a shelf over an old door were skulls with gaping eye sockets, lined up like porcelain jars in a pharmacist’s cabinet. In the recesses at floor level, protected by a grill through which visitors could poke their fingers, the bones and skulls had been polished and smoothed over many centuries from the touch of devotees or necrophiles, like the foot of Saint Peter’s statue in Rome. There were at least a thousand skulls, the smaller bones were beyond count, and on the pilasters were monograms of Christ, along with tibias that looked like they’d been stolen from the Jolly Rogers of the pirates of Tortuga.

  “They’re not just the bones of lepers,” explained Braggadocio, as though nothing in the world could be more beautiful. “There are skeletons from other nearby bu
rial grounds, the corpses of convicts, deceased patients from the Brolo hospital, beheaded criminals, prisoners who died in jail, probably also thieves or brigands who came to die in the church because there was no place else they could turn their face to the wall in peace—the Verziere was a district with a terrible reputation. It makes me laugh to see that old woman sitting here praying as if before the tomb of a saint with holy relics, when these are the remains of scoundrels, bandits, damned souls. And yet the old monks were more compassionate than those who buried and then dug up Mussolini. See with what care, with what devotion to art—and yet with what indifference—these skeletal remains were arranged, as if they were Byzantine mosaics. That little old woman is seduced by these images of death, mistaking them for images of sanctity, and yet under the altar, though I can no longer see where, you should be able to see the half-mummified body of a young girl who, they say, comes out on the Night of All Souls to perform her danse macabre with the other skeletons.”

  I pictured the young girl leading her bony friends as far as Via Bagnera, but made no comment. I had seen other, equally macabre ossuaries, like the one in the Capuchin church in Rome, and the terrifying catacombs in Palermo, with whole mummified friars dressed in tattered majesty, but Braggadocio was evidently quite content with his Milanese carcasses.

  “There’s also the putridarium, which you reach by going down some steps in front of the main altar, but you have to search out the sacristan, and you need to find him in a good mood. The friars used to place their brothers on stone seats to decay and dissolve, and slowly the bodies dehydrated, the humors drained away. And here are the skeletons, picked clean as the teeth in toothpaste ads. A few days ago I was thinking this would have been an ideal place to hide Mussolini’s corpse after Leccisi had stolen it, but unfortunately I’m not writing a novel but reconstructing historical facts, and history tells us the remains of the Duce were placed somewhere else. Shame. That’s why recently I’ve been visiting this place a lot, for a story about last remains. It’s been giving me much food for thought. There are those who find inspiration looking, say, at the Dolomites or Lake Maggiore, but I find inspiration here. I should have been the keeper of a morgue. Perhaps it’s the memory of my grandfather who died so horribly, may he rest in peace.”

  “Why have you brought me here?”

  “I need to talk, I’ve got to tell someone about these things seething inside me, or else I’ll go mad. It can turn your head being the only person to have found the truth. And there’s never anyone here, except for the occasional tourist, who doesn’t understand a damn thing. And at last I’ve reached stay-behind.”

  “Stay what?”

  “Remember I still had to work out what they did with the Duce, the living one—not to leave him rotting in Argentina or in the Vatican and ending up like his double. What do we do with the Duce?”

  “What do we do with him?”

  “Well, the Allies, or those among the Allies who wanted him alive, to be brought out at the right moment, to be used against a Communist revolution or a Soviet attack. During the Second World War, the British had coordinated the activities of the resistance movements in the countries occupied by the Axis powers through a network run by a branch of their intelligence services, the Special Operations Executive, which was disbanded at the end of the war. But it was started up again in the early 1950s as the nucleus for a new organization that was to operate in various European countries to stop an invasion by the Red Army, or local Communists who might try to overthrow the state. The coordination was done by the supreme command of the Allied forces in Europe, and led to the creation of ‘stay-behind’ in Belgium, England, France, West Germany, Holland, Luxembourg, Denmark, and Norway. A secret paramilitary structure. In Italy, its beginnings can be traced back to 1949; then, in 1959, the Italian secret services enter as part of a coordination and planning committee, and finally in 1964 the organization called Gladio was officially born, funded by the CIA. Gladio—the word ought to mean something to you, since gladius was a sword used by Roman legionaries, so using the word gladio evoked the imagery of fascism. A name that would attract military veterans, adventurers, and nostalgics. The war was over, but many people had fond memories of heroic days, of attacks with a couple of bombs and a flower in their mouth (as the Fascist song went), of machine-gun fire. They were ex-Fascists, or idealistic sixty-year-old Catholics terrified at the prospect of Cossacks arriving at Saint Peter’s and letting their horses drink from the holy-water stoups, but there were also fanatics loyal to the exiled monarchy. It’s even rumored that they included Edgardo Sogno, who, though once a partisan leader in Piedmont and a hero, was also a monarchist through and through, and therefore linked to the creed of a bygone world. Recruits were sent to a training camp in Sardinia, where they learned (or were reminded) how to blow up bridges, operate machine guns, attack enemy squads at night with daggers between their teeth, carry out acts of sabotage and guerrilla warfare—”

  “But they would all have been retired colonels, ailing field marshals, rachitic bank clerks. I can’t see them clambering over piers and pylons like in The Bridge over the River Kwai.”

