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"Full of sensitivity and intelligence . . . A brilliant addition to the literature of our modern wars." Kevin Powers, author of The Yellow Birds
From the bestselling author of The Solitude of Prime Numbers, a searing novel of the journey from youth into manhood
In Paolo Giordano’s highly awaited new novel, a platoon of young men and one woman soldier leaves Italy for one of the most dangerous places on earth. Forward Operating Base (FOB) in the Gulistan district of Afghanistan is nothing but an exposed sandpit scorched by inescapable sunlight and deadly mortar fire.
Each member in the platoon manages the toxic mix of boredom and fear that is life at the FOB in his own way. Brash Cederna shamelessly picks on the virgin Ietri. Giulia Zampieri seemingly navigates this male-dominated world with ease—until two male comrades start vying for her attention. And for medical officer Alessandro Egitto, the FOB serves as an escape from a real life even more dangerous than one fought with guns. At night, lying on their beds, they feel the beat of their own hearts, the ceaseless activity of the human body. But when a much-debated mission goes devastatingly awry, the soldiers find their lives changed in an instant.
A heartrending, redemptive story about brotherhood and family, modern war and the wars we wage with ourselves, Paolo Giordano’s visceral novel reminds us what it is to be human.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.30(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Paolo Giordano is the author of the critically acclaimed international bestseller The Solitude of Prime Numbers, which has been translated into more than forty languages. He is the youngest person ever to win Italy’s prestigious literary award, the Premio Strega. Giordano has a PhD in particle physics and is now a full time writer. He lives in Italy.
Read an Excerpt
Cast of Characters
In the years following the mission, each of the guys set out to make his life unrecognizable, until the memories of that other life, that earlier existence, were bathed in a false, artificial light and they themselves became convinced that none of what took place had actually happened, or at least not to them.
Lieutenant Egitto, like the others, has done his best to forget. He moved to another city, transferred to a new regiment, changed his beard length and his eating habits, redefined some old personal conflicts, and learned to ignore others that didn’t concern him—a difference he had by no means been aware of before. He’s not sure whether the transformation is following some plan or is the result of an unsystematic process, nor does he care. The main thing for him, from the beginning, has been to dig a trench between past and present: a safe haven that not even memory would be able to breach.
And yet, missing from the list of things he’s managed to rid himself of is the one thing that most vividly takes him back to the days spent in the valley: thirteen months after the conclusion of the mission, Egitto is still wearing his officer’s uniform. The two embroidered stars are displayed at the center of his chest, in precise correspondence to the heart. Several times the lieutenant has toyed with the idea of retreating to the ranks of civilians, but the military uniform has adhered to every inch of his body, sweat has discolored the fabric’s pattern and tinted the skin beneath. He’s sure that if he were to take it off now, the epidermis would peel away as well and he, who feels uncomfortable even when simply naked, would find himself more exposed than he could stand. Besides, what good would it do? A soldier will never cease being a soldier. At age thirty-one, the lieutenant has given in and accepted the uniform as an unavoidable accident, a chronic disease of fate, conspicuous but not painful. The most significant contradiction of his life has finally been transformed into the sole element of continuity.
• • •
It’s a clear morning in early April; the rounded leather boot tops of the soldiers marching in review gleam with every step. Egitto isn’t yet accustomed to the clarity, full of promise, that Belluno’s sky flaunts on days like this. The wind that rolls down from the Alps carries with it the arctic cold of glaciers, but when it subsides and stops whipping the banners around, you realize that it’s unusually warm for that time of year. In the barracks there was a big debate about whether or not to wear their scarves and in the end it was decided not to; the word was shouted out from corridor to corridor and from one floor to another. The civilians, however, are undecided about what to do with their jackets, whether to wear them over their shoulders or carry them over their arms.
Egitto lifts his hat and runs his fingers through his damp, sweaty hair. Colonel Ballesio, standing to his left, turns to him and says, “That’s disgusting, Lieutenant! Dust off your jacket. It’s full of those flakes again.” Then, as if Egitto weren’t capable of doing it himself, the colonel brushes off his back with his hand. “What a mess,” he mutters.
There’s a break. Those, like Egitto and Ballesio, who have a seat in the stands, can sit down. Egitto can finally roll down his socks at the ankles. The itching subsides, but only for a few seconds.
“Listen to this,” Ballesio starts off. “The other day my little daughter started marching around the living room. ‘Look, Daddy,’ she said, ‘look at me, I’m a colonel too.’ She’d dressed up in her school smock and a beret. Well, you know what I did?”
“No, sir. What?”
“I gave her a good spanking. I’m not kidding. Then I yelled at her and said I never wanted to see her mimicking a soldier again. And that no one would enlist her anyway because of her flat feet. She started to cry, the poor thing. I couldn’t even explain to her why I got so angry. But I was beside myself, believe me. Tell the truth, Lieutenant: in your opinion, am I a bit burned-out?”
Egitto has learned to be wary of the colonel’s requests to be frank. He replies: “Maybe you were just trying to protect her.”
Ballesio makes a face, as if Egitto has said something stupid. “Could be. So much the better. These days I’m afraid I may not be all there, if you know what I mean.” He stretches his legs, then unashamedly adjusts the waistband of his undershorts through his pants. “You hear about those guys who overnight end up with their brains fucked up. Do you think I should get one of those neurological checkups, Lieutenant? Like an EKG or something?”
