Tuesday, October 4, 2005

A few years ago my father began quoting a poem by D'Annunzio, "Laudi del cielo del mare della terra e degli eroi." It refers to the following legend: some time in the first or second century, people on a ship off the coast of southern Italy heard a voice crying from the land, "Il dio Pan è morto!" Presumably they panicked. I love how the sea is comforting & familiar & the land mysterious & full of portents, & I'm fascinated by anything that has to do with the end of paganism. (Non to mention the following paradox: Christ is sometimes represented as a Pan-like shepherd, & the iconography of the devil clearly has something to do with Pan, or at least with satyrs.) Anyway, my father went so far as to send me a xerox of the poem. It's a vitalist, neo-pagan paean to Pan & the earth's bounty, & reaches its climax in the declaration, "Il Gran Pan non è morto!" I liked it, but couldn't understand my father's fixation (not that one needs an excuse to quote a poem, of course). Well, just a few months ago he told me about his Greek and Latin teacher in high school, who was more or less openly antifascist. At some point during the war he sent his family to live in Florence, which is where they were from, because he feared for their safety; he showed my father his hiding place. One day he enlisted my father to help him carry a load of reeds. (Why reeds?! My father couldn't remember, but it's perfect for the story — almost too perfect.) On the way they stopped at a café whose radio was tuned to the BBC. That's how they heard that the Americans had landed. And the Greek and Latin teacher jumped to his feet and shouted, "Il Gran Pan non è morto!" I like to picture how mystified the people in the bar must have been. And it's nice to think that the Americans landed not so far from where the ominous cry was heard so many centuries ago.

During an air raid my father and some of his friends, like the stupid teenagers they were, went and wandered around in the deserted streets. They came across some German soldiers and fell into conversation with them. "I'm a communist," one of his friends boldly declared, much to my father's consternation. But the German soldiers were not fazed. They talked about their plans for the future: after they'd won the war, they assured the Italians, they would start a revolution. Then the air raid ended, and such confidences seemed once more unthinkable.

Later, to avoid the air raids, my father went to live with his grandmother in the country. One Sunday he was at the local parish house for an afternoon social, and some troops broke in: they'd heard that the priest was hiding someone, and wanted to see if he was a Jew. They made all the young people line up, and one soldier poked his machine gun in my father's stomach; my father seized the muzzle & gently pushed it aside, smiling; the German soldier smiled too; perhaps he was ashamed. The priest's secret guest was not Jewish, so the Germans left without incident. But some time later Fascist militiamen tracked down the same unfortunate man in another nearby parish house, and murdered him: he was a partisan.

Four German soldiers were quartered in my grandmother's house. One was a high officer who had lost his face in the war. He lived in a darkened room and spoke little; his only pleasure was to play chess with my father, and this he did tirelessly, day in, day out. (I suppose my father didn't have much to do either.)

"Il più scaltro," and the most prescient, was a doctor. There was much talk of Hitler's secret weapon: whether it existed, what it was. "I know what Hitler's secret weapon is," the doctor told my father, grinning, and put his gun on the table. "This is it. He's going to shoot himself."

Then there was an officer who was in charge of some Russian soldiers who had agreed to join the German army in exchange for their lives. This man bullied his Russians, and endeared himself to no one else. Finally, there was Heinz Brandt, who became friendly with his hosts and even wrote his address and phone number in my father's German-Italian dictionary. When German troops rounded people up to dig ditches & such this man would hide with the Italians. After the war he came back to visit them, and told them how the bully had met his end. During their retreat, the Germans had to cross the Po in dinghies, because all the bridges had been destroyed. The bully and his Russians commandeered a rowboat, and in the middle of the river the Russians shot him and pushed the body overboard.

Addenda: My uncle says the prisoners were Turkmen, not Russian. And he says that when the Germans and the Turkmen packed up there was a panic because they had counted all their guns, which were kept locked in the credenza, and one was missing. The place was turned upside down, to no avail. In all the commotion one of the Turkmen winked at my uncle and said just above a whisper, "Kapitan kaput," and drew his hand across his neck.

Once a villager took my uncle aside and said, "The next time the bully is in the back garden, stay away from him. We could have killed him the other day, but it was a long shot and you were nearby, and we didn't want to risk hurting you." "He was a friend of the family," my uncle said, "I had no idea he was a partisan."

My uncle told another story when we passed through a small mountain town. "That house belonged to the Such-and-Such family, which grew rich during the occupation. The daughter of the family brazenly sunned herself on the rooftop balcony through the worst of the war, and the partisans would train their viewfinders on her. 'Should I shoot?' they joked." (They never did.)

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