She is just an innocent American tourist traveling abroad with friends, enjoying her hard-earned vacation. On the day in question, she wakes to the aroma of fresh coffee wafting up from the hotel kitchen. The geraniums in the window box are still dripping from a refreshing rain that passed through overnight. Now the sky is so clear that the light sparkling on the sea hurts her eyes.
She is certain she has come to the right place to relax. If she feels at all remorseful, it is because she has been drinking too much of the local wine and spending more than she can afford on clothes and souvenirs. Later in the week she plans to take the train into the nearby city and dutifully visit churches and museums, but today she wants to do nothing more strenuous than climb down the stone steps to the rocky cove, spread out a towel, and nap in the sun. In her determination to remain stress-free, she hasn’t read the news since she left home.
On one side of the village, a man named Mario is drawing a razor across his chin, while on the opposite side of the village, a man named Luca is bobbing a teabag in hot water. Though the American woman has no reason to be interested in the men at this point, they are important to this story, and I should say something about them.
The two men are the same age and as boys had been classmates for a year, before Luca was sent off to boarding school. If Mario had let his beard grow, he would so resemble Luca that you might mistake them for brothers. That’s where the similarity ends.
Mario lives in a tidy apartment overlooking a rail crossing. He enjoys the jingle of warning bells that go off every time the gates are lowered, and then the metallic churning of the passing train. His father was a carpenter, and his mother worked as a seamstress. Mario was born in an isolated hamlet in the hills, where his family had moved after his aunt was named as a collaborator in the last war and forced to endure the gauntlet of public shaming that was typical in the months following the occupation. Mario himself had never served in the military. He joined the police force as soon as he was old enough and worked his way up the ranks to the position of captain. At the age of forty-two, he finally proposed to a woman after learning that she was pregnant with his child, but she turned him down. Though he hasn’t heard from her since she moved away from the village, he has no regrets. As he likes to say, it’s when a man marries that his troubles begin.
Luca lives in a villa perched on a high plateau terraced with private gardens overlooking the sea. A stretch of train tunnel runs beneath this portion of the village, and the rumble as the train emerges above ground sounds like distant thunder. The villa is filled with fine art, including a small unsigned oil portrait that is said to be by Rubens, and a set of sixteenth-century engravings by Cristofano Bertelli. Luca’s family is one of the richest in the region thanks to a great-grandfather who made a fortune in the sugar trade. Luca is lucky to be able to live off his inheritance and devote himself to a literary career that brings him personal satisfaction, despite the lack of public recognition. His wife, born and raised in London, works as a lawyer for an international trade corporation. They have two young children who attend the same Swiss boarding school where their father was educated, and his father before him.
Here we are, then, in a typical Mediterranean village, sometime between the end of the last world war and shortly before the next one begins. There’s no obvious reason to think trouble is imminent. In the eyes of an ordinary tourist, everything looks lovely: the colorful, lopsided buildings packed on hillsides above the sea, the slopes lined with abundant vineyards and olive groves, the flowery vines spilling over fences. How could anyone not be happy here?
Luca’s teacup rattles on the saucer as the train snakes deep inside the earth below his villa. He tosses his teabag into a garbage pail and goes on writing.
On the other side of the village, the warning bells at the railway crossing start jingling. When the train roars between the gates, the engineer lets out an abrupt warning toot, ignoring the local prohibition against unnecessary disturbances and causing Mario to flinch and nick himself with the razor. He presses a tab of toilet paper against his chin to stop the bleeding.
In the village center, the cobbled streets begin to pulse with life: a woman pushes a baby carriage along the sidewalk, a man revs the engine of his motorcycle, and a butcher raises the metal portcullis over the door. Down on the beach, a small dog barks at the waves.
The American woman and her friends emerge from their hotel and wander leisurely. They admire shoes on display in a shop window. They enjoy the fragrance of fresh pastries that drifts from the open window of a bakery.