“I don’t see any reason to, sir.”
“Maybe you could check me over. Examine my pupils and so on.”
“I’m an orthopedist, Colonel.”
“But still, they must have taught you something!”
“I can suggest the name of a colleague, if you’d like.”
Ballesio grunts. He has two deep grooves around his lips that inscribe his face like the snout of a fish. When Egitto first met him he wasn’t so worn-out.
“Your fastidiousness is catching, Lieutenant, did I ever tell you? That must be why you’re in the state you’re in. Just relax for once, take things as they come. Or find a hobby. Have you ever thought about having kids?”
“Kids, Lieutenant. Kids.”
“Well, I don’t know what you’re waiting for. A kid would cleanse your head of certain thoughts. I see you, you know? Always there brooding. Just look how ready and willing these troops are, such eager beavers!”
Egitto follows Ballesio’s line of sight, to the military band and beyond, where the lawn begins. A man standing in the crowd catches his attention. He’s carrying a child on his shoulders and standing stiffly, chest out, in a strangely military posture. A familiar face always makes itself known to the lieutenant through a vague fear, and all of a sudden Egitto feels uneasy. When the man raises a fist to his mouth to cough, he recognizes Marshal René. “That guy over there, isn’t he . . . ?” He stops.
“Who? What?” the colonel says.
Antonio René. On the last day, at the airport, they took their leave with a formal handshake and since then Egitto hasn’t thought of him, at least not specifically. His memories of the mission mostly assume a collective quality.
He loses interest in the parade and applies himself to observing the marshal from afar. René hasn’t made his way deep enough through the crowd to reach the front rows; most likely there’s not much to see from where he is. From where he sits on his father’s shoulders, the child points to the soldiers, the banners, the men with the instruments, clutching René’s hair like reins. The hair, that’s what’s changed. In the valley the marshal’s head was closely shaven; now his brown, slightly wavy hair nearly covers his ears. René is another fugitive from his past. He too has altered his looks so he won’t recognize himself.
Ballesio is saying something about a tachycardia that he surely doesn’t have. Egitto replies absently, “Stop by to see me in the afternoon. I’ll prescribe something for the anxiety.”
“Are you completely out of your mind? That stuff makes your cock limp!”
Three unarmed fighter-bombers whiz by, low, over the parade ground, then soar sharply, leaving colorful streaks in the sky. They turn onto their backs and cross paths. The child on René’s shoulders is awestruck. Like his, hundreds of heads turn upward, all except those of the soldiers in formation, who go on staring firmly at something that only they can see.
• • •
At the end of the ceremony Egitto makes his way back through the crowd. Families linger in the square and he has to sidestep them. He gives a perfunctory handshake to those who try to stop him, and he keeps an eye on the marshal. For a moment Egitto thought he was about to turn and leave, but he’s still there. Egitto joins him and takes off his hat once he’s standing in front of him. “René,” he says.
The marshal sets the child down on the ground. A woman comes up and takes him by the hand. Egitto nods at her, but she doesn’t nod back; she tightens her lips and backs away. René nervously rummages in his jacket pocket, pulls out a pack of cigarettes and lights one. That’s one thing that hasn’t changed: he still smokes the same slender white cigarettes, a woman’s cigarettes.
“How are you, Marshal?”
“Good, good,” René responds quickly. Then he repeats it, but with less confidence: “Good. Trying to scrape along.”
“That’s right. We have to carry on.”
“And you, Doc?”
Egitto smiles. “Me too, getting by.”
“So they didn’t give you too much trouble over that incident?” It’s as if pronouncing those words costs him a great deal of effort. He doesn’t seem to care much about the answer, in fact.
“A disciplinary action. Four months’ suspension from the service and some inconclusive hearings. Those were the real punishment. You know how that goes.”
“Good for you.”
“Good for me, right. You decided to quit instead.”
He could have said it differently, used another word instead of quit: change jobs, resign. Quit meant giving up. René doesn’t seem to be bothered, though.
“I work in a restaurant. Down in Oderzo. I’m the maître d’.”
“Still in command, then.”
René sighs. “In command. Right.”
“And the other guys?”
René’s foot scrapes at a tuft of grass in a crack in the pavement. “I haven’t seen them in a while.”
The woman is now gripping his arm, as if wanting to drag him away, rescue him from Egitto’s uniform and the memories they have in common. She shoots quick, resentful glances at the lieutenant. René, however, avoids looking at him, though for an instant his eyes focus on the quivering black plume attached to his hat and Egitto seems to glimpse a trace of nostalgia in him.
A cloud covers the sun and the light suddenly grows dim. The lieutenant and the ex-marshal fall silent. They shared the most important moment of their lives, the two of them, standing as they are now, but in the middle of a desert and a circle of armored tanks. Can it be they have nothing left to say to each other?
“Let’s go home,” the woman whispers in René’s ear.
“Of course. I don’t want to keep you. Good luck, Marshal.”
The child holds out his arms to René, asking to be put back on his shoulders. He’s whimpering, but it’s as if his father doesn’t see him. “You can come and find me at the restaurant,” he says. “It’s a good place. Fairly good.”
