The following is from Lorenza Pieri’s Lesser Islands. Pieri is an author, journalist, and translator. She grew up in Tuscany and spent long periods in Paris, Turin, and Rome, where she worked in publishing. She lived for eight years in Washington D.C., where she continued to write about politics and culture for a variety of outlets. Lesser Islands was the winner of numerous prizes and has been translated into six languages. The Garden of Monsters was a finalist for the Strega Prize. Pieri now lives in Milan.
We saw the dolphins in the morning. We trailed their shiny fins in the boat for a good half hour; then they went too far, and Papa had to turn back. For me, it was the first time.
It was the end of August 1976. In general, the end of other people’s vacations meant the beginning of ours. The tourists went back to their cities and while we waited patiently for autumn in a hot and long season, we had time and space all for us. Until the middle of October it was lows of 60°F and highs of 80°F, the sea was calm, and the beaches deserted. Only five kinds of noises could be heard: water against rocks, water against hulls, boat motors, screams of birds, and human voices. We had started going again on boat trips with Papa, something we rarely did when the hotel was in full swing. At night he had friends over for dinner and sat them at the restaurant’s open tables. Caterina and I would fill baskets with blackberries in the afternoon while we walked along the road to Cannelle.
That day, rather unusually, the air was heavy and humid with a coming sirocco. From the port, one could barely see the outline of Argentario, like a dinosaur surrounded by its sticky breath. When I got back from the boat trip, I told everyone that I had witnessed the stunning beauty of the dolphins. They looked at me with expressions of enthusiastic surprise, but I knew that they were only doing it to please me. I knew that seeing the dolphins in Giglio was not exactly an exceptional event. In the evening, I decided that I did not want to see fake expressions of surprise anymore. I would keep the magic for myself.
In any case, they were all concentrated on the news. The rumor was now official, Franco Freda and Giovanni Ventura, the two neofascist defendants accused of being the perpetrators of the Piazza Fontana Massacre, would be sent into exile in Giglio a few days later. A fact that no one remembers today, that doesn’t even appear in the most documented dossiers, in the chronological reconstructions of the process, or in the detailed books about the procedural issues regarding the Milan terrorist attack of 1969.
And yet, in those days, Freda and Ventura being sent into exile along with the protests that followed not only disrupted the calm of the island, but also covered the front pages of the newspapers and inaugurated a new phase of the trial, which in the end produced the only convicts from a case that would be closed only thirty-five years later and without culprits.
Seven years had passed since the bombing at the Agricultural Bank, with an array of arrests and subsequent releases, the premature deaths of twelve witnesses, the disappearance of evidence, three separate investigations, two governments, an attempted coup d’état, and two other massacres. The debt of the State in the face of justice became suspiciously heavy.
The coordination of protests was unanimously assigned to our mother Elena. She was the most combative, the most knowledgeable, the one who brought a political consciousness to Giglio, and took it upon herself to share it with whomever she could. Until ’68, she lived in Bologna where she served on the university student committees and belonged to the group that would later found Radio Alice. She studied economics, and, when she was twenty-four, started a doctorate on the Marxist concept of money as an alienated power of humanity. Then she met Vittorio, my father, who was finishing Veterinary School at twenty-seven years old, after spending the last couple of years wandering from one university to another in search of the easiest exams to pass. My mother helped him write his dissertation even though she had no knowledge of the topic (“Behavior Changes in Sports Horses Due to the Use of Bitless Bridles”) and as soon as his dissertation defense was over they toasted with friends and left Bologna to vacation in Giglio. They arrived one evening in May, greeted by the scent of Scotch broom flowers. They had planned to stay two days, but they extended the vacation another five. When the day came to return, they had heard the owner of the hotel where they were staying, The San Lorenzo, say that he wanted to find new management so he could finally return to his family in Livorno, because none of his kids wanted to continue the business and he was tired of being there alone. My father, with the reckless instinct that guided his best actions, nominated himself as a candidate without even speaking to my mother. All he had to do was look outside from the salon window: the cliff of Gabbianara, the sea, a lemon tree full of fruit. Within three days they had signed the contract. A few weeks later, my mother discovered she was expecting a baby. She had returned to Bologna for a few days to organize the move of their humble belongings and to every friend she greeted, she said: “I’m going to live on a small island and I’m pregnant, if it’s a boy I will call him Arturo.” The more disbelief she saw in their eyes, the happier she felt. She would remain in Giglio for twelve years.