The American woman doesn’t speak the local language and so cannot understand what the old women are whispering as they walk arm-in-arm on their way to the market, or why the old men huddled in the village square keep looking nervously over their shoulders. She is unable to read the incendiary messages on posters that were pasted on walls under the cover of night and are destined to be ripped down before noon. She is made a little uneasy by the unemployed young people lounging in doorways, who watch the Americans with surly gazes, but she figures it’s just their leather jackets and the enveloping haze from their cigarettes that makes them look so tough.
In Mario’s line of work, the most confidential messages are delivered by hand during the night. He is pleased to find an important one waiting for him when he arrives at the prefecture. Though the message is brief, he takes his time reading it. The deputy stands facing him across the desk, waiting for direction, but Mario is silent. The deputy clears his throat in a deferential signal of impatience. Mario extracts two cigarettes and offers one to the deputy. When the two men lean toward Mario’s lighter, they look as though they are going to meet in a kiss.
The deputy mimics his boss’s rhythm of smoking, blowing smoke from the corner of his mouth. Encouraged by Mario’s friendly manner, he asks, “What’s the news from the Capitol?”
Mario flashes his bleached teeth in a smile, and the deputy takes a step back, as if from a fire that has spit out a spark. He nods toward the paper on Mario’s desk. “The message, sir?”
“A man without enemies has been forgotten by fortune,” Mario murmurs, greeting the deputy’s expression of confusion with another flash of his teeth. He doesn’t exactly dislike the deputy, but he wishes the young man weren’t so sloppy and doltish. At least the deputy has never given Mario reason to doubt his loyalty. That’s important in an age like the present, when espionage has reached such a level of sophistication that one must assume adversaries have infiltrated government at the highest levels.
Mario turns the message face down and runs the tip of his index finger over the paper to feel the back side of the official watermark. It’s not every day that he receives an important communication from the president himself. Granted, he knows that the same message was sent out to all municipalities, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less special.
He guessed what is coming and has been looking forward to this day more than he will ever admit, though he is careful not to be distracted by an illusory gratification before he has even carried out his duty.
“Ugo,” he says sharply to the deputy, grinding out the cigarette he has hardly smoked.
“Sir!” The deputy drops his own cigarette onto the concrete floor, leaving it to burn, and snaps to attention.
“I need you to set up the loudspeakers. And tell Sylvio to gather the Academy Band. We’re going to have a parade, and we need music. Most of all, we need drummers. You know what they say about drummers, Ugo?”
“What’s that, sir?”
“When drummers drum, the law is silent.”
Meanwhile, Luca is at his desk, writing. He writes with a No. 2 pencil on lined paper. He is almost at the end of his novel and has filled a fat binder with more than eight hundred pages. Handwriting is essential in his process, for it gives him a sense of timelessness. Revision will begin when he transfers the text to his computer.
He is too deeply engrossed to worry about the merit of the work or to wonder what readers will make of it. He doesn’t need to imagine the fate of the completed book. He prefers to concentrate on bringing it to life and giving it form in the shape of words that emerge so rapidly from the tip of his pencil that he can hardly keep up with them.
The novel tells the story of a Sudanese girl who at the age of eighteen sets out with hundreds of other desperate people on the perilous journey across the sea in an inflatable boat. The boat capsizes, and scores of passengers drown. The girl survives by clinging to a styrofoam cooler. After two days in the sea, she is saved by the coast guard. She is delivered to a village much like the village where Luca and Mario live. She finds a job working as a maid in a hotel much like the hotel where the American and her friends are staying. She learns the language of the country from watching television. Halfway through the novel, she meets a boy from the village, and they fall deeply in love. Unbeknownst to them, the owner of the hotel has been plotting to sell the girl into slavery. Two thugs arrive in her bedroom in the middle of the night with the aim of kidnapping her. They find her in bed with the boy from the village, and in the scuffle they fatally stab the boy. By the time the police arrive, the thugs have fled the scene, and the girl is covered with blood. She is charged with the murder of the boy and after a trial that extends for several chapters of the book, she is found guilty and sentenced to death.
