The Catholic School

Edoardo Albinati

With a Note From Jonathan Galassi

The Catholic School is one of the foundational works of the literature of the twenty-first century. It is a great book by a great writer. It is also a major sociological and theological meditation, which raises questions that we hope won’t be forgotten.”
—Natale Benazzi

A Note from the Publisher

Edoardo Albinati’s The Catholic School is one of the most arresting and haunting works of European literature to have appeared in the twenty-first century. Widely acclaimed when it was first published in 2016 and the winner of Italy’s most prestigious literary award, the Strega Prize, Albinati’s hypnotic memoir/novel brings alive the conflicts and contradictions inherent in contemporary Italian society and explores the violence, fear, and love of death that exist at its core. In its courage, clear-sightedness, and narrative power, Albinati’s book bears comparison with Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, the Neapolitan novels of Elena Ferrante, and the Outline Trilogy of Rachel Cusk—works that challenge the conventions of traditional fiction and open new avenues of cultural and psychological exploration that are altering the way we experience and understand the world. Albinati himself has written:

The Catholic School is based on events that actually happened, events to which in part I was a direct eyewitness. Working from those actual events, I’ve intertwined episodes and characters with varying percentages of fiction; I freely interbred memory and imagination. In reporting on the crimes in question, I made use of police reports, transcripts of depositions, wiretaps, interviews, and legal verdicts concerning the protagonists, cutting and stitching where I thought necessary. This book makes no claim to accurate historical reconstruction or to proposing an alternative version of events . . . The contents of human life and human lives is what literature shapes for its own specific purposes, and it tends not to be over-tender in its treatment.

The contents of human life and human lives is what literature shapes for its own specific purposes, and it tends not to be over-tender in its treatment.

The school of Albinati’s title is the Istituto San Leone Magno, named after the great fifth-century pope who turned Attila the Hun away from Rome. SLM, as Albinati calls it, is an elite private institution run by the Marist Brothers that is located in the comfortable, leafy Quartiere Trieste, or QT, a neighborhood that is home to Rome’s upper middle-class establishment. Albinati, who grew up in the QT, is himself an alumnus of SLM, and his book carefully recounts his own family story as a representative part of his investigation. By extension, though, “the Catholic school” stands for an entire system of education (or, one might say, miseducation) that has traditionally prepared its students to play a part in the long-standing compromised moral order of postwar Italian society.

Among the other graduates of SLM were three young neo-Fascists, Andrea Ghira, Angelo Izzo, and Gianni Guido, likewise children of privileged QT families, who committed one of the most infamous crimes of the seventies, during the notorious anni di piombo, or years of lead, when Italy was torn apart by left- and right-wing political violence. On the surface, the Circeo massacre had no political significance. It was perpetrated on September 29–30, 1975, at the Ghira family villa in a seaside resort on the Circeo Peninsula, sixty miles south of Rome. The three men charged were eventually sentenced to life in prison for raping and torturing two teenage girls, Rosaria Lopez and Donatella Santi. Lopez was killed and Santi only escaped by pretending to be dead.

These two subjects—the crime the killers committed and the institution that produced them—are the poles around which Albinati’s mesmerizing, meandering auto-fictional narrative, part memoir, part history, part philosophical meditation, oscillates.

As Albinati’s fellow novelist Francesco Pacifico has written, The Catholic School, which is delivered in “today’s most distinguished Italian narrative style, is a moving, though far from melancholy epitaph for the Roman bourgeoisie . . . Albinati’s language is a new Italian grammar; it’s always clear, but with no need to glitter . . . There are three ways to read it: all at once; as an encyclopedia (i.e., delving into it here and there); or dividing it into four different books.”

The first book, about the school of San Leone Magno, is “a study in the contradictions between privilege and evangelical poverty—educating the ruling class while trying to stay removed from an era in which the boundaries of the known and the licit” are being constantly tested.

The second is a story of “young fascists and virginity, of tormented intellectual friendships and the mystery of woman. In the seventies, boys and girls still grew up separately; women were the source of sexual initiation, but unfamiliar and inimical.”