“Only if you give me special treatment.”
“It’s a good place,” René repeats absently.
“I’ll be sure to come,” Egitto pledges. But it’s clear to both of them that it’s one of those countless promises that are never kept.
EXPERIENCES IN THE DESERT
First came the talks. A series of preparatory lectures by Captain Masiero: thirty-six hours of groundwork in which the troops received a smattering of Middle Eastern history and technical briefings on the strategic complexities of the conflict, during which western Afghanistan’s endless expanses of marijuana were also talked about, with no avoiding the obvious jokes. Or the stories of soldiers who had already served in the area and now, with a certain condescension, were quick to dispense advice to those about to set off.
Head down on the incline bench where he has just completed a fourth set of crunches, Corporal Major Roberto Ietri listens with growing interest to the conversation between two veterans. They’re talking about a certain Marica stationed at the base in Herat. He finally gives in to his curiosity and interrupts: “Are there really a lot of girls there?”
The guys exchange a look of tacit complicity; they’d been waiting for that. “As many as you want, buddy,” says one. “And they’re not the kind we’re used to here.”
“That’s for sure. Over there they don’t give a shit.”
“They’re far from home and so bored they’re willing to do anything.”
“There’s no goddamn summer camp where you fuck as much as on a mission.”
“And then there are the Americans.”
“Oooh, the Americans!”
They start telling him about a colonel’s secretary who brought three NCOs into her tent and threw them out at dawn, worn to a frazzle. “No, not us—I wish! Some guys from another company, but everyone at the base knew about it.”
Ietri’s eyes dart from one to the other, while the blood flows from his feet to his head, making him dizzy. When he leaves the gym, in the velvety air of a summer evening, his mind is full of wild fantasies.
It was Ietri himself, in all probability, who started certain rumors among the guys in the Third Platoon, rumors that filter back to him after making a lengthy circuit, and that he ends up believing with greater certainty than anyone. Mingled with a mild fear of death is a longing for adventure that gains the upper hand. Ietri fantasizes about the women he’ll encounter in Afghanistan, the naughty smiles during morning muster, the exotic way they’ll pronounce his name.
Even during Captain Masiero’s lectures all he does is undress and dress them, over and over again.
In his head he calls them all Jennifer and has no idea where that name came from. Jennifer, oooh Jennifer . . .
“Would you be so kind as to repeat what I’ve been saying?”
“Of course, Captain. You were talking about . . . the tribes . . . I think.”
“Do you perhaps mean the ethnic groups?”
“And which ethnic group was I talking about, exactly?”
“I think the . . . I don’t know, sir.”
“Corporal, leave this classroom immediately.”
The embarrassing truth is that Ietri has never been with a woman, not in the sense that he considers complete. No one in the platoon knows this and it would be a disaster if they were to find out. The only one who knows is Cederna; he told him about it himself one evening at the pub when they were both smashed and in the mood for confiding.
“Complete? You mean to say you’ve never fucked?”
“Well, not . . . fully.”
“A goddamn little virgin! Hey, I have a new name for you: verginella. Do you like that? That’s what I’m gonna call you from now on.”
“You’re in bad shape, buddy. Really bad. Shit!”
“How old are you?”
“Damn. So you’ve already wasted the best years. Listen up now—it’s important. The tool down there is like a rifle. A 5.56, with a metal stock and laser sighting.” Cederna shoulders an invisible weapon and aims it at his friend. “If you don’t remember to oil the barrel from time to time, it will end up jamming.”
Ietri looks down at his mug of beer. He takes too big a swig, begins to cough. Jammed. He’s a guy who’s jammed.
“Even Mitrano manages to shoot his wad every now and then,” Cederna says.
“You could do it too.”
Ietri shakes his head. He doesn’t like the idea of paying a woman.
“So, let’s go over it,” Cederna imitates Captain Masiero’s voice. “It’s not all that difficult, Corporal. Follow me closely. You meet a girl you like, you weigh the size of her tits and ass—I personally, for example, like them both big, but there are some perverts who prefer their women skinny as a toothpick—then you go up to her, spout some bullshit, and finally ask her politely if she’d like to go someplace private with you.”
“If she’d like to go someplace private with me?”
“Well, maybe not those words exactly. It depends on the situation.”
“Look, I know how it’s done. It’s just that I haven’t found the right one.”
Cederna bangs his fist on the table. The forks clink in the empty plates where they’ve eaten French fries, attracting attention from the other tables. “That’s the point! There is no right one. They’re all right. Because they all have a—” He specifies the part by forming a diamond with his fingers. “Anyway, once you start, you’ll see how easy it is.”
Cederna’s tone annoys him a little. He doesn’t want to be pitied, but his friend’s words are also reassuring. He wavers between irritation and gratitude. He’d like to ask him how old he was when he started, but he’s afraid to hear the answer: Cederna is too cool, and also too good looking, with that high forehead and a smile full of white teeth and mischief.
“You’re as tall as a giant and you let women scare you. It’s nuts.”
“If you ask me, it’s your mother’s fault.”
“What does my mother have to do with it?” Ietri balls up the napkin in his fist. An unnoticed packet of mayonnaise explodes in his hand.
Cederna pipes up in falsetto: “Mommy, Mommy, what do all these naughty girls want from me?”
