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THE NIGHT BEFORE you had had that dream. A seagull was soaring in the dawn and it was a beautiful seagull, with silver feathers. It was flying alone and resolute over the sleeping city, and the sky seemed his, like the idea of life itself. Suddenly he swerved in descent, to plunge into the sea; he pierced the sea, raising a fountain of light, and the city wakened, full of joy because for a long time it had not seen a light. At the same moment the hills flared up in fires, windows were flung open, and from them people shouted the good news, thousands poured into the squares to celebrate their regained freedom: "The seagull! The seagull has won!" But you knew they were wrong, all of them, and the seagull had lost. After his dive, myriad fish attacked him, biting his eyes, tearing wings, a terrible fight had broken out, with no possible escape. In vain he defended himself with skill and courage, pecking wildly, whirling in leaps that sprayed immense fans of foam and drove waves to the rocky cliffs: the fish were too numerous, and he was too alone. His wings torn, his body slashed, his head battered, he lost more and more blood, he struggled more and more weakly, and in the end, with a cry of pain, he sank, together with the light. On the hills the fires died, in the darkness the city went back to sleep as if nothing had happened.
You were sweating at the very thought of it: dreaming of fish had always been a bad sign for you, a premonition; the night of the coup you had also dreamed of fish. Sharks. You sweated and understood that the seagull's defeat was a warning, perhaps you should postpone it for a week, for a day, check once more the mines under the culvert, be sure you had made no mistakes. But the countdown had begun the night before, at eight in the morning the bombs in the park and the stadium would explode too, on the hills the woods would catch fire as in the dream, and the comrades assigned the mission were by now out of reach. Even if it were otherwise, what could you have told them? That you had dreamed of a seagull devoured by fish and that fish for you was a bad omen? They would have laughed and thought you were in a panic. You had no choice but to dress and go. You slipped on your bathing trunks, your shirt, slacks. It was August and the moment you got there you would take off the shirt and the slacks and remain in bathing trunks: anyone seeing you would assume you were an eccentric who liked to go swimming at dawn. Who would possibly set out to kill a tyrant wearing only swimming trunks? You put on the rope-soled shoes. Because the rocks were sharp, you would keep the shoes on. Or perhaps not? No, you wouldn't need the shoes in the stretch of rocky cliff between the road and the shore, because, once it was over, you would dive into the water and swim to the motorboat. You took your wallet with the money and the fake documents, stuck it into the waistband of the trunks, then changed your mind and took it out again. No documents, real or fake. If the fish seized the seagull, they wouldn't be able to pin an identity on him. And what if they killed him? If they killed him, the newspapers would simply mention a corpse recovered along the Sounion shore. Age, about thirty. Height, one meter seventy-four. Weight, a scant seventy kilograms. Build, sturdy. Hair, black. Skin, very white. Distinguishing marks, none except a moustache. But many men in Greece have moustaches.
You looked at your watch: almost six. Soon Nikos would summon you with a hoot of the horn, and as you awaited that sound, the memory of the past few months seized you, tormenting you like an itch. The day you deserted, rather than serve under the tyrant, you went hunting from house to house in search of somebody who would take you in, but nobody would take you in, nobody would help you; hour by hour the net of the police tightened until you could feel them breathing down your neck, and as your willpower weakened, you asked yourself: suffer, fight, for whom, why? The day you understood that other people's fear, other people's submission, other people's obedience would destroy you and therefore you had to leave the country, escape, in search of other houses where you could be taken in, with a fake passport you took a plane at Athens airport and reached Cyprus, only to be pursued by the police there and to feel them also breathing down your neck and to become weakened and ask yourself again: suffer, fight, for whom, why? The day you understood that you would achieve nothing there, either, and the minister of the interior, Georgazis, was after you to hand you over to the junta, you had to run away again and you were hungry, you were cold, at night you slept in an abandoned hut, during the day you stole fruit in the fields to feed yourself, and you repeated: suffer, fight, for whom, why? The day that fate led you to the one man who could save you, President Makarios, and he had offered you a safe-conduct to reach Italy, telling you to go to Minister Georgazis, who would sign it for you, and you had gone with your heart pounding, had entered his office suspecting a trap had been set, ready to shout at him, "All right, arrest me. What's the use anyway of suffering, fighting, human beings don't know what to do with freedom?" And raising his moody face, framed by a coal black beard, like a hood that concealed everything but the piercing eyes, he smiled and said: "Hm, you. The very man I've been trying to catch for months. You realize the risks I would run, helping you?" "Don't help me then, hand me over to the police. What's the use anyway—" "Of suffering, fighting? It helps us to live, my boy. A man who gives in doesn't live, he survives." And then: "What do you have on your mind, boy?" "Just one thing: a bit of freedom." "Do you know how to shoot, how to aim?" "No." "Do you know how to make a bomb?" "No." "Are you ready to die?" "Yes." "Hm, dying is easier than living, but I'll help you." He really did help you. He taught you everything you knew. Without him you could never have made the two mines that were now under the culvert, beyond the curve. Five kilos of TNT, a kilo and a half of plastic, two kilos of sugar. "Sugar?" "Yes, it speeds up combustion." You had fun following his instructions, as if it were a game: "Will it be sweet enough? Let's add another heaping teaspoon." But now you were shuddering, thinking that it wasn't a game, it was the killing of a man. You never believed you could kill a man; you weren't even capable of killing an animal. This ant, for example. An ant was crawling up your arm. You picked it off with delicate fingers and set it on the table. A car's horn blew.
