« The writer of the decade »
by critic Giorgio De Rienzo of Corriere della Sera
Erri De Luca. NYC. The Day Before Happiness
MY NAPLES BY ERRI DE LUCA (from Louis Vuitton City Guide)
Naples is the birthplace of the writer Erri De Luca and also the locus for his novels. “My life and my writing often become one in this birthplace,” he says. Insolent and generous, mineral and sanguine, mafioso and fervent, seismic and oceanic – rarely has a city had such an impact on a man and his work. There is something ethereal about his long, thin figure as he raises his blue eyes to Montedidio – Naples’ highest hill – where he was born in 1950 and which forms the setting for his eponymous novel, possibly the finest of his works.
■ The city that never sleeps
“Naples forged my nervous system in a feverish body that was attune to the tensions of the city from an early age. Until I was eleven, I lived in the working-class neighborhood of Montedidio, and this area shaped my world of sound as the air was filled with shouting, insults, shop noises, songs, and arguments. It was the cacophony of an excited crowd that never slept: adults talking in the Neapolitan dialect about aerial bombardments, earthquakes, the eruptions of Vesuvius—from the most tragic in 79 CE, which buried Pompéi and Herculanum, to the most recent in 1944. And they told stories about the ghosts that stalked Naples in voices that have left an indelible impression on me.”
■ A voice that matches archaic rhythms
Erri De Luca enjoys going for long, slow walks through the city. A distinguished mountaineer, he also likes to walk along the ridges of mountains where the air is thinner, and where talk shrinks to the bare essentials. Whether spoken or written, his sentences match the archaic rhythms of breathing. “I learnt to breathe in time with the city’s sighs of relief, flashes of anger, catarrhal coughs, and ripples of laughter. My writing is informed by the sulfur and the carbon monoxide of the braziers lit in small rooms overlooking icy, suffocating streets. It comes from the smell of home-roasted coffee and the feint gurgle of the pot cooking Sunday’s thick sauce all night by the heat of a candle.”
■ Ever resistant to the elements
In the vicoli [communes] that choke the sun, the air is scented with broom shrubs and washing powder. Erri De Luca says: “Naples smells of the sea-charged southwest wind that wafts its salty energy through the narrowest of streets, unsettling them with its force, but never obliterating them.” Built with the tuff left behind by the eruptions and resistant to bombings and earthquakes, Naples is invincible. “Tuff is the tender, cold remains of what has been cooked to hell. It will last forever, and can’t stand being covered with plaster for long. The layers of plaster are like the reigns of the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, French, and Spanish, who arrived in waves in the city over the ages, yet who have never conquered it.” Erri De Luca walks on into the old Toledo district (constructed in the 16th century by the invading Spanish kings), with it extraordinary edifices: palace and cloisters, small altars carved into aristocratic facades, sculpted stairways at the end of patios, and, in the historic quarter, the Duomo celebrating San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples. Men still secretly play morra, the gambling game that gave its name to the Camorra (the Neapolitan mafia). “The color of Naples is the red waxen seal of the blood of San Gennaro, the porcelain-red color of the blood of gutted anchovies in the fisheries,” says Erri De Luca with a smile.
■ Between the sea and the volcano
The writer reaches the summit overlooking the city, with its grand view of the wide blue bay and the dark shadow of Vesuvius. “Naples is female, geographically concave, yet male due to the sea that surges into it. Both sexes in one body: Adam before he lost his rib. Not a hermaphrodite, but the invasion of one sex by the other.” To the west lie the islands of Capri, Ischia, and Procida, and the hill of Posillipo where Virgil is buried. Is Erri De Luca thinking, by any chance, of Gerard de Nerval’s line in “The disinherited”: “Give me back Posillipo and the Italian sea?” Does he feel possessive about the city that nurtured him? “No one owns Naples, neither its inhabitants nor Italy. It belongs to itself. The city is part of the surrounding gulf and the volcano, which promises the area the most spectacular farewell, with a funeral pyre of fire, flames, and dark ash, worthy of Golgotha and the Holy Land.”