“Stop it—they can all hear you.” He doesn’t dare ask his friend for his napkin. He wipes his hand on the edge of the chair. His finger brushes something stuck underneath.
Cederna crosses his arms, satisfied, while Ietri grows more and more gloomy. He makes circles on the table with the damp bottom of the glass.
“Don’t put on that face now.”
“You’ll see. You’ll find some twit who will spread her legs for you. Sooner or later.”
“I don’t much care.”
“We’re going on a mission soon. They say there’s no better place. The Americans are wild . . .”
• • •
The guys are given a weekend’s leave before the reassignment and almost all of them spend it with their respective girlfriends. The girls have come up with some outlandish ideas, like a picnic by the lake or a marathon of romantic movies, when all the soldiers want to do is tank up on sex for the upcoming months of abstinence.
Ietri’s mother takes the night train from Torremaggiore to Belluno. Together they run some errands in the center, then go to the barracks, where he sleeps in a hot, messy dormitory with seven other men. She doesn’t fail to comment on it: “All the fault of the vocation you’ve chosen. With everything you could have done, intelligent as you are.”
On edge, the corporal is compelled to get away. He invents an excuse and retreats to a corner of the square to smoke. When he comes back, he finds his mother holding the photograph of his induction oath tight to her chest.
“Look, I’m not dead yet,” he says.
The woman’s eyes widen. She gives him a sound slap on the cheek. “Don’t say such things. Idiot.”
She insists on packing his bags no matter what (“Mama knows you’ll forget everything otherwise”). Ietri dozes off as he watches her devotedly lay out his clothes on the bed. Occasionally he gets distracted and his mind wanders back to the Americans. He lets himself drift into an exciting half sleep, drool trickling onto the pillow.
“There’s moisturizer and soaps in the side pocket, one lavender and one unscented. Use the unscented one on your face—you have sensitive skin. I also put in some chewing gum for when you can’t brush your teeth.”
That night they share a double bed in a deserted small hotel and Ietri is surprised that he isn’t embarrassed to sleep with his mother, even now that he’s a man and has been away from home for so long. He doesn’t even find it strange when she pulls his head to her soft bosom and holds him there, listening to the strong beat of her heart beneath her nightgown, until she falls asleep.
The room is lit intermittently by the storm that broke out after supper and his mother’s body jerks each time the thunder claps; it’s as if it scares her in her dreams. It’s past eleven when Ietri slips out of bed. In the dark, he empties the pocket of the backpack and throws everything into the trash basket, way down at the bottom so she won’t see it. Then he fills the pocket with condoms of various kinds, which he’d hidden in his jacket and in his spare boots, enough to last his platoon for a month of nonstop orgies.
Back in bed, he has second thoughts. He gets up again, sticks his hands in the trash, and gropes around for the chewing gum: you never know, it might come in handy if he were to find himself close to the eager mouth of an American without having brushed his teeth.
Jennifer, oooh Jennifer!
• • •
Cederna and his girlfriend are back in the apartment they’ve been sharing for almost a year. The storm caught them on the way home, but they were so high they didn’t even look for cover. They went on staggering along under the downpour, stopping from time to time to exchange lingering kisses, tongues probing.
The evening has taken an excellent turn, though it didn’t start out that well. For some time now, Agnese has become obsessed with ethnic restaurants and just tonight when Cederna wanted only to have a good time, Agnese decided to celebrate his departure with a proper dinner by settling on a Japanese restaurant where her university friends had gone. “It’ll be special,” she said.
But Cederna didn’t feel like anything special. “I don’t like that Asian stuff.”
“But you’ve never even tasted it.”
“Sure I tasted it. Once.”
“That’s not true. You’re acting like a child.”
“Hey, watch your mouth.”
When he realized they were headed for a serious fight he gave up and said, “Okay, let’s go to the damn sushi bar.”
Except he didn’t eat a thing at the restaurant and spent the time making fun of the waitress, who bowed continually and wore terry socks with her Japanese tatami sandals. Agnese tried to explain to him how to hold the chopsticks and it was clear she loved playing teacher. He made only one attempt, then stuck the tips of the chopsticks up his nostrils and started talking like a retard.
“Can’t you at least try?” Agnese burst out.
“To be a civilized person.”
Cederna leaned toward her: “I am civilized. It’s these people who are in the wrong place. Look outside—take a look. Does this seem like Japan to you?”
They didn’t say a word to each other for the rest of the meal—a dinner at which he stubbornly refused to taste a thing, not even the batter-fried tempura vegetables that didn’t look too bad, while Agnese forced herself to finish it all, just to show him how much braver and more emancipated she was. But the worst moment came later, with the bill. “I’m going to raise hell,” Cederna said, his eyes popping.
“I’ll pay. Just stop making a scene.”
Cederna shot her down coldly: “I don’t let my woman pay for my dinner.” He threw the credit card at the waitress, who bowed for the umpteenth time as she picked it up.
“What a shitty place!” he said when they were finally outside. “You ruined my last night of freedom, thank you very much.”
Agnese started crying softly, her hand pressed over her eyes. Seeing her like that made Cederna feel ashamed. He tried to hug her; she pushed him away.
“You’re an animal—that’s what you are.”
“Come on, baby. Don’t be like that.”