Albinati’s profound explorations of male sexuality and rape culture, of ingrained masculinist attitudes and their political dimensions and the enduring Italian attraction to fascism, are brilliant and disturbing.

The third book is about the Circeo massacre, which took place in an election year, when a Communist victory seemed possible. The three SLM alumni bring two lower-class virgins to a villa by the sea, rape them, and leave them in the trunk of a car—one dead, the other still alive. For Albinati, writes Pacifico, the crime of the Circeo is a natural outgrowth of the culture in which its perpetrators were raised; it “belongs to the Quartiere Trieste the way Nazism belongs to Germany.”

The fourth book, finally, “is the book of the bourgeoisie. Here are pages on the quiet life, walks before dinner, the fear of disorder . . . where the families of state employees live, rich “in a sober and mysterious way,” and children, like Albinati himself, abandon their parents’ material success to become artists.

Pacifico compares The Catholic School to Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, to the philosophizing parts of War and Peace, and calls it “a book that’s neither traditional nor experimental. It moves forward, ticking like time . . . thrilling us here, boring us there, like a natural thing.” It’s no surprise that it took the author more than a decade “to record the life and times of the bourgeoisie before it died.”

Natale Benazzi, in his introduction to the Italian paperback edition, points out that “great narratives are always labyrinths,” and Albinati himself knows this perfectly. As Benazzi puts it:

Every novel always is the narration of an unhappiness. Even when the author joyfully lays claim to the fullness, the exuberance, of life, or proclaims its aridity, invariably and in every case he is narrating his unhappiness about something that went away after being there, or else something he waited for in vain, or that passed close by, very close, even too close . . . but he didn’t move fast enough to seize it. I, for example—I partly remember the time in which this story unfolds, I partly studied it or heard other people talk about it, I dream of it a great deal, to an even greater extent, I invent it depending on what the story requires: it’s a snake in the grass that you glimpse for a fleeting instant, and there is more of a sensation of having seen it, relived it in a shiver that runs down my spine, than a clear sighting of it before my eyes.

“In this labyrinth or mosaic,” Benazzi writes,

every image has its own precise reason and the reader will choose what convinces him best, as he becomes fascinated by the book and the question . . . around which everything revolves: How is it possible that Catholic education and bourgeois morality (religiously, socially, and economically the high points of Western consciousness in the last centuries) could lead, not to the brutal idiocy of the crime, but to a social awareness so focused on itself that it fails to comprehend the consequences of its own morality?

The Catholic School, Benazzi notes, is

a literary text of great value . . . moral without ever being moralistic. The author writes about sex, about men and women, about ersatz masculinity and dreamed-of femininity; about power and submission; about ignorance; about the roots of bullying; money; the propensity for crime; the distance between rich and poor and the resemblance between the two; about the universal schizophrenia in which everyone is both Cain and Abel at the same time and the evil in us tends to destroy the good. Before the violent insanity of attacking someone else there comes self-murder. Only when evil is allowed to prevail within us does everything become possible, plausible, realizable. When we’ve murdered the Abel inside ourselves, who can stop us from killing him “outside,” too?

Then there is the theme of forgiveness and memory, of the possibility of forgetting the evil that has been done to us, and, on the other hand, the need to remember . . .

Like all the greatest books, The Catholic School ends up being about everything.

• • •

Like all the greatest books, The Catholic School ends up being about everything.

—Jonathan Galassi
President, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

An Excerpt from The Catholic School by Edoardo Albinati

Around eleven at night on September 30, 1975, from the window of his apartment, a resident of Viale Pola, 5 (two hundred yards from where I live), notices two young men parking a Fiat 127 in the apartment building driveway; then they get out of the car, discuss something animatedly, and leave.

Later, in the middle of the night, he is awakened by his mother, who tells him that she heard noises downstairs; he goes again to the window and looks down into the street. He notices that the trunk of that Fiat 127 is shaking, as if being pounded by someone locked inside. First he calls the Carabinieri, then he goes down into the street and walks over to the vehicle.

He calls out, asking who could be in there.

A young woman’s voice replies: “The guys who kidnapped Mr. Bulgari locked me in here . . . I’m wounded and I’m wrapped around a dead woman’s body.” And then: “Open the trunk, I can’t take it anymore . . .”