Wind in Your Face Translated by Jim Hicks
The first few times, you feel the wind that bodies make as they run. You see their flight, coming towards you – your side scatters, and you stand aside, so they don’t end up on top of you. They run without speaking, not a single yell, their breath saved for their legs. You watch the race. Wind in your face, the bodies of boys and girls scuttling away, and no one notices you at all. Later someone will say, Yes, I saw him, he was standing still at the corner, leaning against the wall.
The uniformed troops come behind them. You wait for that small space, the no-man’s-land between flight and pursuit, and you step out from the margins, away from the wall. You throw whatever you’ve got at hand, keeping it low, to trip them up. Then it’s your turn to run. You’ve had time to see where you should go, where your chances are best, uphill is better. The pursuers are already breathing hard; a climb will discourage them. Even if they do want to throw a shot or two at you from behind, a target placed higher up is tougher.
Not much of a headstart, a yard or so, but your sortie unbalances them a bit – you’ve surprised them, and, for a few seconds, slowed their charge. They see only you, but doubt stirs in them that there may be others, and for a second longer they look around. Fearfulness is an old habit; in a moment of excitement, one’s own senses aren’t trusted. Your profit, you gain a few more yards. At last they understand you’re no more than a splinter, bumping up against the wide legs of a woodsman who fells a tree with his axe. Behind you their anger explodes and pulls them into the chase. You hear someone screech, Grab him! and you think to yourself, So much the better, they’re wasting their breath in yelling, twenty or thirty yards more and they’ll be winded, they’ll have to quit mid-race, just to get some air back. Anyway, you’ve already broken up the pursuit, and your side has taken cover. You can slow down now, you can try to meet them at the next site, pre-arranged in case of retreat. So … who are you?
Someone who – when the troops charged – stood firm. You felt appalled by the stampede of those around you; if one of them had fallen, the others in panic might even have run over him. Back then, girls didn’t go to the gym or jog in parks; their clumsy way of running made you feel ashamed. Back when it was your turn to be a kid, out in the streets, organized sport was called physical education and done in school dormitories. Boys knew how to run because they played ball in the garden of the Villa Comunale, until the cops broke it up. Girls didn’t know how to run. And then, in the demonstrations – attacked, gassed, hunted – they learned.
The first time you didn’t run they caught you, and you sure caught it that time. You curled yourself up on the ground, a kick sent your beret flying, but instinct had schooled you well. In between all their feet, it was more difficult for them to hit you; when you’re folded over, a mid-level blow lands more easily, and more powerfully. They get off on beating you, then one of them pushes you behind the lines; you get another beating, from behind, harder, making you fall down again. Learn! Yes, that way you learn you’re not safe even after you’re caught, after you surrender, first you have to get past them. It’s not like those children’s games where the prisoner has to skip a round, and no one touches him. Here you’re stuck in purgatory behind their lines, where blows come out of nowhere, from cardboard bullies, as they say in Naples.
That’s how it was the first time they grabbed you, caught you like a chicken, though it would at least have tried to wriggle out between the legs. Not you, you waited for it, without a thought in your head, just because you didn’t want to run off. Shoved into their van, you were surprised not to be alone. In the dark, there was another close to you, a little better dressed, with no blood on his face or clothes. He asks how you’re doing, if you’re thinking straight, if you’re able to count. He’s trying to rule out a concussion, internal trauma, something beyond what he sees. He says, Heads are hard, it’s not so easy to crack them open, though they’re easy to husk.