“Don’t touch me!” she yelled, hysterical.
She didn’t hold out for long, though. In the end he nibbled her ear and whispered, “What the hell do they call that stuff—yadori? Yudori?” Finally she laughed a little and admitted: “It was really disgusting. I’m sorry, sweetheart. I’m so sorry.”
They started laughing and didn’t stop even in the pouring rain.
Now they’re both sitting on the floor in the small foyer, sopping wet, and they’re still chuckling, though less enthusiastically. Cederna is beginning to feel that dissociating sense of emptiness and dejection that comes after laughing so hard. And there’s a lump in his throat, because he won’t see her again for many long weeks.
Agnese collapses on him and rests her head on his legs. “Don’t die over there, okay?”
“I’ll do my best.”
“Don’t get wounded either. Not seriously, at least. No amputations or conspicuous scars.”
“Only superficial wounds, I promise.”
“And don’t cheat on me.”
“If you cheat on me, I’ll wound you myself.”
“Never mind ooh. I’m serious.”
“So will you come back for my graduation?”
“I’ll be back, I told you. René promised me leave. But it means that afterward we won’t see each other for a long time.”
“I’ll be a young unemployed graduate waiting for her husband’s return from the front.”
“I’m not your husband.”
“I’m just saying.”
“What was it, some kind of proposal?”
“The important thing is that the unemployed young lady not console herself with someone else in the meantime.”
“I’ll be inconsolable.”
“There, that’s better.”
“Inconsolable. I swear.”
• • •
In a larger apartment, with a sliding glass door overlooking a parking lot, Marshal René is awake, looking out at the night. The storm has released the heat from the asphalt and the city smells like rotten eggs.
When it comes to picking a woman to spend his last night in friendly territory with, the marshal has a wealth of choices, but the truth is he doesn’t feel much like any of them. After all, they’re clients. He’s sure they wouldn’t want to listen to his concerns twelve hours before the flight. When he talks too much, women feel the urge to turn their backs and do something, like light a cigarette or get dressed or take a shower. He can’t blame them. None of them knows what it means to be in command; nobody knows what it takes to hold the fate of twenty-seven men in your hands. None of them is in love with him.
He takes off his T-shirt and absently runs his fingers over his chest: the line between his pecs, the dog tag with his date of birth and blood type (A-positive), three well-defined abdominal bands. Maybe when he returns from Afghanistan he’ll stop taking gigs. Not that he dislikes the activity, and the extra money comes in handy (last month he was able to buy saddlebags for his Honda, which he’s now watching proudly from the window, wrapped in its tarpaulin). It’s more a moral issue. Though the stripteasing was a necessity when he’d first moved to Belluno, now that he’s career military he could afford to give it up, focus on a more mature plan. He doesn’t yet know what, however. It’s difficult to imagine a new version of yourself.
By midnight indecision has also eliminated the possibility of a proper dinner: he’s munched on two packets of crackers and is now no longer hungry. A little miserable as a celebration. He would have been better off letting his parents come from Senigallia to see him. Suddenly he feels sad. The TV is unplugged, covered with a white sheet to keep off dust. He’s shut off the central gas valve and collected the garbage in a bag. The house is ready to be deserted.
He lies down on the couch and is already dozing when he gets Rosanna Vitale’s message: “Were you going to leave without saying good-bye? Come on over. I need to talk to you.” A few seconds later there’s another one: “Bring something to drink.”
René takes his time. In the shower he shaves and masturbates slowly, to make himself immune to pleasure. He picks up some spumante at the Autogrill on the highway. As soon as he steps out the door, he turns around and goes back in to add a bottle of vodka and two bars of chocolate. He feels a certain gratitude to Rosanna for saving him from a monotonous last night and he plans to reward her as she deserves. Usually he goes to bed with younger women, mostly girls who want to create a bold memory before embracing the life of a judicious wife. Rosanna, on the other hand, is over forty, but there’s something about her that he likes. She’s an expert at sex and is extraordinarily open-minded. Sometimes, after they’re done, René stays for dinner or to watch a movie—he on the couch, she in a chair nearby—and maybe they make love again, in which case the second round is on the house. If he wants to leave, though, she doesn’t keep him.
“Did you get lost?” Rosanna is standing in the doorway, waiting for him.
René comes up beside her, kisses her on the cheek. He notices a different perfume than usual, or maybe it’s a different smell beneath the usual perfume, but he doesn’t say anything.
The woman checks out the bottles. She puts the spumante in the refrigerator and opens the other bottle. The glasses are already set out on the table. “Would you like a little music? The silence is getting on my nerves tonight.”
René doesn’t mind. Like other distractions, music doesn’t matter to him. He sits at the kitchen table. He’s been sent off before—Lebanon twice, Kosovo—so he knows how difficult it is for civilians to come to terms with it.
“So you’re leaving tomorrow.”
“And how long is this mission?”
“Six months. More or less.”
Rosanna nods. She’s already finished her first glass. She pours herself another. René, on the other hand, sips slowly, in control of himself.
“And are you glad?”
“It’s not a pleasure trip.”
“Sure. But are you glad?”
René drums his fingers on the wood. “Yeah, I think so.”
“Good. That’s the important thing.”
