Sergente Romano: on reclaiming the South (not as History of a Fatherland, but as song of belonging to the Motherland)

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Originally published in Italian on Crapula and part of the thematic stream Figli di Annibale.

Sergente Romano is the title of Marco Cardetta’s literary debut (in Italian). More than just a story, this work affords a mystical and moving journey: one that would benefit both anyone who is curious about the possibilities of the Southern Italian ‘meridionalista‘ movement, as well as readers who are in search of an original meditation on history – as collective and polysemic experience, prior to the fixation of an accepted storyline as History.

The narration of brigandism in History (with capital ‘H’)

One of the liveliest strands in the present-day revival of the meridionalista cause focuses on redeeming the memory of post-unification brigandism in Southern Italy. The Italian school curriculum is guilty of instilling a one-sided conviction that Italian unification was the triumphal ingress of a peninsula floating in the Mediterranean in the Secular History of Nations. In opposition to this narration are numerous Counter-histories, which tend to bring to the surface the character of brigandism as a veritable civil war against the Piedmontese colonial occupant.

At the same time, some of these Counter-histories can themselves be selective (as any history ultimately is) when deployed for present consumption. Where, for instance, the unification process is denounced on grounds of it having involved the invasion of a sovereign state – the Kingdom of Two Sicilies – by the Kingdom of Sardinia, the bone of contention (i.e. the violation of state sovereignty) still falls in the camp of what has been dubbed above as the Secular History of Nations. Doing so confines the meridionalista movement to a nationalist demand, which I find wanting. That’s not because I a priori refuse to sympathise for national causes (take the Scottish independence referendum, which I admired as a form of resistance to the Tories’ neoliberal project), but because I have always done so with a tinge of anger. When the meridionalista movement speaks using a nationalist grammar, it sounds angry in exclamations such as ‘separiamoci!‘ (let’s break up! – the title of a popular book by Marco Esposito) or ‘carnefici‘ (butchers – the title of Pino Aprile’s recent indictment of unification as a veritable massacre of Southerners). And that anger I find difficult to reconcile internally, i.e. to bring peace between that part of myself that was born in the North of Italy, that has grown into a Northerner of sorts by virtue of living there, and the roots that beckon me to the South. If being a meridionalista forces a choice between one or the other, this amounts to a fence that tears apart the experience of a migrant métis like myself .

The collective narration of an enraged massacre

Sergente Romano brings some degree of peace to this very disquiet. This is thanks to Cardetta’s exquisite experimentation with a style of narration that both conveys the tragic character of those historical events, while still disclosing their recalcitrant nature to being slotted into a polished narrative, in support of a ‘national cause’. In a daring and unusual imaginative effort, Cardetta relates the insurrection that took place in Gioia del Colle (in the Apulia region) on July 28, 1861. His is a raw, unfiltered account of the runup to the insurrection, in the footsteps of the protagonist – Sgt Pasquale Domenico Romano – whom Cardetta follows all the way into the Tarantino-esque fury of the angry and confused butchery of July 28.

Cardetta’s unique voice refrains from molding his narrative material into a shape that conveys a perhaps heroic sense of revolt. Rather, it’s as though the search for a climax was always left hanging, shattering the hope that the jumble of plots, vendettas, mishaps, petty betrayals, enthusiasms and nostalgias could ever find composition in a unitary – or exemplary – storyline: it bubbles instead into a bloody and poisonous soup.

Consider the following: plots of insurrection schemed in the presence of hanging provolone cheeses, proposed attacks and ambushes that subside at the thought of a hot meal in a farmhouse, patriotic speeches that never quite utter their first word, or lavished by mouths that are easily corrupted (like that of the cowardly Father Tinella, who extols the Values of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies as reflected in its National Flag – a speech followed by a very unflattering portrait of him sliding his tongue between the thighs of a burnt chicken, hollowing his idealism in the lowly devotion to an erotically tantalising meal).

The restoration of a ‘legitimate sovereign’, in other words, is reduced – in the economy of Cardetta’s narration – to a mere footnote in a tapestry of petty dislikes and mundane concerns: there are those who change faction to avenge the taking of wood rights, and those who join the insurgents to settle a wrongdoing they have suffered, be it a denied credit or a report to the authorities. This list is completed by the awkward presence of someone, like ‘brigand’ Trimonciello, who is enrolled by the insurgents as he is in fact hiding from conscription in the National Guard, but doesn’t quite manage to make it out before events swallow him up.

