[…] When facing the Ionian Sea, the old people shook their heads like they did for magic tricks performed by gypsies during the Saint Sebastian fair. Then turning their backs to it, they would glance wistfully, adoringly towards the Aspromonte Mountains. They wouldn’t come to the sea on their own accord because they were mountain people who ended up by the shore on account of a trick played by a cruel fate. They didn’t hate the sea, but stored deep inside of them was the recollection of an ancient terror, “Thalassi, thalassi”, the Greek word for sea. In the last centuries it had brought nothing but danger, and in the past decades it had devoured the sons and daughters of Aspromonte, only to spit their bones into the New World. All memory had been erased that it was the Ionian Sea who brought our ancient forefathers to Aspromonte. “The ancestors of our old people had fled to the farthest reaches, to the hidden mountains of the Aspromonte” so goes the tale told around the hot coal pan, the braciere, “perched up there like goats trying to escape wolves, sitting still and free. “
[…]“ Papula, [the male organizer of the strike] turned mute this time and a miracle occurred endowing the women farmworkers with the gift of gab. Revolutionary event of all times, the women, made their way into the Rota, the town’s informal council – my mother parted her lips and spoke, opening her eyes wide, eyes that lit up with the green gem necklace I had bought for her with the money I won for grabbing the fox tail (our version of the brass ring) at Berlingeri’s the gypsy merry go-round. She soundly defeated all the arguments presented by the landowners and made fun of the parables told by don Nino Zacco who had come as reinforcement for the bosses. I was now seized by pity at the thought of my pathetic father whom I pictured with his fat, bottle blond, German lady friend. My mother attacked the bosses, answered them, defended herself and attacked again. The bosses gave in and the local hoods, the malandrini, rolled with the punches. She won on behalf of everyone and obtained whatever was possible at that time: two days off per week, an eight hour workday and transportation to the fields in closed vans instead of flat bed trucks with improvised, shaky chairs.
[,,,] For Papula, Aspromonte was the best past we ever had, because in spite of the tyrants, the bosses, whose names had changed throughout the centuries, the diseases, the catastrophes, the sweat and the famines, Aspromonte had been our only protector. We were here because it had hatched us like a hen – actually she had hatched us because Papula claimed that Aspromonte was female, a great mother who had conceived the people of the mountain, a mother that had kept us warm with the libeccio, the southwesterly wind blowing the breath of the African desert. Her lymph was the milk that had nourished us, filling the bowls of us mountain people. Africo, our village, in spite of all its many enemies was still here proclaiming its existence.
And if Aspromonte had nurtured us for so many thousands of years, she could continue to do so for many thousand to come.
“Aspromonte will be our factory” Papula’s words rang everywhere in the square. As he spoke his face was transformed, his skin wrinkled and turned white, his eyes illuminated an ancient world showing me a reality I had never known, that I had glimpsed only a few times, that almost everyone in town saw at least once a year, in the pilgrimage people made in the month of May to an abandoned village,to honor a saint who transformed pitch into bread, work into nourishment. Saint Leo.[…]
Papula told stories of a different Aspromonte that had given birth to powerful warriors, proud ones, covered with wolf pelts, skillful in knocking down all enemies and protecting the people of the mountain. We were the offspring of a line of invincible soldiers. His story swelled my breast with pride, made me feel part of something larger, that would never end and could not just stay locked up in humid homes built with poisonous sand above a stinky swamp. Papula knew a different history of us that was made of heroes, not only of the defeated. Of people who didn’t crouch in hovels made of branches and mud waiting to be swept away by rivers. Men who would unsheathe their swords and challenge fate, changing it. Right then I felt like a warrior and I would have really loved to have a sword to unsheathe. It was a given that had we wanted to build a factory, we would have undoubtedly done it.
[…] “The morning of the Saint Sebastian procession, you could no longer tell that the village had just been split into three different ones for a whole month. The swamp waters sunk to the bottom sucked in by an invisible drain, winter fled to the mountains like a fugitive criminal, and ndrangheta affiliates, revolutionaries and spectators shared the square next to each other waiting for the saint to come out of the church, sitting on his fancy pedestal carried on the shoulders of the local men.
Without needing an explanation, I thought of Papula or Antonio’s words, that is, that forgetfulness was the true strength of this village. Old ladies like storyteller Cata were already busy spinning their nth tale, throwing in everything that had occurred last year and fashioning a story to be handed down to women whose tits were still hard and whose pussy was still black, even though those tits would eventually grow soft and their velvety crotch would turn prickly, leaving nothing else to show off if not the charm of their tales.
It was forgetfulness that made us survive, locking bad things inside of tales, which were like worn out bellies that devoured earthquakes, wars, floods, hunger and disillusionment, telling us that the worst was over and that we had won at the end. They would gift our little story with the miracle of a reborn village, the heroism of the jasmine pickers. They would masterfully hide the wars between brothers and the betrayals “We have always been one, a single town, united against anyone who dares attack us.” And sooner or later Rocco’s Miko would disappeared, carried away by the wind.
Translated by Pina Piccolo, with the author’s permission.
Excerpted from La Maligredi, by Giaocchino Criaco, Feltrinelli 2018, 316 pages.
From the book jacket:
There is a generation of Calabresi who grew up among storytellers, miracles of the saints and gods. In those times, theft was something to be ashamed of, abuses of power were considered arrogance and in the alleys of the village of Africo, on the slopes of the Aspromonte mountain range, young people were taught not to keep company with the worst elements in town. The ndrangheta, which had been there and continued to be there, resentfully witnessed its room of action being restricted. […] It was the ’68 of the Aspromonte- few people know about it- but it happened nevertheless. The hope of founding a new world, of obtaining long denied rights- the poor discover they have a mouth and ideas- women find the courage to strike against the landowners and develop ties with one another, from town to town in a kind of sisterhood of sweat; sons and daughters revolt against their fathers, brothers against brothers. And then all together against the ndrangheta bosses.
The State, on the other hand, takes the side of the local powers, the ndrangheta, those who are willing to slit the throats of the best people in town as long as it helps them keep their privileges. And that is how the Aspromonte is struck by the Maligredi, that is, that accursed craving that strikes the wolf upon entering the sheep’s pen, when instead of eating the one sheep that would be enough to satisfy its hunger, it kills all of them. And Criaco says, that when the Maligredi strikes “it is worse than an earthquake and the houses that it knocks down cannot be rebuilt, even by the best of masons.”
Gioacchino Criaco, an attorney during his time off and a full-time writer, was born in Africo, in the province of Reggio Calabria. He writes for several newspapers and is the promoter of a project to upgrade the Aspromonte Mountains and the ancient hamlet of Africo, which was abandoned after the 1951 floods. Ciriaco’s first book Anime nere was published by the Casa Editrice Rubbettino in 2008, and was immediately received with wide acclaim by both critics and the general public. The book was defined as “a breath-taking noir which burst out of the bowels of the Locride region”.
In this issue of The Dreaming Machine you can also find excerpts from “L’opera degli ulivi”a newly published novella by Calabrian historian and writer Santo Gioffrè, dealing with Calabria in the same time period, through the eyes of a revolutionary minded student
Featured image: Photo by Melina Piccolo.