The music forces them to speak more loudly than necessary. René is annoyed. If Rosanna would lower the volume, they’d be more comfortable. People don’t notice many of the things that he does; this has always disappointed him in a way. Tonight, moreover, Rosanna seems distracted and determined to drink herself into a stupor before they end up in bed. Drunk women are limp, their movements repetitive, and then it’s up to him to make an ungodly effort to make them come. Pointing to her glass, he doesn’t hesitate to say: “Go easy on that.”
She gives him a furious look. René isn’t talking to one of his soldiers. Until proven otherwise, she’s the one paying, so she can decide when enough is enough. Afterward, though, she hangs her head as if to apologize. René interprets her nerves as a sign she’s worried about him, and this moves him. “I won’t be in any danger,” he says.
“It’s more a matter of defensive operations.”
“If you look at the statistics, the death rate in this conflict is ridiculous. It’s riskier crossing the street out there. I’m not kidding. For us Italians, at least. There are some who are really fighting and for them it’s a different story. The Americans, for example, have—”
The room sways slightly around the shimmering liquor bottle. “What did you say?”
“You heard me.”
René runs a hand over his face. He’s not perspiring. “No. I don’t think I heard you.”
“Can you turn the music off, please? I can’t focus.”
Rosanna walks quickly to the stereo and turns it off. She comes back and sits down. There are other sounds now: the hum of the water heater, someone trying to play a guitar in the apartment above, vodka being poured into her glass for the third time, against his advice.
“You told me clearly that—” René says, trying hard to control himself.
“I know. It was impossible for it to happen. A chance in a million maybe.”
“You’re in menopause—you told me so.” His tone isn’t aggressive and he looks calm, just a little pale.
“I am in menopause, all right? But I got pregnant. That’s what happened.”
“You said it wasn’t possible.”
“It wasn’t. It was a kind of miracle, okay?”
René wonders if he should make sure the child is really his, but apparently it’s beside the point. He considers the word miracle and doesn’t see the connection.
“The responsibility is mine—let’s get that clear right now,” she continues. “One hundred percent mine. So I guess it’s up to you to decide. You’re the one who’s been screwed. I’ll respect your decision. There’s still time, a month and a half, a little less. You leave now, take your time and think it over, then let me know what you decide. I’ll take care of the rest.”
She blurts it all out in one breath, then brings the glass to her lips. Instead of drinking, she holds it there. She rubs her lip on the rim, lost in thought. She has permanent wrinkles at the corners of her eyes, but they don’t look bad. In the course of his clandestine career René has learned that mature women bloom one last time before fading altogether and that at that stage they’re more beautiful than ever. His own body feels inadequate now, a sensation that provokes a fit of anger: “If you’re pregnant you shouldn’t drink.”
“A little vodka seems like the least of my worries right now.”
“Still, you shouldn’t.”
They fall silent. René mentally retraces the conversation, step by step. I’ll take care of the rest. He has a hard time seeing clearly beyond those words.
“Do you feel like doing it anyway?”
Rosanna asks him just like that, as if it were something they could do. She’s pregnant, yet she’s drinking and wants to sleep with him. René is disconcerted. He’s about to shout to her face that she’s crazy, then realizes that it would be a way of giving the evening a sense of closure: make love and go out the door with the impression of having done what was expected of him and nothing more. “Why shouldn’t we?” he says.
They move into the bedroom and undress with their backs turned. They start out slowly, gently, then René allows himself to force Rosanna down on her stomach. To him it’s like a small punishment. Rosanna comes liberally, he more discreetly. He pulls out a moment before, as if it makes any difference. She doesn’t reproach him.
“You can stay and sleep here,” she says instead. “I’m not working tomorrow morning. I’ll take you to get your things and then to the airport.”
“It’s not necessary.”
“We can have a few more hours together.”
“I have to go.”
Rosanna gets up and quickly covers herself with a robe. She rummages in her bag for her wallet and hands René the money.
He looks at the hand holding out the bills. He can’t accept money from a woman who’s pregnant with his child, but Rosanna doesn’t move and doesn’t say anything. A discount, maybe? No, that would be hypocritical. She’s just a client, he thinks, a client like any other. If something unexpected happened, it’s not his fault.
He grabs the money and in less than ten minutes he’s ready to go.
“So then you’ll let me know,” Rosanna says at the door.
“Yeah, I’ll let you know.”
• • •
In the morning the heat is unbearable, the sky covered with a bright gray glaze that triggers a headache. Civilians hang around the airport terminal, drawn by the unusual concentration of soldiers. The ashtrays outside are overflowing with cigarette butts. Ietri and his mother have arrived by bus. He looks around for his buddies and some of them wave to him from across the way. Mitrano has the largest family and the only one in his group who isn’t making a racket is his grandmother in her wheelchair: she has her back turned to her grandson and is staring straight ahead, as if seeing something horrible, though in all likelihood—Ietri thinks—she’s just senile. Anfossi’s parents check the clock repeatedly, Cederna is smooching with his girlfriend, his hands boldly on her ass, Zampieri is holding a child who is having fun yanking her hair and pulling her velcro insignia on and off. She lets him do it for a while, then abruptly puts him down and the child begins to whine. René is sitting down, talking on the phone, his head bowed.
Ietri feels someone grab his right hand. Before he has time to protest, his mother has already squeezed the tube of cream on the back of his hand.