They grabbed him too, but he stayed standing, dodged a few blows, and they weren’t able to flip him down to the ground. They dragged him like dead-weight, lifting him under their arms – and that way their hands were busy. It’d happened to him before. He asks why you didn’t run off. You say you don’t know, but you do know, you just don’t want to say you were simply too ashamed to run with all them, a shame stronger than your fear. If you could say it in dialect – “me so’ miso scuorno ’e fuì,” I was embarrassed to flee – that’d do it, but in Italian speaking of intimate shame sounds wrong, so you push your handkerchief down harder on the wound and stay silent. Now you know something that you didn’t then: some forms of courage spring up out of shame, and those are rooted more firmly than the others, from anger, fits quick to cool. Shame, in contrast, is a hard grain, never overcooked.
In the meantime they open the door again and slam one more inside, he’s motionless on the floor. The other gets up and helps him sit, the new guy resists, he’s afraid of catching it again, but the other insists. If you stay down they’ll come back and start in again with the hitting, saying, Why not stay home, where you can sleep on the ground like the dog you are? That convinces him, the other gets him settled, into the farthest seat, back in the dark of the van. The rear doors open wide and a group of six comes in – screamed at, slapped around – there’s even a girl with them, all caught together, then they close it up and the van starts off, with an escort and siren.
Where are they taking us, someone asks, To the police station, the other tells him. Are they arresting us, he asks, Yes, some of us, it’s hit-or-miss sometimes, he answers. A third remembers he didn’t tell anyone at home where he’d be. At the barracks, the other says to you, When they open up I’ll get out first, you come after me and stay close, walk as quickly as you can. Don’t stop, and above all don’t fall, just look at the ground, watch where you put your feet. They’ll make us go through them, and if you fall, you’ll catch it worse than before, and you’ll cause others behind you to get it too, because they can’t get past.
And that’s how it is, he goes out and takes the first blows, he makes it to the end of the gauntlet without falling over their feet, they kick you, trying to trip you up; you keep glued to his back and manage to get into the hall without other blows to the head, only kicks. He opened the way for you, and the gratitude you feel brings you to tears. The first one behind you tripped, you heard the screams, you didn’t turn around. When even they got into the hall you put your hands over your eyes, you didn’t want to look. But you would have needed two more hands for your ears. You thank him, and he answers that he didn’t do it for you, he did it for himself – because if you’d gone first and stopped, he’d had to take even more.
How many times had they caught him, you ask, A few, he answers. You sit together. Don’t ask to go to the toilet, he says, if you really have to go, pee in your pants, it’ll dry up soon enough. You ask if you’ll be arrested. Not if we spend the night here, he says; otherwise, by evening they’ll bring us to the jail, and there at least you can piss in peace.
You didn’t run, he asks. No. Him either – the ones who don’t want to run are starting to meet. The stubborn are starting to form a line. They’re still few and far between, but they recognize each other. You exchange names. And so that’s how you spend your first night as a captive, speaking about the next day, about the next time, about how to stop a charge. You’re someone who began like that. In the morning they let you out. You don’t go to the emergency room, but instead to a doctor who helps wounded demonstrators, he brings you to him, your friend for less than a day, someone you’d trust with both your eyes. Because these are the sort of days where trust comes quickly, loyalty too, and destiny likewise.
At meetings, in the assemblies, many already know each other. You talk about not letting it go head-over-heels, about preparing your defenses together, with whoever feels up to closing ranks. The most clearsighted of us says that there’s no difference between the violence of aggression and that of defense, that a barricade is violence, pure and simple, and a stone as well, or a bottle full of gas. He says that the difference, between state violence and that of the people, is that one is abusive, the other not. And then he says that exotic words from other continents should be stripped from our heads, that for example guerriglia just means a small war. In our case, he says, it’s a street battle, to stay in the street even when it’s prohibited, to not be crushed, to not be arrested. Ours is no war, not small or large, it’s just picking a pocket of hours for demonstrating. We don’t liberate territory, we only grab the right to oppose established power.
