from 54

ITALIAN SOLDIERS!

The Communist Party of Slovenia appeals to you:

Do not carry out your superiors' orders, do not fire on the Slovenians, do not persecute the partisans, but surrender to them, do not stand in the way of our liberation struggle!

Attack and disarm the fascist militia, the agents of OVRA and all those who are forcing you to fight against the Slovenian people.

Destroy the Italian armed forces, the stores of weapons and food, unless you can give them to the partisans, destroy the means of transport of the Italian army, lorries, motorcycles, horses, streets, railways, etc.!

Refuse to be posted to the Russian front, to die for the lunatic Hitler and his satellites! Demand to return to your homeland!

Desert the Italian army, our people will be glad to help you! Consign your weapons and ammunition to the partisans and the Popular Defense.

Join the Slovenian partisan units and, gun in hand, help them to bring to an early conclusion the absurd butchery of war, so that you may very soon return to your homes, to your poor abandoned mothers, wives and children, and establish a true sovereignty of the people in your own homeland.

LONG LIVE THE COMMON STRUGGLE OF ALL PEOPLES AGAINST THE FASCIST BARBARISM!

LONG LIVE THE USSR AND ITS INVINCIBLE RED ARMY, THE MOST POWERFUL DEFENDER OF FREEDOM AND PROGRESS!

LONG LIVE STALIN, THE HEAD OF THE PEOPLES AND WORKERS IN ALL COUNTRIES!

LONG LIVE THE COMMUNIST PARTY OF YUGOSLAVIA!

DEATH TO FASCISM - FREEDOM TO THE PEOPLE!

Central Committee of the Communist Party of Slovenia

*

Someone had written SMRT FAŠISMU in red paint on the peeling wall.

The men had been lined up in front of it.

Their faces were blank. Closed, absent. Like the windows of the village.

The captain yelled orders at the unit. The Italian soldiers assumed position, rifles shouldered. Almost all of them reservists. The officer was the youngest, with a well-trimmed mustache and a gray garrison cap tilted on his forehead.

The condemned men raised their eyes to look their butchers in the face. To be certain that they were men like themselves. They were used to death, even their own, they had grown accustomed to it over thousands of generations.

On the other side eyes lowered, reflected sensations.

The two rows of men faced one another, motionless, like statues abandoned in a field.

One of the condemned men rubbed a foot against his leg, a movement at once automatic and grotesque.

The captain turned to face the houses and called the interpreter over.

"The inhabitants of this village have given refuge to Communist rebels. The same ones who cold-bloodedly murdered two Italian soldiers last night."

The interpreter translated.

"You have been warned! Anyone who offers refuge to bandits, anyone who offers them protection and lodging, is guilty of collaboration and will pay with his life!"

The officer let the interpreter translate once more.

"Today, ten inhabitants of this village will face a firing squad. Let this serve as an example to anyone who seeks to help the bandits infesting these mountains!"

When the interpreter had finished, the captain stood where he was, his leather boots planted firmly in the mud, as though he expected a reply from the cluster of silent houses.

Not a sign of life. Even the air was still.

He yelled, "Company! Shoulder arms!"

An awkward movement ran through the row of soldiers, as though only some of them had received the order and the others had joined in afterward. A rifle slipped out of someone's hand.

"That's an order, for Christ's sake! An order!"

At that moment three soldiers exchanged a nod of intent and swung the barrels of their guns around. One toward the captain's head, the other two at his fellow officers.

"Stop it, all of you! No one's going to be shot here."

The captain blanched. "Capponi, what the bloody hell do you think you're doing? Farina! Piras! I'll have you court-martialed!"

The other soldiers looked on in astonishment. Shrugs, unease.

"Captain, drop your gun."

"This is desertion, you're crazy!"

"Drop the gun or Farina will shoot you."

The officer didn't move, the weapon was pointed at his temple, his teeth were clenched with rage. His thoughts raced, paralyzing his brain.

"Captain, if you drop the gun we'll let you go."

He hissed, "Capponi, I always knew you were a fucking Communist. And what do you think you're doing? Eh? And the rest of you, what the fuck are you doing standing there like idiots? Do you want to get shot too?"

No one replied. Eyes met, but just for a second. No clues about what to do. They knew only that if they disarmed their comrades they would have to shoot them along with the others.

The line broke up, they went and stood, unsure what was going to happen.

The men against the wall stared wide-eyed at the scene.

"Chuck the gun."

The officer's jaw was locked so firmly that he couldn't say a word. He took the weapon from its holster and let it fall to the ground.

Capponi picked it up and slipped it into his belt.

"You can go," he said, turning back to the condemned men. "And so can you."

He waved a hand and, incredulously, one after the other, they ran for the mountains.

"Listen carefully, all of you. Anyone who wants to come with us, Farina, Piras, and I are heading off to find the rebels. You do what you want, but as the captain said, if our men catch you, they might well shoot you, because you stood and watched. And you did the right thing, because killing people like these is a job for pigs."

The three men picked up their rucksacks and put them over their shoulders.

"Oh, one moment, Romagna, you got us into this situation, you've got to get us out of it."

"No, Roman. It was Cavalier Benito Mussolini who got us into this situation. Now it's up to each of us to make our own decisions."

"And what about us, where are we supposed to go?"

Farina passed them with a box of ammunition he has removed from the truck on which they arrived. "You come into the hills with us."

"Where the bandits are? But they'll shoot us!"

Capponi shook his head. "Don't you worry, they won't shoot us. You follow me."

"Yeah, don't worry," he said. He headed toward the truck, cursing.

"What are you doing? Are you going with them?" asked one of the others.

The Roman shrugged. "What am I going to do here?" He pointed to the captain. "I don't trust him one bit. Whatever happens he'll bang us in the slammer. And he's just as capable of having us lined up and shot. Never liked him anyway."

He picked up his rucksack again. "If my wife could see me now . . . Fuck the lot of you, your father and your . . ." As he turned around he caught a sudden movement, the captain taking something out of the interpreter's belt.

"Oy!!!"

Vittorio Capponi fired first, and the captain fell flat, his skull shattered. A dark object rolled at his side.

"It's a hand grenade!"

They all threw themselves on the ground, hands over their heads, holding their breath.

Nothing happened.

After a while someone opened his eyes again.

Then he stretched his neck.

Finally he risked going over to it.

They were all frozen, looking at the spot where the officer's body lay, and which could have sucked their lives away.

Someone thanked the Madonna del Carmine for making the Duce's weapons such crap.

Someone else spat.

The interpreter sat where he was with his hands up. "Don't shoot, 'talians! Don't shoot, me innocent!" But no one paid him any attention.

Farina nodded to Capponi to move. "Come on, Romagna, let's get going."

The three of them set off up the path at a fair old pace, with the Sardinian in front as a scout.

The Roman, unconvinced, followed them, stumbling and turning around several times to look at the corpse, almost as though he expected to see it getting back up. The others said nothing. Dejected gestures. Finally, one at a time, they picked up their rucksacks and set off in Indian file behind the others.

From 54 by Wu Ming (Torino: Einaudi, 2002; London: William Heinemann, 2005). Partial or total reproduction of the content of this book in electronic form or otherwise is consented to for non-commercial purposes, provided that the original copyright notice and this notice are included and the publisher and source are clearly acknowledged. © 2002 Giulio Einaudi editore s. p. a., Torino. By arrangement with the publishers.