“What are you doing?!”
“Be quiet. Look how chapped they are. And what about these?” She lifts up his fingers for him to see his nails.
“What’s wrong with them?”
“Come to the bathroom and I’ll cut them for you. Luckily I have my nail scissors with me.”
“If we don’t cut them now, they’ll be all black before evening.”
After a lengthy negotiation, Ietri gives in, but at least he gets to do it himself. He goes off to the toilets, browbeaten.
He’s just finished the first hand when a loud fart trumpets from one of the stalls.
“Gesundheit!” the corporal says. He’s echoed by a grunt.
Shortly thereafter, Colonel Ballesio comes out of the stall. He goes to the mirror, buttoning his fly, followed by a foul stench.
Ietri snaps to attention and the colonel smiles at him complacently. He eyes the nail clippings in the sink and his expression changes. “Certain matters should be taken care of at home, soldier.”
“You’re right, Commander. I’m sorry, Commander.”
Ietri turns on the tap. The nail clippings bunch around the drain and clog up there. He lifts the stopper and shoves them down with his finger. Ballesio observes him coldly. “First mission, soldier?”
“When you get back, these toilets will seem different to you. Spotless as those in a hospital. And the faucet. When you see a faucet like this again, you’ll feel like licking it.”
Ietri nods. His heart is pounding like mad.
“But it won’t last long. At first it all seems magical when you get back. Then it goes back to being what it is. Crap.”
Ballesio tugs on the towel roll, but the dispenser is stuck. He swears, then rubs his wet palms on his pants. He nods his head toward the corporal. “I can’t manage with scissors,” he says. “My wife bought me a nail clipper. Only thing is, it leaves rough edges.”
When Ietri returns to the airport terminal, he’s furious. He looked like a fool in front of the colonel and it’s all his mother’s fault.
She stretches her neck to check his fingernails. “Why did you only cut them on one hand? I told you I should do it. Pigheaded—that’s what you are! You can’t do it with your left hand. Come on, let’s go.”
Ietri pushes her away. “Leave me alone.”
The woman looks at him sternly, shakes her head, then starts rummaging in her handbag. “Here. Eat this—you have bad breath.”
“Will you stop it? Shit!” the corporal hollers. He knocks her hand away. The candy falls to the floor and he stamps on it with his boot. The green sugar shatters. “Happy now?”
Di Salvo and his family turn to watch them, and out of the corner of his eye Ietri notes that even Cederna has turned around.
He doesn’t know what’s gotten into him.
Two teardrops well up in his mother’s eyes. Her mouth is open, the upper lip trailing a resilient strand of saliva, and her lower lip is trembling a little. “I’m sorry,” the woman whispers.
Before now she’s never apologized to him. Ietri is torn between wanting to shout at her that she’s a stupid imbecile and the urge to bend down and pick up the slivers of candy one by one and piece them back together. He feels his troop mates’ eyes on him, judging him.
I’m a man now, and I’m going to war.
Later he won’t remember if he actually said it or if he just thought it. He grabs his backpack and throws it over his shoulder. He kisses his mother briefly on the cheek, one side only. “I’ll be back soon,” he says.
The Security Bubble
Securely stored in Lieutenant Egitto’s cabinet, though with the key handy in the lock, is a personal stockpile of medications, the only ones in the dispensary not recorded in the inventory register. Besides a few over-the-counter drugs for short-lived ailments and some totally ineffective ointments for flaking skin, there are three bottles of yellow-and-blue antianxiety capsules. The bottles are not labeled and one is just about empty. Egitto takes sixty milligrams of duloxetine in the evening before going to the mess hall, as he has for almost a year; it seemed to him that most of the unwanted side effects were worked off during sleep that way, starting with sleep itself, which hit him like a ton of bricks and rarely allowed him to stay up later than ten o’clock. When he first started taking the pills, he had experienced just about all the side effects mentioned in the explanatory leaflet for antidepressants, from acute headaches to loss of appetite, from intestinal bloating to intermittent nausea. The most bizarre of all was a severe numbness of the jaw, like when you yawn too wide. He’s past all that, however. Just as he’s past showing any trace of the shame he felt at the beginning, when he felt like a loser for taking the capsules, like a drug addict, the same shame that led him to slip the pills out of the blister packs and transfer them into unlabeled bottles. For some time now, Egitto has accepted his defeat. He’s discovered that hidden within him is a vast, soothing amiability.
The serotonergic drug performs to perfection the task for which it was created, which is to keep any kind of anxiety and emotional involvement at bay. The turbulent angst of the period following his father’s death—with all the psychosomatic reactions and dark, seductive thoughts that the leaflet generically described as “suicidal tendencies”—floats somewhere above it all, held in check the way a reservoir is by a retaining wall. The lieutenant is satisfied with his level of peacefulness. He wouldn’t trade that serenity for anything. Sometimes his mouth gets parched and he still hears a sudden, high-pitched whistling in his ear, followed by a roar that’s slow to fade. And there’s that other little drawback, of course: he hasn’t had a proper erection in months and the few times he did he wasn’t able to make the most of it, even on his own. But what does he care about sex at a military base in the middle of the desert, populated almost exclusively by male specimens?