  “Yes, but there were also young neofascists raring for a fight, and all kinds of angry types who had nothing to do with politics.”

  “I seem to remember reading something about it a few years ago.”

  “Certainly, Gladio remained top secret from the end of the war, the only people to know about it were the intelligence services and the highest military commanders, and it was communicated little by little only to prime ministers, ministers of defense, and presidents of the republic. With the collapse of the Soviet empire, the whole thing lost all practical purpose, and perhaps cost too much. It was President Cossiga who let the cat out of the bag in 1990, and then, the same year, Prime Minister Andreotti officially admitted that, all right, Gladio had existed, but there was no reason to fuss, its existence had been necessary, the story was now over, and the tittle-tattle was to stop. As it turned out, no one was overconcerned, the issue was almost forgotten. Italy, Belgium, and Switzerland were the only countries to launch parliamentary inquiries, but George H. W. Bush refused to comment since he was in the midst of preparations for the Gulf War and didn’t want to unsettle the Atlantic Alliance. The entire affair was hushed up in all the countries that participated in the stay-behind operations, with only a few minor incidents. In France it had been known for some time that the infamous OAS had been created with members of the French stay-behind, but after a failed coup in Algiers, General de Gaulle had brought dissidents back under control. In Germany, it was common knowledge that the Oktoberfest bomb in Munich in 1980 was made with explosives that came from a German stay-behind depot; in Greece, it was the stay-behind army, the Lochos Oreinon Katadromon, that kicked off the military coup, and in Portugal, a mysterious Aginter Press was behind the assassination of Eduardo Mondlane, leader of the Frente de Libertação de Moçambique. In Spain, a year after the death of General Franco, two members of the Carlist Party were killed by far-right terrorists, and the following year, stay-behinds carried out a massacre in Madrid, in the office of a lawyer with links to the Communist Party. In Switzerland, just two years ago, Colonel Alboth, a former local stay-behind commander, declares in a private letter to the Swiss defense department that he is prepared to reveal “the whole truth” and is then found dead at his home, stabbed with his own bayonet. In Turkey, the Grey Wolves, later involved in the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II, are linked to stay-behind. I could go on—and I’ve read you only a few of my notes—but as you see, this is small stuff, a killing here and a killing there, barely enough to reach the front page, and each time all is forgotten. The point is that newspapers are not there for spreading news but for covering it up. X happens, you have to report it, but it causes embarrassment for too many people, so in the same edition you add some shock headlines—mother kills four children, savings at risk of going up in smoke, letter from Garibaldi insulting his lieutenant Ni
no Bixio discovered, etc.—so news drowns in a great sea of information. I’m interested in what Gladio did in Italy from the 1960s until 1990. Must have been up to all kinds of tricks, would have been mixed up with the far-right terrorist movements, played a part in the bombing at Piazza Fontana in 1969, and from then on—the days of the student revolts of ’68 and the workers’ strikes that autumn—it dawned on someone that he could incite terrorist attacks and put the blame on the Left. And it’s rumored that Licio Gelli’s notorious P2 Masonic lodge was also sticking its nose in. But why is an organization that should have been opposing the Soviets involving itself in terrorist attacks? And here I came across the whole story of Prince Junio Valerio Borghese, and before that, all those rumors of military takeovers planned but never carried out.”

  The so-called Borghese coup was a fairly grotesque story that someone, I think, turned into a satirical movie. Junio Valerio Borghese, also known as the Black Prince, had been a leader of the Decima Mas commando unit. A man of some courage, it was said, a Fascist through and through, he had inevitably been part of Mussolini’s Republic of Salò, and it was never clear how, in 1945, while people were being shot at random, he managed to survive, and continued to preserve the aura of a thoroughbred fighter, beret at a rakish angle, machine gun slung across his shoulder, typical military garb with trousers gathered at the ankles, turtleneck sweater, though he had a face that no one would have looked at twice if they’d seen him walking in the street dressed as a bank clerk.

  Now, in 1970, Borghese felt the moment for a military coup had come. Mussolini would have been approaching eighty-seven by then. They must have realized, Braggadocio thought, that if he was to be brought back from exile, it was better not to wait too much longer—after all, back in 1945 he was already looking worn.

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