The Past Is a Foreign Country: A Thriller

The Past Is a Foreign Country: A Thriller

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by Gianrico Carofiglio

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An international bestseller and winner of Italy's prestigious Premio Bancarella prize—an intense psychological thriller in the vein of The Talented Mr. Ripley

As world-weary Lieutenant Chiti spends sleepless nights hunting for the serial rapist terrorizing his city, trainee lawyer Giorgio is befriended by dangerously charismatic Francesco. Slowly

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An international bestseller and winner of Italy's prestigious Premio Bancarella prize—an intense psychological thriller in the vein of The Talented Mr. Ripley

As world-weary Lieutenant Chiti spends sleepless nights hunting for the serial rapist terrorizing his city, trainee lawyer Giorgio is befriended by dangerously charismatic Francesco. Slowly the innocent Giorgio is lured into a corrupt world of beautiful women and casual violence. Then one terrifying night Giorgio is forced to realize just how far he has left his past behind.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
As a series of rapes terrorize the city of Bari in the Apulia region (Italy's boot heel), three young men must confront their dark sides. One thinks he might be sliding into madness. The second abandons his desire to be an attorney and is seduced into a life of crime. The third is a sociopath. VERDICT Former Mafia prosecutor Carofiglio (A Walk in the Dark; Involuntary Witness) packs enough psychological suspense into this tightly woven tale to satisfy readers who crave another Barbara Vine or yearn for Georges Simenon's non-Maigret novels.

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The Past is a Foreign Country

By Gianrico Carofigl

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2006 Gianrico Carofigl
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-0826-9


She's alone, leaning on the bar, drinking a fruit juice. There's a black leather bag on the floor by her feet, and for some reason that's the thing that really draws my attention.

She's staring so hard at me it's quite embarrassing. When our eyes meet, though, she turns away. A few moments later, she looks at me again. This sequence is repeated several times. I don't know her, and at first I wonder if she's really looking at me. I even have the impulse to check if there's anyone behind me, but I stop myself. There's nothing behind me but the wall – I know that perfectly well because this is where I sit almost every day.

She's finished her drink now. She places the empty glass on the bar, picks up the bag, and comes towards me. She has short dark hair, and the determined but not very spontaneous manner of someone who's spent a lot of time struggling with shyness. Or with something else, something worse than shyness.

She reaches my table. She stands there for a few moments, not saying a word, while I try to assume what I think is a suitable expression. Without much success, I think.

'You don't recognise me.'

It isn't a question, and she's right: I don't recognise her. I don't know her.

Then she says a name, and something else, and then, after a brief pause, asks if she can sit down. I say yes. Or perhaps I nod, or make a gesture with my hand to indicate the chair, I'm not sure which.

For how long I don't know, I say nothing. It's hard to know what to say. Until a few minutes earlier, I'd been having breakfast, as I do every morning, preparing myself for an ordinary day, and now all at once I'd been sucked into a vortex and had come out somewhere else.

In some strange, mysterious place.

A long way away.


There were four of us around the table. A thin, sad-looking guy, a surveyor by profession, Francesco, myself, and the man whose apartment we were in. His name was Nicola, and he was a fat man of about thirty, who smoked a lot and had difficulty breathing. He kept making a rhythmical, unnerving sound through his blocked nose.

It was his turn to shuffle the cards and deal. He repeated his little trick of shuffling them and dividing them into two smaller decks which he held between his thumb and index finger, but he was tired, and he was nervous. Half an hour earlier he had been up nearly a million, but in three or four hands he had squandered almost all his winnings. Francesco was winning, I was more or less equal with him, and the surveyor was losing a lot. We were beginning the last hand of stud poker.

The fat man cut the cards and said, 'Five card stud.' He said it in the same tone of voice he'd used all evening. What he thought of as a professional tone. A good way to recognise an easy mark at a poker table is to see if they use a professional tone.

