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IT was in 1947 that I saw Bagheria for the first time. I arrived from Palermo where I had come in the boat from Naples, and before that in another boat, an ocean liner, from Tokyo.
Two years of war, two years in a concentration camp: crossing oceans strewn with mines; every day, on deck, drills on how to fling ourselves into the sea in a proper fashion, life-belts round our waists, in case the ship struck a mine.
I still have a snapshot of that boat showing part of the windswept deck and a small girl in a flowered dress flapping round her knees. That child was me. I had short hair so fair it was almost white, and red canvas gym shoes. My hand was being held by an American officer.
I was very popular with the American Marines. I reminded them of the small daughters they had left behind at home. They loaded me with presents, bars of chocolate, big boxes of pea flour, sticks of candy striped red and white.
One of them liked me so much that he took me to his cabin and I went up three flights of stairs behind his thin gawky legs. He showed me photographs of his six-year-old daughter, and then he started to fondle my knees and I took immediate flight. Half- tumbling I fled down all the stairs I had just gone up with him. It was then I learned something about a father's love, at the same time so tender and so lascivious, so overbearing and so gentle.
At night I dreamed of being pursued by an aeroplane that was machine-gunning the passers-by, chasing them as if it were a hawk. It dived down and attacked from behind, leaving in its wake a thrilling flavour of fear and flight and a small cloud of dust raised by the whirring of its wings.
Death and I belonged to each other. I knew her well. I was familiar with her as if she were some idiot cousin whom I would have liked to play with and from whom I could expect anything from a gesture of affection to a kick, a kiss to the thrust of a knife.
My mother's family was waiting for us in Palermo. A dying grandfather, a grandmother with big black eyes, whose life was j devoted to the cult of her past beauty, an eighteenth-century villa now in ruins and relations who belonged to the nobility, suspicious and shut away.
On the quayside we got into a carriage that would take us to Bagheria. We loaded it with all our belongings, which were in fact quite meagre, because we had come from Japan, without either money or possessions, stripped bare, with nothing on our backs except the clothes handed out by the American military.
The carriage took us along the via Francesco Crispi, the via dei Barillai, the via Cala di Porto Carbone, surrounded by broken stubs of houses which had been destroyed in the war. Then Porta Felice with its two beautiful towers, the Foro Italico, once called Marina, next door to the real Piazza Marina, where all the biggest festivals of Palermo had been held and hangings and slaughterings carried out.
Continuing on our way, we turned down the road that runs alongside the sea, full of bends and still not tarred, but in the built-up areas paved with the traditional cobbled stones and elsewhere white with dust and earth. Then we turned away from Monte Pellegrino, rising like a tower above a Palermo that was totally derelict and in ruins. We came to a summer countryside of burned grass and dry, parched watercourses.
Remembering this journey brings a lump to my throat. Why have I never written about it before? Beautiful Bagheria! Almost as if putting the word down on paper would give it a form, as if I could feel it falling on top of me, overwhelming me with a murmur of vanished distances. Is it a mirage? A city seen mirrored and sparkling at the end of a stony road which would vanish into nothingness if one came too close?
I sat between my father, then at the height of his good looks and powers of seduction (later I learned how I could be seduced and tormented by being a daughter in love with her father), and my mother. She too was young and beautiful, still almost a girl with her long fair hair and large bright eyes. In front of me sat my two sisters, one, with her small well-formed head, her almond-shaped eyes almost Chinese with their delicately swelling eyelids, who would be a musician; the other, with little podgy arms and reddish skin studded with freckles, would be a writer.
The horse, all skin and bones, a post-war horse which had to eat spoiled hay because it was cheap, was finding it hard to carry us all, even though there was very little luggage. Yet it seemed to me as if we were rushing at breakneck speed towards the future on those black and red wheels. What did fate hold in store for us?
Having survived the horrors of bombing and desperate hunger, I had also lost my all too frequent association with the idiot cousin – death. I sat calmly on the small padded seat of the carriage and looked round me thinking that anything and everything was possible. I felt curious as I smelled the unaccustomed scent of jasmine mixed with the odour of horse dung.
To the left was the sea, coloured a raw vegetable green. On the right, a flat plain of olives and lemon trees. For the first time I breathed in the air of the island I had heard spoken of so much during our imprisonment in Japan. But more than anything else they had talked of food from morning till night, to satisfy in imagination the hunger that dried up the saliva in our mouths and gave us cramps in our guts.