To some, this may seem little … and the revolution? It will come, if it comes, at the end of long days of liberated democracy. Students of Latin, they say, know how to run through verbs according to the law of consecutio temporum, to string phrases together by using a whole chain of verbs. Such is revolution – for us today, it’s a subordinate clause. Yet it’s our duty to act as if, as if revolution were indeed the next order of business – to be in the world as revolutionaries. Not because of the revolution, but because the right to demonstrate is the most basic emblem of democracy. Finding shelter where our many fugitives can live, lawyers who will defend in court the politics of our alleged actions, doctors who will treat the wounded outside of hospitals.
At the end of the demonstrations the number of arrests grows, but the running isn’t havoc like before. There’s a line that absorbs the collision and pushes back. You learn to stay there, with those who won’t stand aside. If someone ends up on his own, with the troops on top of him, they go to get him and snatch him back. Such comfort was given to you, rooted up forcefully from troops when you were already under arrest. You remember one friend assaulting an unescorted van at a traffic light. On his own, he took the keys from the driver and opened up the back, yelling, Home free! as he let everyone out, like a kid.
At the time, you were starting to realize that uniformed troops preferred to focus on isolated targets, not on your line. Because of them, you found out the power balance in the streets was changing.
You continued because it continued, and because it hardened over the years. You took part in confrontations, your fair share, because the crowd of rebels was growing and it was up to your kind to take responsibility for them, the ones who came after. In meetings you talked about how it was right to feel afraid; it’s healthy and helps one think clearly. No need to root it out, you don’t gain courage though violence against yourself, only a few hysterical minutes of boldness. Ours were the ranks of those who long to return home again, our jobs were for the hopeful, not the bold, for people who trust in what’s close at hand, who stay close. Was it enough? Not always, but in the fray you needed calm, not fire, someone with discipline, not a hero.
The balance of power kept on changing until ’75 when, in order to regain an advantage for the forces of order, a large parliamentary majority gave the military the gift of a law which allowed lethal force without the justification of danger or legitimate defense, entering homes and headquarters without a search warrant, taking prisoners for two days and nights without notifying either a lawyer or judge. In short, the law became anything goes, raging through the scorched fields of individual and communal rights. From that point on, putting yourself as a roadblock in the streets was the choice of those prepared for anything.
Today, you’ll admit it, there was no way of negotiating with those kids. Just where did they come from, all at once like that? So resistant to any figure of authority, not giving a damn about delegates, parties, voting; smack dab in the heart of the people – the real experts at short cuts – and infectious. Hosts of them went into the prisons, made alliances with the detainees and started revolts against the penitentiary regime. They did military service and, inside the barracks, mutinies sprang up for better rations and decent pay. In the stadiums fans cheered by adapting choruses and rhythms from demonstrations. Where did it come from, that unpardonable generation, still paying in jail for the debt of a century that’s behind us? You don’t know … instead you imagine that in a system of waves there can be one wave denser and stronger than the rest, and neither the one behind or the one before is any explanation for it. For this reason you imagine that, sooner or later, generations return.
They return, it’s back. Suddenly there’s another, behaving as a single body, moving as a generation. Other, earlier periods simply adjusted, became dutiful daughters of their time, rallied to it, convinced and obedient. The one now, like yours, creates contretemps, follows a countercurrent; for this reason, it is contemporaneous with itself and extraneous for the rest. Its business is the world, not just the apartment block. You follow it, you see behind its moves and the license that the authorities give themselves against it. You – with your old news about city squares smoked and burned – for them you’ve passed your sell-by date; this generation admits having suffered violence but doesn’t want to dirty itself by fighting back. It wants the aggression to be on one side only, to lay bare their law, to show it in its natural state, for what it is: abuse.
But what do you do, you and others of your sort and age, in the midst of these new kids? Little or nothing of use to them, but you stay there just the same. Called back to the streets by bloodred Genova, by Piazza Alimonda, by that night at the Diaz School, and by all the rest at the Bolzaneto barracks, by the blood, spilled on purpose – by mysterious means, it rises again and belongs to you.
Erri De Luca