He dealt the first card face down and the second one face up. A professional gesture, as if to prove my point.

A ten for the surveyor, a queen for Francesco, a king for me. His own card was an ace.

'A hundred,' he said immediately, throwing an electric blue oval chip into the middle of the table, and moistening his upper lip with the tip of his tongue. We all played. The surveyor lit a cigarette. The fat man dealt again.

An eight, another queen, an eight, and a seven.

"Two hundred," Francesco said. The fat man flashed him a look of hatred, then also put two hundred in the pot. The surveyor folded. He had been losing all evening and couldn't wait for the chance to call it a night. I played.

A ten, a king, a ten. It was my turn and I said two hundred. The others played. We came to the last card. An eight for Francesco, a nine for me, another nine for the fat man.

'Last bets,' I said, and the fat man immediately bet the equivalent of what was in the pot. Three eights were already face up. Did he have a straight? I looked him in the face and saw that his lips were tense and dry. In the meantime, Francesco put down his cards, said he wasn't playing, and stood up for a moment as if to stretch his legs.

That meant that if I had more than a pair I could relax. The fat man didn't have a straight after all. There was no way he could have one: the fourth eight was the card Francesco had face down. So I asked for time. To think, I said, but in fact I only wanted to savour that intoxicating feeling you get when you're cheating at cards and are sure of winning.

'I have no choice, I have to see you,' I said after a minute, resignedly, like someone who's sure he's going to lose the hand, but has unfortunately been lured into it by a cleverer and luckier player. The fat man had two aces. I had three kings. That meant I won the pot, which was nearly three million lire – more than my father's monthly salary at the time.

By now the fat man was really pissed off. Obviously, he didn't like losing. But what made him furious was losing to a moron like me.

The surveyor won the next hand, but there was nothing in the pot except small change. Then it was Francesco's turn to deal. He shuffled as he usually did – impersonally – cut the cards and dealt.

First a card face down, and then one face up. A queen for me, a king for the fat man, a seven for the surveyor, an ace for himself.

'Two hundred. This is the hand where I recoup my losses.'

The fat man looked at him in disgust, as if to say, bloody amateur. He put down the two hundred. I played. The surveyor didn't.

The cards were turned over again. I was making an effort not to look at Francesco's hands, even though I knew I wouldn't see anything strange. And if I didn't the others certainly wouldn't. Another queen for me, another king for the fat man, another ace for himself.

'If you want to play those aces you have to pay. Three hundred.'

The fat man paid without a word, with the same look on his face as before. I thought about it for a while, touched the chips I had in front of me and then put down the money, looking unconvinced.

The fourth card. A ten for me, a jack for the fat man, a seven for Francesco.

'Another three hundred.'

'I'll see you,' I said.

'I'll raise you five hundred,' the fat man said in the same professional tone, moistening his upper lip and forcing himself to control his elation. The card he had face up was a jack. This was his hand, he was thinking. Both Francesco and I played. I looked like someone who thinks he's in over his head and is scared shitless.

The last card. Another ten for me, another jack for the fat man, a queen for Francesco. Angrily, Francesco passed. Obviously he couldn't play. He had thrown away a cool million. He said something to that effect but the fat man ignored him. He had a full house of jacks and kings, and was already enjoying his triumph. He was playing with amateurs, but he didn't care. He said he was betting the equivalent of the pot and lit a cigarette. What he was hoping was that my face-down card was another ten. If that was the case, then I would also have a full house. I would play and he would tear me apart. The idea that I might have the fourth queen in the pack was obviously something he had never even considered.

I saw him. My card was, indeed, the last queen. Which meant that my full house beat his. Abandoning his professional tone, he asked how the fuck something like that was possible.

We wrote it down on the sheet of paper where debts were recorded. According to that sheet, the big man was already bankrupt. Then we played for about another forty minutes, but nothing out of the ordinary happened. The surveyor won back a little, and the professional lost another few hundred thousand.