He’s been in Afghanistan for 191 days and at Forward Operating Base Ice for almost four months; the FOB is at the northern entrance of the Gulistan Valley, not far from Helmand Province, where U.S. troops have been fighting every day to cleanse the villages of insurgents. The marines consider their work in Gulistan concluded, after building a scant ten-acre outpost in a strategic area and reclaiming several surrounding villages, including Qal’a-i-Kuhna, where the bazaar is. In truth, like all operations since the start of the conflict, the mop-up operation in the area has been incomplete: the security bubble extends for a radius of just a few miles around the base. Inside there are still insidious pockets of guerrillas and outside is hell.
After a period in which the FOB was occupied by the Georgians, the territory came under Italian command. In mid-May, a convoy of ninety vehicles left Herat, following the Ring Road south, as far as Farah, and from there cut east, vainly pursuing some Taliban caught off guard. Lieutenant Egitto had participated in the mission as head of—and sole component of—the medical unit.
The base they’d found was in appalling condition: a few huts full of cracks, some deep holes in the ground of dubious utility, garbage, coils of barbed wire and vehicle parts scattered everywhere; showers—nylon bags riddled with holes and hanging from a hook—lined up out in the open, without partitions. There was no sign of toilets. The only structure in decent condition was the armory, which said a lot about their predecessors’ order of priorities. Egitto’s regiment chose it to house the command center. During the first weeks, efforts had focused on providing the camp with a minimum of basic amenities and strengthening the defense of the main entrance by building a long, zigzagged row of fortifications.
Egitto concentrated on setting up the infirmary, in a tent not far from the command center. In one half he arranged a gurney and a table, with two cabinets full of drugs and a small field refrigerator to store the perishable ones. Separated by a tarp with a mottled camouflage pattern is his personal area. The waiting room is a bench outside, fashioned out of bent wire mesh.
Once the tent became, in his opinion, sufficiently presentable, his efforts definitely slowed down. Now that he might make a number of improvements—hang some anatomical prints on the walls, see to it that patients who are waiting might enjoy a little shade, unpack the last cartons, and consider a more appropriate place for his surgical instruments—he doesn’t feel like it. Instead, he wastes a lot of time reproaching himself. It doesn’t matter much; by now he’s about to go home. His six-month tour of duty is up and the rest of his brigade has abandoned the outpost. Some of them are already back in Italy, frantically enjoying their twenty-five days of leave and renewing intimate relationships, which at a distance had taken on the appearance of pure fantasy. The last to leave was Colonel Caracciolo, whose words, as he climbed into the helicopter and looked over the barren landscape, said it all: “Another shitty place I won’t miss.” Colonel Ballesio’s confident, well-rested division took over the place and it will be a good number of days before the base is operating normally. Just in time for the new rotation.
Seated at his desk, Egitto is dozing—undoubtedly the work he’s been best at for some time—when a soldier sticks his head into the infirmary.
Egitto jumps. “What is it?”
“The colonel informs you that the relief medic will arrive tomorrow. A helicopter will take you back to Herat.”
The young man is still half in and half out, his face indistinct in the shadows.
“Has Sergeant Anselmo recovered?”
“Sergeant Anselmo. He’s the one assigned to replace me.”
As far as he’d been told, the sergeant had the flu with respiratory complications; until a few days ago he’d been in the field hospital in Herat with his nose and mouth squeezed into a soft oxygen mask.
The soldier raises his hands, intimidated. “I don’t know, sir. They just told me to inform you that the relief medic will be here and that the helicopter—”
“Will take me to Herat. Right, I got it.”
“Exactly, sir. The day after tomorrow.”
The soldier lingers in the doorway.
“You’re going home.”
He disappears; the tent’s flap swings back and forth a few seconds, alternately exposing and obscuring the harsh light outside. Egitto leans his forehead on his folded arms and tries to go back to sleep. Before the week is over, if all goes as it should, he’ll be in Torino. Thinking about it, he experiences a sudden sense of suffocation.
His nap ruined, he decides to get up and go out. He walks along the east fence and across the fortified area of the corps of engineers, where the tents are placed so close together you have to hunch your shoulders to get through them. He climbs a ladder leaning against the fortification. The man stationed on guard duty salutes, then steps aside to make room for him.
“Are you the doc?”
“Yep, that’s me.”
Egitto puts a hand to his forehead to shade his eyes from the light.
“Want my binoculars?”
“No, that’s okay.”
What People are Saying About This
Selected praise for Paolo Giordano’s THE SOLITUDE OF PRIME NUMBERS:
“Mesmerizing . . . [Giordano] works with piercing subtlety. An exquisite rendering of what one might call feelings at the subatomic level.”
—The New York Times
“The story—the explanation, really—of how two people come to find solitude more comforting than companionship is the subtle work of Giordano’s haunting novel, a finely tuned machine powered by the perverse mechanics of need.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Seductive and unnerving.”
“The elegant and fiercely intelligent debut novel by 27-year-old physicist Paolo Giordano, The Solitude of Prime Numbers revolves around Mattia and Alice, friends since high school—‘twin primes, alone and lost, close but not close enough to really touch each other,’ wherein resides the seductive enchantment of this singular love story.”
“Giordano’s passionate evocation of being young and in despair will resonate strongly with readers.”
—Los Angeles Times