You checked the time, 6:00 A.M., and with determination you descended the stairs to meet Nikos, who was waiting at the wheel of the taxi. You sat on the back seat so you would look like an ordinary passenger. Nikos was your cousin and a taxi driver. You had chosen him because he was a cousin and you could trust him, and also because he was a taxi driver. A taxi is less conspicuous; what policeman would imagine that two men would carry out an assassination in a taxi? Besides you didn't have enough money to buy or rent a car; to have that kind of money, one must belong to a party, bow to its ideologies, its Jaws, its opportunism. If you don't belong to a party, if you don't offer the guarantee of a badge, who will pay any attention to you, who will finance you? In Rome, where you took refuge after leaving Cyprus, the professional politicians gave you nothing but talk. Nothing but alms. Comrade here, comrade there, long live the International and freedom, maybe a room where you could sleep and a cheap café where you could eat now and then, but that was all. At a certain point you were received by a Socialist functionary, one of those men who has the art of getting ahead written on his face, the ability of screwing his neighbor, and one of those who inevitably become a party leader. Staring at you from behind his thick eyeglasses, nearsighted, fat as a pig, he promised you heaven and earth, comrade here, comrade there, long live the International and freedom: however, you left Rome with empty pockets, and not one drachma ever reached you afterward. As for your fellow countrymen who should have helped you, like the one who considered himself the top chief of the exiled left, you knew them all too well. Compromise themselves with a madman who with a handful of other madmen wants to kill the tyrant? Never! If the assassination succeeded, naturally they would fall all over you like locusts on a field of wheat, they would take on the roles of accomplices and supporters, but now they offered you nothing but a glass of cognac: drink up, boy, and good luck. "Did you eat last night?" Nikos asked. "Yes, last night, yes." "Where?" "In a restaurant." "You showed yourself in a restaurant?" You shrugged, then you calculated whether or not there was time to drive past Glyphada, to see the house with the grove of orange and lemon trees. There you had spent your adolescence and your young manhood, there your parents lived: returning to Athens you had made a supreme effort to keep away from them. "Never give in to such romantic feelings," Georgazis had said. Romantic? Perhaps, but a man is a man also because he gives in to romantic feelings. "Drive past Glyphada," you ordered Nikos. "Glyphada? But it's late!" "Do as I say." Nikos drove past at great speed, you barely had time to glimpse the window of the room where your father was sleeping, and the garden where an old woman in black was watering the roses. The fact that your mother hadn't abandoned her habit of waking at dawn to water the roses moved you, the thought that your father was asleep gripped your heart, brusquely you turned to look again, but Nikos was already taking the next left and soon the taxi was on the road by the sea. The road that the tyrant traveled every morning, in his armored Lincoln, to go from his residence at Lagonissi to Athens. These past weeks you had covered it dozens of times, looking for the best spot to set the mines, and the first choice had been a natural arch: you would have liked to bombard him from above, like a thunderbolt from Zeus, a divine punishment. But it wouldn't have worked: dynamite acts from below, and you had to be content with the culvert beyond a bend in the road. It wasn't so much a culvert as a little cement cave, square, deep, over which the asphalt of the road passed with a thickness of only fifty centimeters. The distance from the bottom of the cave to the asphalt of the road was only eighty centimeters; they couldn't have invented anything more suited. Placed there, the mines would open gaps three or four meters wide, and the explosive force would be immense. The only problem was how to escape in the daylight. "It was no accident," Georgazis had said, "that assassinations take place in the dark. Nothing favors escape better than darkness." But what if they saw you getting away? To hell with it. For that matter you didn't like darkness. Bats move in darkness, and moles, spies, not men who are fighting for freedom.