In the meantime, another tenant has emerged from the same apartment building.

“Don’t leave, they haven’t gone far away!”

Before long, the Carabinieri arrive. They force open the trunk from which moaning and cries for help can be heard.

Inside there was a bulky object wrapped in a blanket and behind it, wedged against the back of the rear seat, the wounded girl who was groaning. The Carabinieri had a hard time understanding what she was saying, and getting her out of the car as well: she was half naked and smeared with blood. It was only after she’d almost completely emerged from the car trunk that they understood that there was another girl in there; that the bulky object concealed in the blanket was the body of another young woman, naked and lifeless. They pulled out the corpse and laid it on the asphalt, after extracting it from the sheets of plastic wrap that the murderers had used to transport it.

Two of them were arrested immediately. They were wandering around the quarter and couldn’t provide any explanation of their presence in the street at that hour. With respect to Viale Pola, they lived, so to speak, right around the corner, one on Via Capodistria—the street that ran parallel to Viale Pola, likewise a cross street of Via Nomentana—and the other on Via Tolmino. By sheer coincidence, one of them was arrested downstairs from the apartment of the other, where the Carabinieri had gone in search of the father, who was named on the documents as the owner of the Fiat 127. They asked him where his son might be, were duly informed, of course, that he wasn’t home, and then, on their way out, right in the courtyard of the palazzo on Via Capodistria, they picked up that son’s accomplice.

The other one was spotted, also in the vicinity, by a security guard on night patrol. When asked to explain his presence on the streets late at night, the suspect took to his heels while the security guard fired shots in the air in order to attract the attention of the police, who were carpeting the QT by this point, in the aftermath of the discovery of the two girls locked in the car trunk. The chase was a long one and the security guard was running out of breath, so, panting, he shouted at the fugitive: “Stop, or I’ll shoot you!” The other man stopped and leaned against the wall, every bit as exhausted as his pursuer. While the security guard caught up to him, his weapon leveled, he said: “It wasn’t me who killed the girls!”

The third culprit in the crime will never be apprehended.

What happened is in its way fairly elementary and yet tangled, not such a simple story to tell, in part because, aside from the two victims and the three culprits, it also involves a considerable number of costarring walk-ons who, one after another, or in pairs, come on stage and leave it rather randomly, with no clear explanation why they did so, what their role was, and especially where they went and came from; if their movements were traced on a map with the QT at the center, it would eventually be blackened with lines. Just the comings and goings of that one night, between September 30 and October 1, 1975, on Viale Pola (a lovely tree-shaded little street that resembles anything but the boulevard of its name, “viale,” since it is a one-way street with a single lane of traffic, and till then it was only known for the presence of the most respected private university in Rome, whose frontage lined a good long section of the street), reveal an astonishing frequency, like the fibrillation of a seismograph. It is on that same narrow street that two of the main players live, who were at first swept up in the investigation, questioned, and so on. It is also hard to say, quite honestly, when talking about this story, exactly where it begins and where it ends, its onset and its conclusion. And so I’ll make use of abbreviations, omissions, and simplifications.

It is also hard to say, quite honestly, when talking about this story, exactly where it begins and where it ends, its onset and its conclusion.

Now, let’s take a short step back in time, to five days earlier, Thursday, September 25, when two young women are given a ride from in front of the Cinema Empire (Viale Regina Margherita, southern boundary of the QT) by a young man who tells them his name is Carlo, even though it’s not true, since his real name is Gian Pietro. Courteous, solicitous, he drives them to the Termini train station, where they’ll be able to catch the metro to EUR. Of the two girls, only one, D.C., the one with the curly hair, will wind up half-dead in the trunk of the Fiat 127; and the self-proclaimed Carlo (that is, the same student who had smashed my classmate Marco Lodoli’s eyeglasses), though arrested immediately after the rapes and murder, will be found to have had nothing to do with it. In short, of the three people who begin the episode, only one will wind up in the torture villa made so notorious by the press accounts.

