The Secret is to Tell All!

Part One: V

“Upim,” he said, brusquely showing that he knew my surname very well. “Upim, I expect my share . . . including the interest. When will you give it to me? Today is already too late, don’t you think so?”

His tone didn’t leave room for a reply. He wasn’t joking. He was sure of himself, perfectly at ease in his courteous threats, used to the terror with which he exercised the frightening power of a commander. He fixed his hard but almost patient glare on me, chewing on a filtered cigarette. His uniform was impeccable, regulation as always, worn by a man able to remain himself in honesty as well as in the most shameful illegality. I felt myself trembling; I cried with rage and, at the same time, I desperately struggled to try to save face. He enjoyed my difficulty and my discomfort. He scrutinized me while snickering and expecting a response, while I tried in vain to kill him with the force of my thoughts in the manner of the natives of Haiti. Nothing doing . . . this wouldn’t work for a native of Apulia!

“I have money set aside, sir,” I said. “When we have disembarked, I will find the means of paying you.”

“Are you sure of that?” he asked. “It is a good thing for you that you are sure of it, young man . . . because we don’t have much time together left.”

“Yes, I am sure of it, sir. The last . . . how shall I say? . . . the last supply hasn’t been paid for. I can find credit in Buenos Aires and this sum will be yours.”

The idea was a little idiotic, but I had to stall for time. Nevertheless, it displeased me to give in without a fight, without trying to get out of the situation without too much of a loss. All the effort and risk for the profit of this brute: I could not absorb the blow dealt by an evil and hostile destiny. This expert swine dismissed me by saying, “Don’t try to be clever. Respect your commitment, and remember that I hate being teased.”

When the unloading procedures and the police formalities were concluded, I flew by taxi to the neighborhood in Baires[1] called Boga, a kind of Spaccanapoli[2] where all the shadiest types in Argentina can be found. I did not have much difficulty catching up with my associates, and I announced to them that our business had come to an end and told them why. They had earned a lot due to me, and they became mad with anger, swearing and cursing my persecutor. I sought from them the best way of getting out of this trap, when a skinny guy with brown hair assured me that he would take care of it. He had a mustache like a Sicilian nobleman; he was picking his fingernails with switchblade; and every thirty seconds he readjusted his odd striped costume (a double-breasted jacket and pants that stopped above the ankles). “Don’t worry,” he told me, calling me “amigo,” giving me great whacks on the shoulders and laughing uproariously, which is typical of lucid madness.

Indeed, he took charge of the matter personally and in his own way. That very evening, the commander was assaulted leaving a restaurant. While two guys held him firmly, a third broke a leg and then an arm. And to leave no doubts or uncertainty about the meaning of the operation, the little brown-haired guy informed him that this was his payment, plus interest.

“If you want more, you bastard son of a whore, you have only to ask and you will be immediately served. . . . You cannot imagine the number of bones that a surgeon like me can break. . . . adios.” They put him into a taxi and had him transported to a good hospital, where the doctors prescribed him two months of care.

Either out of a desire for revenge or due to the help of some God (if there’s a God of bastards), that damned soul got back on his feet ahead of schedule, and he rejoined us by plane at Santos in Brazil, where the ship had gone in the meantime. As for me, completely unaware as always, I had effaced the event from my memory, and I only thought about spending time in pleasant company. I’d engaged in tourism and, stealing a car for the occasion, drove several kilometers to admire the immense statue of Christ that dominated the town, and sought out luxurious restaurants in which to dine by candlelight (one of my little manias). I became engaged to the daughter of a German merchant (an ex-Nazi? who knows?), and, between two marriage proposals, I isolated myself with her in a room with a balcony at a colonial-style hotel. I spent my last night in Brazil looking at the sea from the balcony, happy, without a care, without even having a suspicion of what would happen to me the next day. But such is exactly what characterizes misfortunes.

When I saw on deck the one whom I had too quickly forgotten, I managed to not appear too tense. “Long time no see,” I said with great cordiality, as if nothing had happened. Anger seemed to have momentarily blinded this man, who was little used to jokes made by other people or attitudes that weren’t respectful. Nevertheless, he regained control of himself, and this was the calm that, to me, presaged the storm ahead.

“Upim,” he murmured before withdrawing, “ask around about the dish that is best served cold. Perhaps you already know.”

It was clear that I was done for; I expected a punishment that I judged to be inescapable. With melancholy, I thought that I would probably never again see the people I knew in Santos and that they would await me in vain when the Kirta returned four months later. Since the ship was moving off, there was no hope of escape.

I was certain that I couldn’t find a way out, but I decided to fall with dignity, if only for the sake of authoring a well-acted tragedy. I didn’t have long to wait: hardly two hours later, I received an “urgent” summons. No question of apple brandy this time! Without further ado, the great hulking brute demanded “his” money and announced to me the restitution of what he ironically called the “payments received.”

