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A Child of Italy
* * *
I learned what every dreaming child needs to know — that no horizon is so far
you cannot get above it or beyond it ...
Beryl Markham, West with the Night
The first memory I have of my father is of a slim young man with a straight nose and a beautiful mouth, black hair and grey-green eyes behind glasses, dressed in strange greenish trousers and a shirt which had some golden stars and birds on it. I remember being embarrassed that he did not wear a jacket, like all the other men in our household. That they were old men and he young — he was in fact in his late twenties — did not make any difference to my childish sense of propriety: all men in those days wore jackets and ties, even in the morning, in the country.
I lived in my grandfather's country house attached to his silk factory, in a village in the hills of Veneto, with my mother and her family of women and old men: all the young men were at the war. We had moved here to escape the bombing in town. I was a pampered little girl, inquisitive, and always seeking adventure and magic. As a baby and then a toddler, and the only child in the household, I had everyone's attention and time. In those days of fear, I must have represented for them the hope for the future. In a world of doting adults, surrounded by their love and kindness, I grew up with great self-confidence.
Myearliest memories of the war are of being carried through the night by a running adult towards the air raid shelter at the end of our garden, and of people running with us, looking anxiously up at the sky, where some small red and green lights moved in the dark with a threatening noise of thunder.
They talked in front of me of my father, and of their apprehensions about his fate, a parachutist and a medical officer, fighting somewhere on the front line a war in which he did not believe. When Italy was divided by civil war, he had been posted to the free south. Approached by an officer of the British Intelligence Service, he had agreed to go back to fight in the north, in the mountains around Udine which he knew extremely well. A passionate mountaineer, like all his ancestors from the Val D'Aosta, he had climbed alone and for pleasure since he was barely eleven, twelve years old.
From the warm, balmy coast of Puglia they parachuted him, in the dark of an autumn night, on to the hill of Col Di Luna in northern Italy, in hell again, to fight.
For nearly two years my father was in the mountains of Friuli, leading the free but lonely life of the partisans, starving and freezing in barns, stalking and being stalked, seeing destruction and friends die. Then one day he was captured by fellow Italians belonging to the extreme right wing of the Fascist party, the notorious Decima Mas. He was thrown into prison in the sinister Castle of Conegliano, a theatre of grotesque torture. No one had ever walked out of it alive. My father did. When he heard that the end of the war was approaching, and that the prisoners' days were numbered, he managed to escape in the night with a friend. My mother, alerted by a spy, carried me that same night through a wood to a monastery, where we were given asylum. She was just in time. They came to take my mother and me in retaliation, but found us gone. They arrested my grandfather instead, as a hostage. Later, they had to let him go.
There was always tension in the air in those days, of which with my alert little senses I was perfectly aware. The repeatedly murmured name of my father, whom I had never seen, made me perceive him as an elusive superman, and I wondered if I would ever meet him.
Then, one day he was there.
The war had just finished, and he came back still in the khaki uniform of the Allies, with an Englishman by the foreign name of Nicholson — a war name, his real name was Roworth — to whom I owe my nickname of `Cookie'. My father had brought tins of condensed milk, which I liked, and corned beef, which I did not: the taste of metal and grease was alien to my tentative tongue. The Englishman gave me my first chocolate bar.
With the return of my father and of the others who had survived, the streets of the village and our house were suddenly crowded with young men. There was an atmosphere of excitement and euphoria. People sang and danced outside in the spring evenings, and my father's voice sounded clear and high in the nostalgic songs of the partisans. My mother laughed often; she was expecting another child, and my life changed with the spirit which had entered it.
My father had the gift of making me believe, and of believing himself, that there is always a new adventure, something waiting to be discovered, if we can only find the time to look for it, and the courage to jump. His drive and his energetic attitude to life galvanized me, making me perceive that there were no limits to what one could achieve. I was keen to explore, eager to follow in his footsteps. Like him, I have never known a moment of boredom.
He loved nature, creatures wild and tame, and he could not bear cruelty to animals. He instilled in me these same feelings. Once he found an innocuous grass snake which had been almost cut in half by the blade of the lawnmower. He stitched the wound and, to help me overcome my natural revulsion, he insisted that I should assist him, passing him the instruments one by one. Later he rescued a baby fox and a vervet monkey from a pet shop, where they had been imprisoned and exposed to the hurried indifference of passers-by. I remember the small, inquisitive, whiskered red face peering from the folds of his winter coat. The monkey became a real menace, possessive towards him and jealous of all females. In the spring I would take her to my school, where she sat on a tree outside during lessons, jeering at the students, under the protection and to the joy of the school's caretaker. He loved anything connected with Africa, having been in his youth a soldier in Somalia, where he had found a beautiful girlfriend, but lost his dreams.