You reached the culvert at a quarter to seven. Nikos quickly opened the trunk to give you the wire to attach to the mines, and you promptly let out a curse. The roll was a mess, a tangle of knots. "What have you done, you idiot, what have you done?" "Me? Nothing. I ..." But there was no time to argue or to remedy things, so you undressed, handed Nikos the shirt, slacks, shoes, and barefoot, only in your bathing trunks, you ran toward the cave, clasping that knotted tangle of wire to your chest.
The culvert no longer exists. They filled it with earth when they widened the road and eliminated the curve: if you went back there you wouldn't even recognize the spot where you stood then. But I remember it very well because I saw it when you took me there, and I remember just as well what you told me about that morning: the beginning of your legend, of your tragedy, the beginning of everything. The sea was rough that morning, violent waves were breaking along the shore, and it was freezing. Or were you cold because of the tangled wire? You couldn't get over it, you couldn't understand how it had happened. Perhaps Nikos had flung the wire into the trunk too violently, perhaps he had forgotten to tie it, and the jolting of the taxi had caused the disaster. However it happened, the two hundred meters of smooth wire were now reduced to a tangle: no sooner did you undo one knot but another was formed; when you unwound that one, there was yet another. Exasperated, you gave a yank. You picked up the intact part, then measured it, and you let out a second curse. Only forty meters, a fifth of the length necessary! The rock chosen for detonating the mine was two hundred meters away: how could you change plans now? You had picked that rock after endless tests because it offered a perfect view all around. There was one moment, as the black Lincoln traveled along the stretch between the curve and the culvert, when the hood remained half-hidden by a billboard—according to your calculations, that was the exact moment when you should detonate the mine. Besides, the rock was near the water and you could quickly dive in. To set it off at a distance of forty meters meant having then to run a hundred and sixty meters before reaching the water. It also meant new calculations: at forty meters what would you be able to see? You attached an end of the wire to the mines and then, holding the other end in your hand, you went to see how far it would reach. Dammit, it reached a spot from which the road was invisible because of the embankment and, even worse, at that spot you would be completely exposed. You retraced your steps: with such a short wire there was nothing to do except take your place right under the road, ten meters or so from the culvert, with the risk of blowing yourself up. That would be suicide! But there was no other solution, and in any case this was an advantage: you could catch sight of the black Lincoln in good time. Advantage? What advantage? To see it well, you would have to peer over the edge of the asphalt and, dammit, again your calculations were not any good. You would have to make a new count, with new distances, pick a different moment for detonation, and you must hit it to the second: a fraction of a second off and you would miss the target. To work then! And quickly, very quickly. The black Lincoln usually passed over the culvert at eight o'clock, and it was almost seven forty-five.
Your brain started working with the speed of a computer: the car always travels at a hundred kilometers an hour, a hundred kilometers means a hundred thousand meters, one hour is three thousand six hundred seconds, one hundred thousand divided by three thousand six hundred makes about twenty-seven, so the Lincoln travels twenty-seven meters a second. Each tenth of a second, two meters seventy. But how could that tenth of a second be calculated? "Aloud," Georgazis used to say. "Kilia ena, kilia dio, kilia tria. One thousand and one, one thousand and two, one thousand and three." Good, that's what you would do. You rehearsed a couple of times, to establish the pauses between a thousand and one and a thousand and two, between a thousand and two and a thousand and three, you took a last glance at the mines, you connected the wire, and you were ready. Seven fifty-five. Five minutes to relax, to ask yourself ... His name was George Papadopoulos, the man you would kill in five minutes and with whom, perhaps, you would be blown up. What sort of man might he be, seen up close, in flesh and blood? You had never seen him in flesh and blood, only in flesh and blood? You had never seen him in flesh and blood, only in photographs. In the photographs he looked like a little spider, he was comical: that insolent little moustache, those tiny bright eyes. But dictators are always comical, they always have tiny bright eyes. They open them wide as if they wanted to frighten children—Obey or I'll punish you! Once, examining his photograph, you had said to yourself: I'd like to look him in the face. But that was before preparing the assassination; afterward you never said that to yourself again. These past two weeks, for example, when you took up your position on that road to check the timing and the route, to make sure of the exact time he left his villa at Lagonissi and the speed of his automobile, the number of cars in the convoy, you could have satisfied that wish to look him in the face. But instead, as soon as the black Lincoln approached, you turned your back. Partly so they wouldn't recognize you, but even more because you did not want to look him in the face. If you look an enemy in the face and realize that in spite of everything he's a man like you, you forget what he stands for: killing him becomes difficult. Better to deceive yourself and imagine you are killing an automobile. Even when you were making the mines, when you