Luca is in the process of writing the last chapter, when the girl is alone in her prison cell on the final night of her life. He has given this portion of the book over to the girl's thoughts, immersing himself in their heaving, jarring movement. He feels the force of her mind affecting him physically, as if he were experiencing an accident in slow motion. With each word, he is spun and bumped, turned upside down, dragged backward, blown into the air. He can barely endure imagining the very tragedy that he has conceived. The poor, poor girl. Another writer would concoct a reprieve for her in the final pages. Not Luca. He desperately wants to save her, but he can’t, or won’t, because her destiny has been determined by factors laid out earlier in the book and now are impossible to change. The point is that the innocent girl must die. The community will subject her to its twisted justice, despite the author’s reluctance to allow it.
He is reminded of poignant lines he recently read in a biography of the poet Rilke. The quote came from a young woman Rilke knew: “I know I shall not live very long,” the woman wrote in her diary, “but I wonder, is that sad? Is a celebration more beautiful because it lasts longer?”
Luca has written his novel in celebration of a girl who is destroyed by a community’s ignorance. No matter that the girl in his book doesn’t exist. She is real enough to Luca to blur his eyes as he faces with her, through her, the reality of impending death. She will die. He will die. With every breath he takes, he depletes his allotment of life, until, one day, there will be nothing left. He expects that in the end he will be reduced to kicking and sobbing and calling for mercy, for he lacks the courage shown by the girl in his novel. Though she won’t be spared, she will triumph by the sheer force of her independent will. She will not allow herself to descend to the depravity of those who have condemned her. She will refuse their invitation for false repentance. She will draw her fingertip along the wall as she flies from her cell into the secure refuge of her mind, marveling at the riches that are her memories and the purposefulness of her existence. To the last second of her conscious life, she will prove with the fierce intensity of her intelligence that she is free.
Round about noon, the village reverberates yet again with that familiar low rumbling that comes from having a major rail line run through the town. Down at the cove, where the American woman and her friends are sunbathing, the noise is barely audible over the gentle churning of pebbles being dragged forward and back by the waves. She lazily attributes the sound to one of those long freight trains bringing lumber down from the mountains.
In fact, there is no train this time. The crossing gates remain raised and the traffic has come to a standstill to let a military convoy pass. Little paper flags magically appear in the hands of children, who wave merrily at the jeeps, then at the trucks packed with soldiers, and then at the trailers heaped with spanking new missiles and cannons.
Though the Americans don’t know this yet, it is not unusual for a convoy to roll through the streets on its way south. The government likes to extend its show of strength beyond the cities, and this village happens to be on a route between two strategic ports. The residents feel a mix of annoyance and patriotic pride at the inconvenience. The young people in doorways look on with interest. Some of the old men even make the stiff-armed salute that until recently was considered taboo because of its association with a defeated regime and a disgraced dictator.
On one side of the village, Mario waits on the top step outside the prefecture. Clouds float in mirror images across the disks of his sunglasses. His deputy slouches nearby, resting his elbow on the butt of his machine gun. They hear the pop of a backfire. By the time the single truck full of soldiers peels away from the line and pulls in front of the building, the deputy is standing straight and tall.
On the other side of the village, Luca has paused in his work and is remembering the story his father told about how he was forced to wait along the roadside for the dictator’s convoy to go past. His father, a young boy at the time, was supposed to salute; he wanted to refuse but to do so would have endangered not just him but his whole family. The boy had a clever solution: he raised his arm, but instead of keeping his hand open, he curled his fingers into his hair. For the rest of his life, Luca’s father could say that instead of saluting the dictator, he only scratched his head.
The American woman and her friends are disappointed when they arrive at the little pizzeria on the terrace above the beach and find it closed. They are reduced to a lunch of tuna sandwiches on soggy, crustless white bread at a nearby café. The woman shares her friends’ frustration at having to wait out the siesta to go shopping. She agrees that the country’s struggling economy would improve if only the stores would stay open all day.
The sea breeze has weakened, the air is stifling, washed-up piles of jellyfish are rotting on the beach, the sun is scorching. There is nothing to do. Whose idea was it to come to this wretched village anyway? The group would have started squabbling just to pass the time if they hadn’t heard the sound of brass instruments in the distance, followed by the merry beating of drums. Is it a wedding? A fair? Whatever is going on, it's sure to be entertaining.