For as long as I can remember there were pets in our house. Both my parents were particularly fond of dogs, especially fox terriers. Small and compact, brave and intelligent, fox terriers have little sense of their diminutive size, for which they compensate with aggressiveness and a highly-strung character. They need a great deal of exercise. My father walked the dogs every evening and I usually accompanied him.
At the time of day when bats fly low, and the barking of our dogs pursuing a cat or a water rat grew fainter in the distance, I walked at my father's side. Talking came easily in the twilight, and my youth did not matter. Some of those sunset conversations are embedded in my memory for ever. So are special moments which I shall always treasure, like the times he came home with books for me to read.
`Kuki!' he would call from the hall. `Come and choose a book.' With a great sense of anticipation I would run to meet him. From an open suitcase, assorted volumes supplied by a dealer in secondhand books, whom he had once cured of kidney stones, spilled out on to the grey marble floor.
My father always gave me first choice, and once I had picked up from the scattered pile the books which most interested me, he told me something about the content, the story, the style and the author. He allowed me absolute freedom to select whatever I wanted, regardless of my age. Thus I accumulated, without any effort, a vast, if unmethodical, knowledge of literature and poetry, at an age when most children are concentrating on comics or novels. From Edgar Allan Poe — in translation, as were all the non-Italian writers — to Boccaccio, from Mark Twain to Victor Hugo or Ibsen, from Hemingway to Machiavelli, from Sappho to Saint-Exupéry, Byron, Tolstoy, Leopardi or Lamartine, my late childhood and early adolescence were spent devouring any book I could lay my hands on. My father's only condition was quality, and I shall always be in his debt for moulding my taste to his high standards. Many of his friends were writers or artists, and our house was always open to them. I loved listening to their conversations.
I loved poetry and was fascinated by its harmonious rhythms. Often my father and I recited classic Italian poems in duet, reading from the same page. We both enjoyed those unique and inspiring times, and verses still live dormant in my subconscious, often to emerge as quotations to underline a moment, a feeling, a particular event. Those are among the happiest memories of my childhood, and in every man in my life perhaps I looked for a reflection of my father.
He had a passion for archaeology. Together we would explore caves in the hills of Montello, probing the walls with torches, discovering bones and teeth of neolithic cave bears. He taught me to look for pointed arrowheads, chipped out of pink and grey stone by some skin- and fur-clad ancestor. We found Roman coins in recently ploughed fields, and amphorae in drained river beds. We would visit abandoned country cemeteries, or I would follow him up steep mountains, aiming for some cloud-covered peak.
Many times in later years I asked myself how it all began. I had sometimes this urge to find the link, the reason, why, and when people ask me why I decided to come to Africa, the answer lies in the days of my childhood.
A bird's nest hung grey in a corner of the verandah in my grandfather's home in the country. That nest had been there for as long as anyone could remember. During autumn and winter it was empty, crumbling fragments of dry mud. Then the skies of May once again filled with darting birds, screeches and chatters animated the twilight, and in a flurry of activity the nest was renewed and inhabited. The swallows were back. Where they came from, how they knew how to find again exactly this spot on the Earth, puzzled me for years. I realized later that they could not for ever be the same swallows, and that it was an ancestral memory which guided young birds to the place chosen by past generations.
The desire to go to Africa seemed to have been an obscure yearning to return, a nostalgic inherited need to migrate back to where our ancestors came from. It was a memory carried in my genes. The urge to fly home, like the swallows.
One day, the subject of the essay was: `Io, tra ventanni' (`Myself twenty years on'). My paper was returned without being marked.
I was twelve, and my marks in composition were usually good. I did not understand what had gone wrong this time. I had put my heart into the effort of explaining what I wanted to do, where I wanted to be in twenty years' time.
The teacher, a middle-aged lady with dark mahogany hair, looked at me over her spectacles: `It is well written, as usual,' she said, `but it is totally absurd. You should have described something possible, as your friends have. You certainly must have some feasible desire for your future? Like being a ... teacher, or a doctor, a mother, perhaps a writer ... or a dancer, with your long legs ... something you can do right here where you were born, where your family and friends are, something normal. Why did you have to write about Africa?'
I can still remember the day: a cold, foggy November. Months of school and winter lay ahead. Until the summer I had my books and my dreams and I clung to them as to the only light; my fantasies of a hot land of unending horizons, herds of animals in the savannah, and a farm in the Highlands where I lived with my family, riding in the early morning through hills and plains, camping out at night on a river bank ... where dark-skinned people lived who spoke strange languages I could understand, and were still close to nature and knew its secrets ... dusty red tracks in the thick bush, ancient lakes with flamingoes, lions roaring in the vast darkness and snorting buffalo ... sunsets of gold and fire, with silhouetted giraffe, drums in the night ...