She left behind the doctorate, the possibility of a scholarship to a German university, and her communist youth clubs to end up running a hotel and being a cook. She had discovered that she knew how to do it and took charge of a thankless task only because nobody else was doing it and she was incapable of standing back when something needed to be done. In the summer of ’76 she was thirty-three years old. She had red hair and was tall, with a face and body covered in freckles and eyes of the burnt brown color that often accompanies fiery hair. She was a wild and untamed beauty. Someone had nicknamed her the Lioness, but in the end everyone called her Red because of her hair and, above all, her politics. Red was easier to fear than to love.
My father, who at the time was a boy and was not scared of anything, had chosen her more out of superficiality than anything else. The pain embedded in her eyes that had sent other boys running didn’t scare Vittorio. Perhaps he had simply not been able to see it.
The Red had called for a plenary meeting open to citizens and tourists on the porch of San Lorenzo at nine in the evening. She had closed the kitchens, suspended the dinner orders, reimbursed those who had full-board, and arranged the chairs for the meeting. One person complained but the majority of the guests wanted to participate. She thought there would be about forty people at most, those from the city council and a few others interested in political matters, but instead, by eight forty-five, there were no more places to sit, not even on the tables stacked in the corner, and so they had to move outside. There were at least two hundred people there. Caterina and I were zipping around the gathering on a bike together, me behind, standing with my hands resting on her shoulders. With us was Irma, the white-orange English setter that was the same age as Caterina and followed us everywhere. She was our pupper, as people said around here. Her real name had to be Immacolatella. It was my mother who chose both the puppy, the chubbiest one there was, and her name: since she had given birth to a little girl and could not name her Arturo, however, she thought to pay homage to Morante’s novel with the name of the dog instead. But the name Immacolatella proved to be difficult and too long. When my sister started to speak, she called the puppy Imma and thus on my dad’s suggestion she became Irma, like Irma the sweet one, he had said.
Caterina and I didn’t know exactly why all those adults were gathered there. We were too busy arguing about how to divide the two thousand lire that we had earned during the week at the stand where we sold handmade goods and old toys.
“Listen, I handmade all the paper diaries, I designed them, and I stapled them, and they’re the things that made us money,” Caterina said. “I should get at least a thousand and five because you didn’t do anything.”
“But that isn’t true, I made the necklaces and the bracelets and the painted stones.”
“We didn’t sell your rocks.”
“Yes we did, the one with the boat and the hedgehog sold.”
“But those don’t count because Papa bought them, so it isn’t money earned. Anyways, you can have five hundred lire. Oh, that’s a lot of money, eh?”
I was silent and she had the upper hand. We had spent a portion of the shared prize on gelato, and I had tapped my finger several times on the metal panel outside the bar saying, “I want this,” and Caterina had told me, “Why are you yelling, you’ll knock down the sign.” We had gone to the café to get cookies and an ice cream, and we stopped to eat them on the edge of the gathering of adults, at the center of which we weren’t surprised to see our mother. Caterina listened to her and understood everything because even though she was only eight years old, she still felt perfectly comfortable with those who were twice her age, with whom she shared not only arguments but also adolescent rebellion.
From Lesser Islands by Lorenza Pieri (trans. Peter DiGiovanni and Donatella Melucci). Used with Permission of the publisher, Europa Editions. Copyright © 2023 by Lorenza Pieri/Peter DiGiovanni, Donatella Melucci.