Two days later, on Saturday, September 27, the young man who claimed his name was Carlo calls D.C. and suggests they meet for a date in a place so characteristic and typical of those years that it has been immortalized in films and TV series, while I couldn’t say that it’s as popular and busy these days. It’s at the far spur of EUR, which means it’s at the outskirts, indeed in many ways already outside the city, where the scent of the sea is in the air and the light is different—clean, windy; it’s known as “Il Fungo,” that is, the Mushroom, because it’s a tower and at the top it spreads out into a large ring that in fact resembles a mushroom cap, and inside that ring is housed a restaurant with a panoramic view. A smaller-scale but nonetheless spectacular precursor, sensational in its time, of the famous Landmark Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, the one that the aliens blow up in Mars Attacks! A longtime meeting spot for genuine Fascists and two-bit fascistelli, identifiable as Fascists only by their speech and their attitudes, or else ordinary people stopping off there to meet friends and then continue on their way to the beach at Ostia. D.C. went to the appointment accompanied not by her girlfriend of two days earlier, Nadia, who had other plans (she was at the Luna Park amusement park with two other girlfriends), but another young woman, let’s say, a substitute, the unfortunate R.L., who will wind up a corpse on the asphalt of Viale Pola; while “Carlo” (let me remind the reader once again, if the reader has any need, that I am not changing his name here out of any authorial prudence, but rather that it was he from the very outset who declined to give his real name, and later had a hard time explaining to the police the reason for this masquerade of his: “I just did it, for no special reason . . .”) showed up together with a young man I’ll call Subdued, and with Angelo, who had joined the crew, apparently, by pure happenstance, chancing to meet the so-called Carlo at Piazzale delle Muse. A half hour of conversation at Il Fungo and then a new date for the following Monday, out front of the Cinema Ambassade, which is also near EUR; now that there are three boys, there is talk of reaching out to Nadia, the girlfriend from the Cinema Empire.

On Monday, however, “Carlo” has some studying to do, with a university classmate, after which he has to attend a Mathematical Analysis class, which means he’ll miss the date, leaving Angelo and Subdued to go alone; there, they will find that there are also only two girls, the same ones who came to Il Fungo for that aperitif, since once again Nadia couldn’t come, as she was feeling unwell. So Nadia twice narrowly misses a bitter fate, the first time going off to shriek on the roller coasters of the Luna Park amusement park at EUR with her girlfriends, the second time because of a stomach ache. “Carlo” remains on the sidelines of the story, though he continually brushes against it, intersecting it, given that that same evening of Monday, September 29 (a date that a few years earlier the pop group Equipe 84 had made memorable, with the first major hit written by Lucio Battisti), while the two girls were already being held prisoner in the villa at Monte Circeo (though “Carlo” doesn’t know this), joins one of the murderers, Subdued, who had returned to Rome, on the street downstairs from his apartment, and together they go to pay a call on the third, the Legionnaire, who has not yet entered directly into the mechanics of the crime—he tells them that he is tired and doesn’t feel like going out. The next day, the usual routine for “Carlo”: that is, studying, class, more studying (with what remains a less-than-ironclad alibi, still sufficient to convince the investigators), but, once night falls, who does he go to meet, outside the Bar Rocci at the corner of Via Nomentana and Via di Santa Costanza, around midnight? Angelo. That’s right, none other. On foot. “Carlo” tells him to get in the car and together they drive around aimlessly for a couple of hours, and in that time, his friend and classmate never once makes any reference to the fact that he has just returned from Monte Circeo with two young women, swathed in plastic wrap, in the trunk of the car. First of all, the two young men are starving, so they go the café at the metro station on Piazza Euclide, to eat a couple of sandwiches, then they go to ogle the prostitutes on Via Veneto, and from there to Viale Pola, where Angelo wants to ring his friend’s buzzer, outside whose building they parked the Fiat 127 a few hours earlier, but “Carlo” dissuades him from it. And so, the person who first turned the handle that set the engine of kidnapping and murder running, and who through the various phases of the crime managed to meet in person all three of the kidnappers and murderers, gets off scot-free.

