17. Witnessing History
In the early seventies, poetry was my favorite place of soul lament.
I came across books of Eugenio Montale : I don’t know what triggered me to write that man a poem, and even send it to him. His poetry was simple but hermetic. His poems had many meanings and were hard to understand, as if he himself was writing in a foreign language. And in some way he was. Hermetic poetry written under the reign of Mussolini was self censored, in order for poets to stay alive. The political and other meanings were under a layer of synonyms, allusions, sounds. That elaborate, elegant style was developed thanks to the fact that the poets needed to hide something.
Montale was the maestro. His needy simplicity spoke to my lonely heart. I remember sitting in my blue velvet bed, which I still have, and writing a poem just for him. To the White Man, it was called. It started with this line: “Somewhere in this big soulless city lives a white man.”
I knew he lived in Milan and I knew he was white haired. I sort of knew his face, but it was wrapped in the white fog of my dreams.
I decided to send him the poem by letter, and I did. I felt deeply ashamed for doing it. I still feel that way but deep down inside, I was hoping he would answer me. Why on earth? Because he would recognize my loneliness and respond to it.
He didn’t. I stopped waiting after a couple of weeks and completely forgot the episode. I was happy that this white guy lived in my Milanese neighborhood with his small wife, whom he called The Fly. I was deeply honored to breathe the same polluted air.
Then I got a job as an interviewer, doing poll research in Milan. One day, when I randomly searched a street to interview my local citizens, Montale opened his door. I recognized him immediately. I could not believe my luck. I told him, trembling, that I came to interview him as a member of his neighborhood community.
Montale politely let me in, sat me at the table and with extreme patience answered all my questions. His wife was not around. I later learned about her death; I later learned that Montale had won the Nobel Prize. My own prize was meeting him.
Later, I married a poet myself. Then I lived exactly like that Fly, the wife of the poet Montale: silent, invisible, capturing the invisible poetry in the air. The poetry almost suffocated me, though it had no taste or smell. Poets really do not exist. Just poetry: words words and words.
Where did it come from, my eagerness to learn of the death of the famous? Perhaps from the fact that they publicly inhabited their lives of fame. They were protagonists of their own lives, not a distant, invisible woman, leading her life without herself.
Alberto Moravia liked young girls. Moravia, the famous
white headed writer with a cane, survived paralysis as a young boy. Out of boredom, he became a bestselling writer. He married and divorced brilliant women — writers who were also beautiful.
In Rome in the 1970s, it was obvious and socially accepted that men in power should have young intelligent pretty girlfriends whom they paid in goods and privileges: they took them to fancy public places where they could boast about them. The girlfriends met other influential people who might help out them out in their schemes and careers… whatever they might want to become…
One evening, Moravia came to the house where I was staying, bringing along Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the Russian poet. Yevtushenko was drunk, and very high strung on poetry and power.
Yevtushenko, being Russian, struck me as somebody who comes from ”my” part of the world. I knew the rumors that he was a spy, since the Soviets allowed him to travel abroad. But that was beyond me, what mattered to me was this “Slavic” kitsch behavior: poetry and alcohol.
Westerners commonly confused Yugoslavia with the USSR. Once I went to yet another Roman party where everybody was famous. Who are you? somebody asked me. They expected a young woman like me to be a mistress, a wife, a model, an actress…
- I am a cosmonaut from Serbia, I declared.
- Ohoho… and the rumor spread instantly.
Liliana Cavani, the film director of “Night Porter” came over to me and said:
- I just heard that you are a cosmonaut!
Sure! I faked it all night, shamelessly. Nobody knew or cared that Serbia was not Russia, and Yugoslavia not the USSR.
Unlike Yevtushenko, Moravia never got publicly drunk, commonplace, and infantile. Moravia drank in moderation, and was, as usual, rational, self-controlled and centered on sex and money… He spoke of a beautiful girl he had just met, who was my cousin… he needed somebody to go with him to the cinema to help him understand the films. Moravia was somewhat deaf and had trouble following film plots. Yet he had a very well read movie-review column in a prominent weekly.
Because he was Moravia, he derived all sorts of practical benefits from these girls he escorted to film premieres.
Did the Roman girls mind that? No way: not one of them. My cousin turned Moravia down, saying, he was old and boring, and she had better offers in her life. He didn’t mind that at all. He seemed to admire her even more because he did feel old and boring, a dirty old man harassing young Roman women, sounding them out, listening to their explanations of movies, writing about them, and exploiting them. My mother, insensitive to literature, would have condemned him.
I took my young cousin by hand and confided: let’s leave all these pretentious fakes and return to real life — or, at least, a fantasy utopia of our own. She stared back at me in disbelief: what could possibly better and more real than Rome?! We were living in Rome, close to famous writers, wannabe writers, girls boys fans celebrities, corrupted politicians, Red Brigades, political martyrs, rebellious underground directors, activists and feminists, conceptual artists and their generous sponsors… in an eternal city, where the Pope reigned, but where all was permitted as long as you never became more papal than the pope!
She dropped out of my hands, and out of my life, in disgust and despair at my stupid innocence. She was disappointed with me as her older cousin who had brought her to Rome. She uttered with contempt her diagnosis:
- You still believe in books…
I do believe, ever since. Sometimes books change your life. Books often write your life. Not vice versa.