'Do you remember the pasta with aubergines we used to eat in Palermo? The black glistening slices submerged in sweet tomatoes ...?' 'And those other aubergines they called "quails" because they sold them ready-cooked, shaped as if they had wings on each side of their bodies: how they had the flavour of aniseed, and the smell of oil when they were being fried?'
'Do you remember the sardines baked with a stuffing of raisins and pinenuts, and the tender flesh of the fish that flaked off on the tongue?'
'What about those trionfi di gola, the little sweet cakes we bought from the nuns along with the pistachio jelly that seemed to penetrate right into the brain, it was so scented and delicate?'
'And do you remember those little cakes shaped like breasts and filled with sweetened ricotta?'
All of a sudden the carriage was threading its way between low houses crowded together, white and blue cubes without windows, with balconies left unfinished on the roof in case another floor might be added. Was this Ficarazzi?
Every so often in the middle of that huddle of minute houses, a sudden vision: a large villa of rose-coloured tufa stone with scrolls incised on the walls and statues on the roof, long flights of steps opening out like a fan, fake windows, fake balustrades – everything a game of pretence for the restless eyes of the gentlemen of past centuries, a balance between fullness and emptiness, which seems to suggest a teasing out of subtle architectural mysteries.
There was the elegance of the trompe-l'oeil design, and the wretched poverty of hovels built for sheer existence: walls of stone knocked up by hand without so much as the hint of a trained architect to keep an eye on them. It seemed as if the walls only stayed upright because they were all leaning against each other.
At times the road led through vines and one could see nothing but bunches of grapes and vine leaves. Then suddenly, a bend in the road and we were close to the sea, almost skimming alongside it. You could see the white pebbles and the water lazily covering and uncovering them with a gentle, desultory movement.
In Japan I never went to the sea. At first we had been at Sapporo amongst the snows of eternal winter. There were days in January when we had to climb out of the house through the window because the door was buried under a heap of frozen snow. Later we were transferred to Kyoto where I learned to speak the local dialect. Then to Nagoya and the bombs.
How can I ever forget the grim splendour of those explosions? The night lit up by balls of blinding light falling slowly, slowly, as if they did not know whether they were going up or coming down. But the aeroplanes did know exactly how to make use of that hovering light which enabled them to target their bombs at a time when everyone was asleep.
The hiss of bombs ripping through the night air. And then, a distant boom. I learned to distinguish the dangerous bombs from the less threatening ones. And with the fierce intensity of someone who thinks only of their survival hanging day by day on a thread, I enjoyed the marvellous sight of those nocturnal jousts above the neighbouring town. I knew how on other nights it would be our turn to be highlighted and we would fling ourselves out of bed and streak to the shelter while shards of deadly shrapnel flew around like flies in the night air.
After a year of bombing, with the sensation of walking suspended on a tight-rope, expecting to lose our lives as easily as one might lose a tooth, with feet taut and motionless above the void, the Japanese soldiers came and took us to another concentration camp. But this time it was in the country, inside a Buddhist temple. There I became familiar with the rice-paddies infested with snakes and leeches. I knew the sultry atmosphere of afternoons when we were half-starved, and the dream of a fresh juicy peach became so compelling that it would make you bite your own hand.
Then the question arose whether or not it had been wise to refuse to subscribe to the Fascist Republic of Salo without thinking 'how it might affect the children who have nothing to do with politics'. My mother said that in the eyes of some of the starving men, our fellow companions in the camp, there was a flicker of cannibal desire as they stared at the tender flesh of her youngest daughter, barely a year old.
My father replied that this was one of the consequences of our anti-fascism and we could only wait till the end of the war, which the Allies would win, without any doubt.
'And if they lose?' In that case we knew we would be faced with a brutal death, probably at gunpoint.
'Don't talk about it in front of the children.'
'Everything will be all right, you'll see.'
'And if it's not?'
In the dark I could hear them stubbornly bickering in the one room where we all slept together. And in my heart I felt they were just children. But I would rather be there with them than anywhere else without them. I watched and brooded over them, my two young parents who looked up at the sky and could not see where to put their feet.
I had already become used to playing with stones; the big ones were for big helpings and the little ones for little helpings. They were carefully painted and sometimes it was possible to appease my hunger through my eyes. At the same time I also learned to pull out of my bottom the long plump worms which were inside me eating the small amount of rice that was our only food in the camp.