`But I do want to live in Africa. I do not want to stay here all my life. One day I shall go to Africa. I shall send you a postcard from there, signora, in twenty years' time.'
Twenty years later, I did.
When I was about thirteen years old, my father's voice suddenly changed, and became a hoarse, raucous whisper. A surgeon, he recognized the symptoms as being serious, and the tests confirmed his own diagnosis: he had cancer of the throat.
Although we were never told anything, both my younger sister and I felt there was something different in the house. Conversations were hushed, and a cloud of gloom hung over it on the day of our father's operation. They explained to us that he simply had a benign growth in his throat. But I knew that this was a lie, and that he might be dying, and for nights I stared at the ceiling of my room, crying hot tears of desolation. My father survived his malignant cancer, which, diagnosed at an early stage, was successfully removed, together with a vocal chord. His beautiful voice never came back. I missed his stories and the flair of his enunciation. I felt his infirmity as crippling for me as he must have felt it: but soon his spirit took over and his voice gradually became stronger, although it never found its music, and it was to remain hoarse for the rest of his life.
He began, in those days, to talk to me about Africa and the nomad tribes of the desert, which fascinated him. Soon he started travelling there regularly, beginning a love affair with the Sahara which will live as long as he. I joined him a few times. The Tuaregs of the desert rode tall fast camels, their lean bodies were wrapped in flowing blue robes, fastened at the waist by belts inlaid with silver. They moved like shadows, leaving hardly a track. In the chilly nights of stars, around the fires we shared stringy goat stews laced with pepper which made my mouth smart, and sweet mint tea in glasses small as thimbles. Black ganduras sheltered them from the wind and turbans protected their slit eyes from the fine penetrating sand. Lost jackals whined their sadness to the waves of barren dunes unending like the sea, and the night listened.
But it was not my Africa.
|List of Illustrations||xi|
|Map of Ol Ari Nyiro||xv|
|PART I Before|
|1 A Child of Italy||3|
|2 Mario and Emanuele||10|
|3 Friends in Veneto||14|
|5 To Walk Again||26|
|6 The First Fire||29|
|PART II Paolo|
|7 A New Life||35|
|8 Friends in Kenya||38|
|9 Exploring Lake Turkana||43|
|10 The Coast||47|
|12 Buffalo Hunt||58|
|13 Death of an Elephant||62|
|14 Good Companions||66|
|16 Buffalo's Revenge||89|
|17 Emanuele's Two Fathers||94|
|18 Pembroke House||99|
|19 The FirstSnake||104|
|20 The Egg||111|
|21 The Premonition||119|
|22 The First Funeral||121|
|PART III Emanuele|
|23 The Time of Waiting||133|
|25 The Drought||141|
|26 Death of a Rhino||149|
|27 A Dangerous Passion||153|
|28 A Young Man||170|
|30 The Snake of Good Luck||187|
|31 The End of the World||193|
|32 The Longest Day — the Longest Night||201|
|33 The Second Funeral||211|
|34 The Last Snake||219|
|PART IV After|
|35 Walking Alone||227|
|36 The Gift of Friendship||235|
|37 Out of the Skies||242|
|38 A New Foundation||254|
|40 Sveva: a Child of Africa||274|
|42 Emanuele's Rodeo||293|
|43 The Ivory Fire||297|
Posted February 12, 2008
I read this book years ago, lent it to a friend and never saw it again. But what a book! Kuki Gallman is a true herione. What other woman would give up a comfortable life and go traipsing half-way around the world to start over (literally from stratch!) in Africa, where Nature dictates your life and you're at Her mercy? Not me! But she did. And this is her amazing story.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 3, 2002
My favourite book. For Kuki to go to such a comfortable lifestyle to the hard african life inspired me. The sadness of it also gives it more validilty if she had just lived as she had come. But she has lost so much by being there she almost deserves intruding on Africa and it's peopleWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 4, 2001
Kuki gallmann marries Paolo and moves to a 90,000 acre ranch in Kenya , Africa . while they live on Ol Ary Nyrio she becomes pregnant with her daughter Sveyva . While bringing a crib to his unborn child , Paolo is killed in a car wreck. A few years later emma is killed by a snake. Kuki fights to save her home and animals.
0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 23, 2000
Posted June 15, 2000
Many of the movie critics rated the movie a B or B-, which I don't understand. The critics said the movie contained too much grief for a single film. I guess some movie critics can't handle true stories. True life is much more interesting than fiction and true to life is what makes this story so enthralling.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 6, 2000
It was a heart warming story and its one of the things where the book is better than the movie. And it is so sad that it makes it good. I love it and going to get the movie when it comes out and also I'm going to save the book for a long time.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 27, 2008
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Posted December 30, 2008
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Posted February 15, 2010
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