At the end of the game I was the only winner. Francesco gave me almost four hundred thousand lire, the surveyor wrote me a cheque for just over a million, and the fat man another cheque for eight million two hundred thousand.

The three of us got ready to leave. At the door, I assured them I was available for a return match. I smiled modestly as I said it, like a beginner who's won a lot of money and is trying to act appropriately. The fat man looked at me without saying a word. He owned a hardware store and at that moment, I'm sure, he'd have liked to smash my head in with a monkey wrench.

Once out in the street, we said goodbye and went our separate ways.

A quarter of an hour later, Francesco and I met up again at the railway station, in front of the bookstall, which was closed for the night. I gave him back his four hundred thousand and we went off to a fishermen's bar for a cappuccino.

'Did you hear the noise the fat guy was making?'

'What noise?'

'With his nose. It was unbearable. Fuck, can you imagine sleeping in the same room as him? He must snore like a pig.'

'As a matter of fact, his wife left him when they'd only been married for six months.'

'If he calls again, what do we do?'

'We go back, we let him win two or three hundred thousand lire and we say goodbye. Debt of honour paid, now fuck off.'

We finished our cappuccinos, went outside where the boats were moored, and lit cigarettes as the sky grew lighter. It was nearly time for bed. In a few hours I would go to the bank and cash the two cheques. Then we would share the winnings.

* * *

Giulia and I had quarrelled the day before. She'd told me she couldn't carry on like this and maybe it was better if we split up.

She was trying to provoke a reaction. She wanted me to say no, it wasn't true, we were just having a little bit of a crisis, we'd get through it together, that kind of thing.

Instead, I told her I thought she was probably right. I had a slightly downhearted look on my face as I said it, because I thought that was the appropriate expression. I was sorry that she was sad, I felt slightly guilty, but all I wanted was for the conversation to be over so that I could leave. She looked at me, uncomprehending, and I looked back at her, but I was already miles away.

I'd been miles away for some time.

She started crying silently. I made some trite remark to soften the blow. I knew this must be painful for her.

When she finally got on her bicycle and rode away, the only thing I felt was relief.

I was twenty-two years old, and until a few months earlier nothing had ever happened in my life.


There's a song by Eugenio Finardi about a guy called Samson. An ace on the pitch, and really handsome. Skin like bronze and eyes of jade. Looks like someone who's never been afraid.

Francesco Carducci to a T.

He had a reputation, both as a footballer – top goal scorer in the university championships – and as the idol of all the girls. Even, if truth be told, of a few bored mothers. That's what people said, anyway. He was two years older than me and was studying philosophy, but had fallen behind. I never knew how many exams he still had to take, whether he had chosen a dissertation topic, that kind of thing.

There was a lot I never knew about him.

Until one night during the Christmas break of 1988, we'd been merely casual acquaintances. A few friends in common, a few football matches, a quick hello if we met by chance in the street.

Until that night, during the Christmas break of 1988, our paths had barely crossed.

There was a party at the home of a girl called Alessandra, a lawyer's daughter. Her parents were away at a ski resort, and the big, elegant apartment was all hers. People were drinking, others chatting, a few were rolling joints in the corners. But most were playing cards. For a lot of people, the Christmas holidays meant an endless round of card games. For money.

There was a baccarat table in the big drawing room, while in the living room they were playing chemin de fer. In the rest of the apartment, like I said, people were smoking and drinking. No different from hundreds of similar occasions. All perfectly normal.

Then the world, or mine at least, suddenly speeded up. Like a spaceship in a cartoon or a sci-fi film that shoots up into the sky and disappears amongst the stars.

I'd blown a bit of cash at baccarat and then gone into the room where they were playing chemin de fer. Francesco was at the table. I'd have liked to join in, but I didn't have enough money. There were kids who came to these parties with rolls of banknotes and even chequebooks. But I only got three hundred thousand lire a month from my parents and earned a bit more by giving private Latin lessons. I was attracted to the idea of playing for high stakes – and winning, of course – but I couldn't afford it. Or didn't have the guts. Or probably both. So, more often than not, I just watched.