That History (with capital ‘H’) that conjures a narration of Unification-as-liberation, or its polar opposite Unification-as colonisation, requires a linear plot to support a national-identitarian reading. In Cardetta’s book, instead, that plot breaks out into a meandering telling. It conjures a history that is polysemic, foggy, interrupted (and with small ‘h’!), which appears to have swallowed up its participants, by virtue of their being unprepared to face up to its events (how can one not liken this episode to that other dark page of history – post-armistice Italy in WWII – where the heroism of partisan resistance has crowded out other stories: including those of silent desertion from fascist conscription, or fascist militacy that included not just ideological recruits, but also youths who had hesitated too long to take to the woods).

Cardetta ushers readers right at the centre of the battle for Gioia, where all sorts of things happen: from the insurgents’ vendettas undertaken with impunity and cold-blooded resolve, to offers of switching camps made by National Guards (who were just other Gioia townsfolk!) caught in a cul-de-sac – both topographically and historically, all the way down to the rounding-up of brigands in retreat by the unitarian army. If there is one thing missing from this storyline, it is heroism. Any such aspiration is dramatically shattered on the gravestones of the dead, whose names are listed in Latin at the end of the respective chapters, as though being read from a Church register. When going over those names, it is practically impossible to tell apart ‘christians’ (‘christian’ is a common expression for ‘person’ in many dialects of Southern Italy) of either faction. What strikes one, instead, are the lineages, ages and birthplaces that compose a painful question mark against the ideals out of which History is concocted. What those names disclose, in fact, is no benevolent or progressive confrontation, but only this: a town that ate itself alive and from within, with Gioa townsfolk killing their neighbors, gripped by the blind fury that alone pushes brothers to stab one another.

This sentiment is strengthened through the particular stylistic form by which those events are conveyed. Indeed, the narration reads very little as a ‘plot’ – if one associates with this word a certain sense of continuity and progression – since it moves in fits, wading through an Italian that has been chewed by dialect and cut up by the living rhythm of the spoken word. In other words, Cardetta’s story feels like one being traded orally from one generation of Gioia folk to another – and, perhaps, Cardetta (Marco) who narrates might be putting down in writing what he may have heard from Cardetta (Marco Vito), whom he mentions in the acknowledgments, who might have handed down to him the memories of that Cardetta (Vito Leonardo) that makes a brief cameo appearance as one of Sgt Romano’s men …

The sense of an oral tradition surfaces again in the naming of characters by first name and family name – as though to compose a local genealogy – which is again typical of oral cultures where stories are the spoken word’s equivalent of an archive of collective memory and history, tracing songlines (to quote Bruce Chatwin) that mark and distinguish this land, in the eyes of its dwellers.

Reconciliation … from hearing the song of the Motherland?

All in all, Sergente Romano introduces a novel possibility on the horizon of the meridionalsta mobilisation, namely to let ourselves be moved not merely by a History of heroes, but also by the tragic story of those who died without redemption – in Gioia del Colle – on that dreaded July 28, 1861. If one is touched by this invitation, as a result of reading Cardetta’s book, it is not possible to put it down without the hope that differences (which are made out of the stuff of History or – as anthropologist Franco La Cecla would perhaps have it – of misunderstandings, you figure out the difference) do not translate into new walls, but rather form joints to bind worlds together, and act as thresholds to be consciously crossed for healing those wounds, in the name of which we have killed one another then, playing a game of Guards and brigands.

It may seem that Cardetta merely plants this hope in readers’ hearts and minds, so as to let it mature and yield fruit in their hearts. Yet, I think he gives away a hint as to how it may have played out for him: at a point in the narration where the fratricidal lament rising from Gioia del Colle perhaps starts to morph into a chant of joy – right where it seems that Romano’s adventure is finally over as he is pursued by Guards at the end of the insurrection. At that moment, Romano – the man – appears shorn of his military bearings as Sergeant, defender of the land of the fathers. Rather, in that darkest hour he attains the humility that frees a profound desire for reconciliation that sits at the bottom of his soul, and by which he once again manages to see himself as a son-dweller of the Mother-Earth:

Our Lady of Carmel, help me, o queen amongst women: do not forget your son, this humble son, that was ever devoted to you. I lit votive candles for you and was always observant of christian duties. And I swear I shall return this grace, that I shall save the life of another christian, should he even be a heinous liberal, should he even be Vittorio Emanuele [the Savoy king]: when you will gesture to me and he should appear to have repented, as I repent now. Whomsoever shall invoke your name as I invoke it now, that man shall be as my brother. Our Lady of Carmel, help me. Our Lady of Carmel, help me. Our Lady of Carmel. Help me.