I knew nothing of the sea, although Japan consists of islands, and fish and seaweed form an essential part of the national diet. We had always lived in the interior: woods of maple trees with their star-shaped leaves (was it Karisawa with its ice-cold sweet-smelling waters?), temples with pillars of red-lacquered wood, rivers of black sand with swarms of lemon-yellow butterflies flying above them.
It was only then that I got to know the sea, that maternal and elusive body, malign and yet benevolent, and I fell in love with it for always. I soon learned to play on the rocks, leaping away from the big waves with a jump and plunging through the turbulent breakers a moment before they hurled themselves ferociously against the rocks, hunting for sea-urchins under water, catching crabs and shrimps in pools edged with a salt crust, my feet in the warm seaweed that sent out a scorched smell I shall never forget.
'Here is Cattolica,' said my mother, 'we've almost arrived.' A large villa with elegant flights of steps, windows without frames like empty eye-sockets, walls cracked and crumbling, clouds of powdery dust. A garden left to grow old, the blades of fruiting cactus plants smothered in dust, interspersed with delicate bushes of jasmine, sudden explosions of fiery-red hibiscus flowers, a bougainvillaea of phosphorescent purple that no one had tended for years and was stubbornly determined to climb up over the ruined walls. Further on, the big cement works and the pasta factory, white dust belching from its gratings, dribbling from the high windows and from the gutters, floating down along the outside walls of the building, growing darker as it reached street level.
In those days one came into Bagheria from below, passing over the level crossing whose gates remained shut for minutes on end beneath the blazing sun, amidst a whirlwind of flies and mosquitoes.
The carriage stopped in front of the closed gates at the level crossing. My father got down to stretch his legs. Meanwhile the driver talked to his horse, encouraging it to complete its stint in spite of the heat, the flies, the exhaustion and the minute amount of food given to it for survival.
To the right stood a gigantic fig tree from which hung little wrinkled bags whitened by dust; it seemed to bar the way for bicycles coming from Aspra. To the left, a glimpse of the station with its gleaming rails; in front, devastated by enormous holes, the road leading up to the Villa Butera.
The horse, its ribs protruding on either side of its back, shook its head in distress to chase away the flies; as if it were saying 'no' to the hill in front of it, 'no' to the tarred road that was softened by the sun and sank beneath its hooves, and 'no' to the sultry heat, the dust, hunger and drudgery.
We climbed up the hill on foot. The horse, after more than fifteen kilometres, could not go any further and the driver was afraid it would collapse. So we set off along the Corsa Butera looking at the people of Bagheria just as they were looking at us, even though we were more accepting and they were more suspicious and puzzled about us. At one point we heard a little boy shouting 'Look, a woman in trousers!' My mother was indeed wearing loose trousers for travelling, and this was looked on as scandalous.
There were hardly any cars to be seen. Instead the traffic consisted of carts drawn by mules and donkeys ridden by men with severe frowning expressions, wearing dark- coloured clothes, their faces also darkened by the sun. There were women almost all dressed in black: seven years of mourning for the death of a father, three years for the death of a brother, and for the death of a husband, mourning for the rest of a woman's life. They walked with quick inviting footsteps among the dozens of children who flitted like flies through the village.
In the Piazza Madrice we stopped for a moment to get back our breath. My mother had told me that inside the church there was a cradle of gilded wood, shaped like a big shell, supported on the wings of a flying eagle and surrounded by flying cupids. It had been a present from the Princess Butera to the village of Bagheria. My mother still remembers that cradle, but however hard I looked for it, I never managed to find it.
Meanwhile the driver, walking alongside his horse, had caught up with us and told us that it was all right if we wanted to get back into the carriage. So, sitting on the uncomfortable folding seats, we took the road towards the Villa Palagonia.
Corso Umberto revealed all the poverty and suffering of the bitter post-war years: battered houses, wretched-looking shops, a convent, a school, and a cafe consisting of a bare ugly room without windows, separated from the street by a curtain made of plaited string. The big attraction was the Emporium, where they sold everything from soap flakes to mint-flavoured caramels, from sherbet to raisins, from wax candles to the little Walt Disney pigs in china that I liked so much and which my mother found 'absolutely hideous and in deplorable taste'.
Excerpted from Bagheria by Dacia Maraini, Dick Kitto, Elspeth Spottiswood. Copyright © 2013 RCS Libri S.p.A. Milan. Excerpted by permission of RCS Libri/Rizzoli.
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