There were at least sixty people wandering around the apartment. Every now and again the doorbell would ring and more people would arrive, sometimes one by one, but more often in groups. Some were complete strangers, even to Alessandra. These parties worked by word of mouth. It was a common form of night-time entertainment over the Christmas break to go from party to party, sometimes gatecrashing ones you hadn't been invited to, eat and drink something, and then leave without a hello or goodbye. That was the way it worked and there was usually no problem. I'd done it quite a few times myself.

So that evening no one paid much attention to the three guys who were roaming through the apartment without even taking off their leather jackets. One of them came into the room where people were playing chemin de fer. He was short and stocky, with close-cropped hair and a mean, stolid expression.

He rapidly eyed me and the others who weren't in the game but were just standing around. He wasn't interested in any of us. He went closer to the table to get a better look at the players. He immediately spotted the object of his search, quickly left the room, and returned less than a minute later with the other two.

One of them looked like a copy of the first, on a larger scale: quite tall and solid, with the same close-cropped hair. Not the kind of guy you'd pick a fight with. The third was tall, thin and blond, quite good-looking but with something sick about his features or his expression. He was the one who opened the conversation. So to speak.

'You piece of shit!'

Everyone turned round. Including Francesco, who had his back to the door and hadn't noticed the three guys until that moment. We all looked at each other for a few seconds, trying to figure out who they were after.

Then Francesco stood up and said calmly to the blond guy, 'Don't do anything stupid. There are lots of people here.'

'You piece of shit. Come outside or we'll wreck the place.'

'Fine. Just let me get my jacket.'

Everyone was frozen, paralyzed with shock and fear. The people in the room, and others you could see standing in the corridor, behind the three guys. I was frozen too, thinking they were going to take him outside and beat him to a pulp. Maybe before they'd even got down the stairs. I felt humiliated. I remember thinking, in a bizarre flash of lucidity, that this was how it must feel when you were about to be raped.

Francesco had gone over to a sofa where all the coats were piled. I heard my voice emerging from my mouth of its own volition, as if it belonged to someone else.

'Hey, you, mind telling us what your fucking problem is?'

I don't know why I spoke. Francesco wasn't a friend of mine and for all I knew he could well have done something to deserve what these guys had in store for him. Maybe the feeling of humiliation was just too much to bear. Or maybe there was some other reason. Over the years I've given it different names. One of them is fate.

Everyone turned to look at me. The short, stolid-looking guy came closer. He came really close, stretching his neck and shoving his face up at mine. He came too close. I could smell the mint-flavoured gum on his breath.

'Mind your own fucking business, asshole, or we'll beat the shit out of you, too.'

He really had a way with words.

I moved the way I'd spoken. Somehow, it wasn't me doing it. I brought my head down hard, as if smacking a ball into a goal, and broke his nose.

He instantly started bleeding, so stunned that when I kneed him in the balls he didn't even react.

What happened next I only remember as a series of still pictures, with a few slow-motion clips thrown in. Francesco hitting the tallest guy with a chair. Cards flying round the room. A few people coming in from the corridor and launching themselves into the fray.


Excerpted from The Past is a Foreign Country by Gianrico Carofigl. Copyright © 2006 Gianrico Carofigl. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

GIANRICO CAROFIGLIO is an anti-Mafia prosecutor living in Bari, South Italy. His prize-winning Involuntary Witness and A Walk in the Dark became instant bestsellers in Italy, where they are the basis of a major television series, and have since been sold around the world.

Gianrico Carofiglio is an anti-Mafia prosecutor living in Bari, South Italy. His prize-winning Involuntary Witness and A Walk in the Dark became instant bestsellers in Italy, where they are the basis of a major television series, and have since been sold around the world.

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