They hurry off in the direction of the sound, winding uphill through the narrow streets until they come to the main square, where they are delighted to find a large, festive assembly. The band is playing, and the church doors are wide open. Uniformed men and women standing shoulder-to-shoulder are crisply outfitted and as stone-faced as store mannequins. Some of the older men in the crowd wear quaint tricorne hats decorated with a single feather. Small dogs run underfoot, chased by squealing children. When a bouquet of balloons is released into the sky, the woman and her friends all reach for their cell phones, keen to make a visual record of the experience.
The woman watches as the colorful balloons rise and separate, the trumpeters abruptly stop playing. The crowd responds with a respectful silence. For a moment, only the precise cadence from the drummers can be heard. Then even the drummers stop, and everything seems to freeze, as if locked inside a still frame of the video she has been taking, until, all at once, the whole scene shatters as machine guns belonging to soldiers the woman hadn’t even noticed explode in rapid-fire.
Her heart skips a beat and she drops her phone; she feels one of her friends stumble sideways and bump against her. Her first panicked assumption is that she is being gunned down, until she sees the bits of colored Mylar dropping from the sky and realizes that the machine guns had been aimed at the balloons.
The crowd erupts in cheers, and the children start running around again, racing to collect pieces of balloons. The woman and her friends share the forced laughter meant to disguise the relief following their mistaken impression. She scrambles to grab her phone before it is crushed underfoot. When she looks up again, she finds that the crowd has shifted and relocated to open a space within it, and she ends up in the front row, her view of the proceedings unimpeded.
When the police sedan pulls into the paved turnaround below the gatehouse and starts honking, Miranda, the housekeeper, leans out the upper-story window.
“Stop the racket!” she shouts. She is famous in the village for her sharp tongue and haughty manner. Some believe that she is of Romany descent; shopkeepers say she has the thieving guile of a Gypsy. She was taken into Luca’s family when she was a teenager and has worked at the villa ever since; when she married, her husband was hired as a gardener, and when her two sons came of age they were placed by Luca’s wife in well-paid positions in the accounting department of her corporation. Miranda repays the family’s loyalty with her own. And while she can’t know exactly what the police have come for, she can tell when the driver lays his hand on the horn again that they are up to no good. If good was their intention, the driver would have stepped out of the car instead of honking the horn; he would have taken off his cap in deference and given Miranda a polite greeting before requesting entrance.
She pulls the shutters closed, and instead of pressing the button that would open the gates, she hurries downstairs and across the yard to the back door of the main villa.
“The police are here,” she hisses as she flies past the kitchen, where the cook is stirring a pot, reducing a fish stock to a savory syrup. “The police are here,” Miranda hisses to the cook’s little son, who is in the hallway dangling a piece of string in front of a kitten. “The police are here,” Miranda announces as she throws open the door of the library without knocking, causing Luca to lose control of his pencil just as he is crossing the t, causing the line to veer up at an angle, cutting across the sentence above it.
Miranda’s plump chest heaves as she stares at Luca. Luca blinks in confusion. Outside, they can hear the angry wailing of the car horn.
“Where are the children?” Luca asks.
“They are in Lausanne,” Miranda reminds him.
“Of course, of course, what was I thinking…and Jenny?”
“She’s at work.”
“That’s good, yes, it’s normal, and the police…they are looking for me, then?”
“They didn’t say.”
They didn’t need to say. No explanation is necessary. Luca doesn’t need to be told about the slow, inexorable shift in public sentiment. He knows that those who fail to produce bald propaganda are regularly denounced as traitors and subjected to prosecution. He has been expecting the authorities to come for him for so long that he almost forgot them. Now he is faced with the choice he was unable to make in the abstract: he must agree to suppress all his work and never write another word, or else he must go into exile. If he chooses the latter course, what will become of his wife and children? If they join him, they will be forced to live an impoverished, fugitive existence for the rest of their lives. If he leaves them behind, they will suffer the repercussions of his cowardice, in his place.