The stink of the streets of Rome, the sound of the rats in the basements of beautiful ancient houses, rats trapped in vases full of other people’s knowledge, trapped rats asking for help from the vases they were lured into… The words of fake prophets and true artists, or vice versa… The power of single mothers and flower power children in occupied governmental buildings…the pain of the slow motion towards cul de sac. It lasted ten years. We lived through utopia, but we also outlived it.
One night, 2nd November 1975, I as sleeping in the living room of Laura Betti, on her small uncomfortable sofa, happy as a clam. I was so happy; happy to live there as a nurse guardian to this hysterical 42 year old cabaret singer, this theatre actress, who also played in films of her friends and lovers, the most famous Italian directors in the seventies, such as Pasolini, Bertolucci, Bellocchio… Happy to be in Rome, happy to be Jasmina in Laura’ s small veranda dive, overlooking the roofs of dirty huge hospitable Pope’ s town. Happy to know Pier Paolo Pasolini, the heretic poet who was more Catholic than Pope.
“That certain kind of tenderness”, was the title of a poem I loved so much, written by that sweet, muscular but delicate man with his tiny intelligent voice, and such cruel thoughts and films, cruel as only life can be.
I was bewitched by Pasolini’s words and deeds.
- How on earth did she get her hands on you? Pasolini commented when he saw me silently enduring Laura’s diva tantrums. I was denying Laura food: her own food from her own fridge, which I locked to so as to keep her on her diet.
Laura had to have a role to perform, she needed the money, she needed joy… She needed somebody to love her, look after her… but all she could give herself was junk food, diet pills and hysterical relationships with people who didn’t understand her.
- You are two outcasts, Pasolini observed, — outcasts from the rich who fell into poverty, outcasts from the privileged who want to be children of nobody… Citizens of no country, vases of somebody else’s knowledge.
That night, November 2. 1975, Laura’s phone rang next to my improvised pillow on the couch. I picked up the receiver, and heard about the murder of Pier Paolo Pasolini. I don’t even remember who was on the phone, or how they had learned about it. I do remember that I had the terrible duty to break this news somehow to Laura. Laura was his Pasolini’ s best friend and muse, or his “wife,” as she used to call herself… This actress, a singular man-hater and man-eater, was in love with her director, the gay damned poet.
I went to Laura’s room, and I just did it. She started screaming. She fell on the floor, she rolled and screamed and pulled her hair, her hands were full of her dyed lanky thin hair.
I managed to pull Laura out from beneath her cowboy-saloon double-doors… she had chained them shut in order not to creep into the kitchen and eat compulsively.
I washed her face, I dressed her. We phoned Pasolini’s other friends: Dario Bellezza, the gay poet, Pasolini’ s disciple, and other people… His cousin told his mother.
The morning of November 2, 1975, in the Roman wasteland of Ostia, in an abandoned field in the street of Idroscalo, a woman, Maria Teresa Lollobrigida, discovered the body of Pasolini. Ninetto Davoli, the actor from Canterbury Tales, identified the corpse.
A death in the house, a death on the front pages, sudden, awful, traumatic. Pasolini had been bizarrely murdered, clumsily and brutally crushed by his own car. The police report made terrible reading:
“When his body was found, Pasolini was lying with his face towards the ground, one arm in blood away from his body and the other underneath it.
“Hair mingled with blood was falling on his forehead, scratched and cut. The face deformed swollen was black with bruises and wounds. Black bruised and blood red also his arms, hands. The fingers of his left hand broken and cut off. Left side of the jaw broken. Nose pressed and deviated to the right. The ears cut in two, the left one torn apart. Wounds on the shoulders, on the chest, on the crotch with signs of tires of his own car which ran over him. A horrible cut between the neck and the back of the head. Ten ribs broken, broken the chest bone, the liver pierced in two points. The heart exploded.” ( From the police report).
His seventeen year old murderer pleaded guilty. Nobody among us believed him. We refused to treat this dissident poet’s murder as some cheap client/prostitute mugging.
His murderer received a short sentence, being underage.
Thirty years later, in a live talk show he admitted that he was blackmailed, and threatened to lure and lie…
While I am watching Pino Pelosi’s struggle with the cameras and his tight shoes, while I am listening to him repeating:
- I was a kid, I knew nothing back then, they killed him, he was screaming, I was afraid, they were bad…it was dark…
Tears came to my eyes…
Out of some tenderness; if only Pasolini could see him, he would have hugged him. Then laughter bursts through my tears; what kind of murderer is this one, who is afraid to admit he is not guilty?
He died as he lived, claimed Pasolini ‘s enemies. He died as he filmed deaths in his movies.
Laura Betti died 30 years later, in 2004. I never saw her again ever since I left Rome, she died with a broken heart.
Dario Bellezza, his close friend, a poet, died of AIDS. Ninetto Davoli, I heard recently on the phone during a public conference honoring Pasolini’s genius. He could not remember me, and I could not explain myself because of the emotions.
Pasolini became the cult personality among writers, filmmakers, cultists of all sorts. The latest I heard was that he foresaw his own death… As if I was not there, I attended this conference of literati and gays, thirty years after.
Nobody recognized me, except for a few people, who didn’t say a word to me. Surrounded by this silence, a wall of fear and respect, I finally became a vase filled with somebody else’s knowledge.
He predicted my life.