“I have 1,437 dollars,” I said humbly. “I will immediately go get them.” Several ass-kissers had discreetly lined up and threatened to spoil the show. I heard a vague murmur when I returned with the pack of bills in full view.

“It didn’t enter my mind to not respect our agreement, sir,” I said. “As you can see, I have kept what I owe you. Even if it has no legal value, an agreement is an agreement: one must always respect it.”

As I finished speaking, he started laughing loudly, as if I were a coward. He wanted to reaffirm his authority as cruelly as possible.

“You have taken it into your head to be clever, you half-pint!” he said. “But I’m the one who has swindled you. My dear old Upim, now that you have settled your account, you are due interest, for which you won’t have to wait long: I swore it to myself in the hospital.”

The ass-kissers posted outside, looking through the open door, didn’t lose a minute. They showed their satisfaction and my humiliation was the compensation for their sloth.

“Asshole,” one of them said. “You will stop passing yourself off as a fox! Now you will pay a heavy price and learn respect for people who are bigger than you.”

In close proximity to their cowardly expressions, my last doubts melted away. It took but a moment. I pulled out of the sleeve of my coat a dark and strong stick that I’d hidden there, and began with lucidly reckless calm to beat the head and back of the commander, using all of my strength, becoming a furious, incontrollable animal, until I felt dozens of hands, feet and objects of all kinds fall on my body at the same time. Then everything went black and I no longer saw anything.

When I awoke, I felt an unpleasant sensation in my bones. But all attempts to touch the most painful places were useless because I was chained up. I found myself on the piece of sheet metal with holes in it known by the sad name “chain locker,” and I was destined to remain on it until we reached Dakar in Senegal. By a strange twist of fate, I, a white worker, traveled along the same route (only backwards) and in the same conditions as [African] slaves. The equatorial sun made the metal white-hot, and so I endured infernal pain all day. At night, it was fever that kept me company, causing nightmares and making my teeth chatter without respite. Perfected over the course of centuries, this torture involved giving me just enough food and water to keep me just barely alive. The man who was charged with feeding me had extinguished his sense of pity and, out of fear of the tyrant, didn’t dare exchange a single word with me. The perfect executant of a formula that proven itself effective, the commander decided to pass me off as wildly crazy and prepared me very well to play this role in his scenario. The solitude was so terrible that, after two days, I fell into an anguished half-sleep, from which I only awoke when they freed one of my hands to allow me to eat. That was my only connection with external reality. In the course of my hallucinations, I often recalled images from the film that takes place in antiquity: Barabbas, I believe.[3] I identified with the hero, who miraculously emerged safe and sound from the mines in which all his companions died. But, alas, this wasn’t a dream; I lost all sense of time and all irony failed me.

If I did not die, I believe it was out of spite or perhaps due to my instinct for self-preservation. I was certainly helped by the weakness that prevented me from thinking about the fate reserved for poor Salvatore Messana. The repugnant odor of bodily wastes, deposited all around my human shell since the departure of the ship, became stronger and stronger. What was also not very pleasant was the permanent contact of my skin with the steel, which produced large blisters at several places. I also knew that, in the not unlikely event of collapse, I would have been unceremoniously thrown to the sharks and no one would ever have known anything about me.

According to the reconstruction that I subsequently made, my ordeal lasted – it seems – seventeen days and sixteen nights. When the ship was within sight of the African port, they signaled, using a special flag,[4] the presence onboard of a dangerous lunatic, with the implicit request for immediate medical assistance and emergency hospitalization. As for me, I managed to understand that we had arrived at our destination (without knowing what awaited me) due to the noise of the anchor being lowered, which resonated atrociously in my chain locker. This was agony within an agony: a long series of interminable moments between one sound and the next. Nevertheless, I could not manage to organize or distinguish anything in my mind. The fear of becoming incurably mentally ill seized hold of me and, even today, I would be lying if I said that I completely survived that upsetting test.

When they took me out of that overheated half-light, my eyes burned because of the direct light that I had been deprived of for so long. If my memory is good (and the tour guide did not lie), someone died in similar circumstances when being taken out of a prison in the Loire Valley, where, many years later, I once took a certain Marinella, an outdated student and a militant in Lotta Continua.[5] I came out better: by making an immense effort, I succeeded in glimpsing three black giants with shaved heads and white shirts approaching me. They grabbed me brutally, but all the same they appeared to me as liberators from a distant galaxy: their arrival coincided with the end of my nightmare. After a sad, appropriate smile (I do not know if it was appreciated or not), I lost consciousness and then awoke, tied to a bed in the Dakar psychiatric hospital. The Kirta departed shortly thereafter, without me aboard, and I had no news about it until my return to Europe.

[1] Short for Buenos Aires.

[2] The name of both a poor neighborhood in Naples and the street that splits that city in half (in Italian, spacca means “split”).

[3] Directed by Richard Fleischer and released in 1961, Barabbas was filmed in Rome.

[4] The Wiskey flag, part of the International Code of Signals.

[5] A Maoist ultra-left group, active in Italy between 1969 and 1976.

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