He neatens the pages on his desk, stacking them in a uniform block. In a symbolic gesture whose meaning he is sure the police captain will understand, he sets his reading glasses on top of his unfinished manuscript. He pushes his chair from his desk.
“Miranda, would you tell the police, please, that if they want to talk with me, they can find me in the rose garden?”
The brown of her eyes has the particular depth of pigment you can only find in the eyes of people who are very old, when the whites around the irises have dulled. She gives a slight nod that to anyone else would indicate merely her willingness to follow a direction but to Luca communicates her fierce desire to protect him.
He puts on the white silk smoking jacket with gray cuffs that used to belong to his father. The door to the terrace opens reluctantly. Luca must add the pressure of a kick to the initial nudge from his shoulder. He leaves it ajar behind him. As he follows the stone path, he rehearses in his mind whole sentences that he will never go on to write. He has no regrets in the wake of his surrender, though at the same time he cannot hold back his tears. His cheeks are wet as he continues down the uneven path. He resists the urge to return to the terrace and listen through the open door, so he doesn’t have the opportunity to hear the crunching thump Mario makes when he crushes Luca’s reading glasses with his fist.
Drummers drum, trumpeters trumpet, colored confetti rises in bursts and settles into the cracks between the paving stones. The American woman and her friends are charmed by the festival and pleased with their good luck at having come upon it by accident. The surrounding buildings are tall enough to cast cooling shadows. As if to join the fun, a refreshing breeze picks up. The beautiful children, brown and limber, chase one another in a game of tag. The round, curious eyes of a long-haired Chihuahua peek out from a pocket of a young man’s backpack. At the far end of the piazza, the stones come to an end abruptly, and the terraces below are hidden from view, giving the illusion that they are on a cliff high above the sea.
The music stops abruptly, and only then does the woman notice the uniformed men who have taken their place on the stage of the band shell. One of them begins speaking into a microphone, causing the sound system to erupt in a piercing squeal. He taps the microphone and tries again, counting in his language, “One, two, three”—that is all the woman can decipher of the speech that follows, a long speech delivered in the dutiful manner that suggests nothing unexpected is being revealed. She and her friends fiddle with their phones, trying to use what little broadband service there is to post their pictures on Facebook. She is glad when the speech is over, and the band begins playing again, and the musicians leave the stage and proceed across the piazza. She joins them, following the people, who are following the men in uniform, who are following the musicians.
She has no way of knowing, of course, that the procession is traveling along the same route that Mario’s aunt took after being revealed as a collaborator in the aftermath of the last war. She cannot know that as Mario walks in the procession he is remembering the stories he’d been told about his aunt, who was stripped naked, her hands bound, her head shaved, and was dragged by a rope around her neck down the middle of the street. His mother told him that collaborators were given laxatives before they were paraded in front of the people, but she never said what the collaborators had done to deserve their punishment.
History is what happens in books the American woman does not have the time to read now that she is gainfully employed in a field that requires an exhausting amount of attention to numbers. She is clever when it comes to analytics, she likes the work, and she has earned her vacation. She cannot be blamed if she does not understand the purpose of the procession she is marching in, or why she ends up on the public beach, or who lit the bonfire that is crackling on the sand.
To be honest, I don’t speak the local language much better than the American and her friends do, and I would have been just as confused as they were that day if I hadn’t happened to meet a man who knew Luca’s wife. It was from him I learned about Luca and Mario, their families, their pasts, their work, and the bonfire that broadcast the wide reach of the government’s crackdown on dissent and announced the end of Luca’s career.
All the American knows when she is in the midst of the scene is that a pile of broken wooden chairs and crates, twigs, newspapers, old shoes, driftwood, and dried-up jellyfish carcasses has been set alight. The flames lick at the cloudless sky, reaching toward the sun. Scattered applause breaks out as into the fire is emptied a box full of papers whose significance the woman cannot guess. But she can imagine. She can't keep herself from imagining. It is mysterious, since she is necessarily so clueless, that as she watches the pages curl and dissolve into ash and smoke, the enormity of the loss stirs in her an overwhelming awareness.