were studying the times and the distances, when you were dividing one hundred thousand by three thousand six hundred, you were thinking of an automobile, not of a man inside an automobile. Or rather of two men since there was also the driver. The driver, for Christ sake! What sort of a man was he? A bastard or an innocent human being, a poor man who has to make a living? Surely he was a bastard: good people don't become a tyrant's driver. Or do they? You shouldn't think of that, in war you don't ask yourself certain questions. In war you shoot, and he who has to get it, gets it. In war the enemy is not a man, he's a target to be framed in the sights, and nothing else. If there's a poor man or a child beside him, that's too bad. Too bad? Too bad, be damned! Is it right to fight injustice with injustice, bloodshed with bloodshed? No, it isn't. And when you think about it, it isn't right either to take war as a comparison: nothing is more stupid, more reactionary, than the idea of war. When did war ever appeal to you anyway? You didn't even want to do your military service; with one postponement after another, you had finally put on a uniform at the age of twenty-eight. Even holding a gun nauseated you Still, when you thought of the driver, you felt somehow ill, ashamed; you had to make an effort and repeat to yourself the things you repeated to your companions: violence provokes violence, the rage of the oppressed against the oppressor is legitimate, if someone slaps you don't turn the other cheek but slap him back, this man has assassinated freedom, in ancient Greece tyrannicide was honored with monuments and a laurel crown. And the phrase you had learned by heart: I am not capable of killing a man, but a tyrant is not a man, he is a tyrant. Suddenly it rang false to you, almost a lie. Was this why you were so cold? Nonsense: you were cold because you were naked and the weather was cold.
Excerpted from A Man by Oriana Fallaci, William Weaver. Copyright © 2013 RCS Libri S.p.A., Milan. Excerpted by permission of RCS Libri/Rizzoli.
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Posted October 22, 2013
A Man by Oriana Fallaci is the fictionalized story of Alexandros Panagoulis' political life. Fallaci had a long and colorful career. She was part of the anti-fascist resistance in WWII, a war correspondent in Vietnam, Indo-Pakistani War, the Middle East, and South America. She was also shot and left for dead in the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre. Fallaci has a long list of important interviews including: Kissinger, Khomeini (who she addressed as "Tyrant"), The Shah, Gaddafi, Arafat, Golda Meir, Walesa, Zulfikar Bhutto, and Giap. Her affair with Panagoulis is the inspiration for this book.
Fallaci was no stranger to controversy and a strict supporter of all antifascist movements; she is not shy about her positions or her words. Panagoulis was arrested in the attempted assassination of the Greek dictator Papadopoulos. Sentenced to death Panagoulis, is transferred to an island prison to await execution. Hour by hour, the execution is delayed until he is transferred several times only to find out that his sentence has been commuted to life. Panagoulis plays the role of hero and endures unbelievable treatment: small cell, no cot, hands remained cuffed for months. Yet at all times he remains defiant. He makes demands, knowing that the prison wardens can not allow him to die. International pressure has spared him from the firing squad and future harm. He escapes and is captured, attempts again and is foiled in the process. He refuses amnesty, but is released under a general amnesty. From then on, he tries to find his way through the new political system until his untimely death.
Normally I would not give out so much information even though it is mostly history, but Fallaci reveals most of the history quickly in the book. At the darkest moments for Panagoulis, she inserts future events like his election to parliament or mentions his death in the future. It is a very different writing style. She write most of the book in second person which initially seemed annoying but quickly grew on me. The first section which takes up the first third of the book cover's Panagoulis' assassination attempt, trial, and imprisonment. This is by far the part of the book. The story telling is outstanding and the character of Panagoulis extremely well developed and detailed. You feel for him in prison. He is a man that Camus developed in The Myth of Sisyphus -- he laughs in the face of the absurd. Perhaps this very Camusesque portrayal is what pulled me into the book.
After the first section the book changes. Fallaci's (and Panagoulis') politics take over the book. Mistrust of the right and the left surface. America occupies a special place. A democracy, but one so powerful it does not have to respect the opinions and rights of other countries Allande's Chile to make the point. Panagoulis visits the Soviet Union and sees that is fake. Conspiracies abound. Panagoulis sounds more like a paranoid than a politician on many occasions. Granted his years in prison and solitary did not help his mental health.
Since this book is written as fiction one is hard pressed to know what is real and what is propaganda. Even with a history degree, I knew little of modern Greek history. I knew the name Papadopoulos, but that was all, and I will admit to being surprised that a modern European county and NATO ally was ruled by a dictator. Papadopoulos was supported by the United States so his legitimacy may have been skipped over in my education.
I absolutely loved the first section of the book. It was inspiring and extremely well written. Although I feel second half of the book is not as developed as the first it is still a worthy read. Four star rating reflects a five star first half and a three star second half.