First of October, 1975. As soon as day dawns, the investigators go in search of the mysterious location where the two girls were tortured and beaten. The fragmentary information provided by D.C. (“We were already close to the Via Pontina . . . On the left was a hotel with a red sign . . . We turned down a road that was only partially paved . . .”) was enough to send the Carabinieri outside of Rome, beyond Latina, to Monte Circeo, and after searching the most sparsely inhabited areas for hours and hours, they were able to identify a villa in Punta Rossa at four in the afternoon, a place that they decided might well match the description provided by the surviving victim. A French window overlooking the garden stood wide open, but there were no signs of breaking and entering. At last, they decide to go in. The house is a mess, and the Carabinieri find traces of blood in the parlor, along with clumsy attempts to clean it up; most important of all, there are spattered bloodstains on the wall next to the phone. Only a few minutes have passed since the investigators first set foot inside the villa at Monte Circeo, and the officers are already starting to gather evidence of the crimes that were committed there (according to the verdict: murder and attempted murder, with the aggravating factors of manifest intention of concealment of the crime, abject motives, the tortures and cruelty brought to bear, the relative defenselessness of the victims, the abuse of the obligations of hospitality; and after that, abduction and rape; last of all illegal possession and carrying of a firearm), when the owner and her son rush into the villa, namely, and respectively, the Legionnaire’s mother and brother. They both declare to the officers that they had read about the murder committed at Monte Circeo in that morning’s editon of Il Messaggero, but that that was not the reason they urgently left Rome to come to the villa. “I had some things to take care of in the house,” the woman claims: the villa had been left in a mess after a weekend spent there the week before.

Even though, and again it is the Legionnaire’s mother who makes the statement, along the way to Monte Circeo, she had begun to feel a twinge of apprehension when she stopped to purchase another newspaper, Momento-Sera, and saw a photo of Angelo published there, next to an article about “serious violent crimes” at Monte Circeo; this reawakened the suspicion that her son might have lent his house keys to Angelo, despite the fact that he had absolutely been forbidden to have any interactions with that individual.

Her other son, too, who had precipitously accompanied his mother there, had also felt a “faint doubt,” along with the need to make sure that “everything was shipshape” at the house.

Whether they thought the family villa was perfectly shipshape or else a complete mess, it’s impossible that either the Legionnaire’s mother or his brother that morning could possibly have read any news about the crime. It had been discovered too late at night, when Il Messaggero was already printed and ready to ship to the newsstands. These are the contradictions, the frayed nerves, the stuttering argumentation of those who hardly expected to stumble into a police questioning session and therefore hadn’t had the time to stitch together the facts on the ground with a basic logical thread. They both stubbornly denied having spoken on the phone with the wanted young man or having any idea of his whereabouts, a young man who, since that day, never ceased to be a person wanted by the police and the subject of relentless pursuit.

But let us now track back to a few days earlier, that is, to that notorious Monday, September 29, 1975, outside the Cinema Ambassade. It was supposed to be a normal date, boys and girls going out together. But since that’s not at all what was going on, let’s skip right over the so-what-shouldwe-do’s? the where-should-we-go’s? the to-the-movies? the deceitful suggestion “Let’s go to Lavinio to Carlo’s house, and he’ll catch up with us later.” Instead let’s leap straight to the villa at Monte Circeo. It’s an isolated place and the road to reach it is so trackless that to get there the young people in the car were forced to stop more than once to ask directions.

It was about six in the evening, and the girls had promised they’d be home early. Angelo opened the door with a key he pretended to have found near the front gate. The young men couldn’t find their way around the house very successfully, though they’d been there before, and couldn’t even find the light switches. There were a few preliminary come-ons but the girls refused to take their clothes off. They claimed they were still virgins, and that they wanted to go home now. So one of the two young men pulled out a gun and threatened them: “We’re in the Marseille gang! We’ve got all the police on our tail, they’re hunting for us high and low!” and added that soon their boss would be joining them—Jacques, a terrifying guy. The girls, frightened, insisted that they wanted to be taken back to Rome. Whereupon the two boys grabbed them and shoved them into a bathroom, shutting the door and locking it.

A little while later, the one I’m calling Subdued went back to his home in Rome, to have dinner with his parents, after which he drove around town with his friends, between the QT and Piazzale delle Muse, as I described at the beginning of the book, before heading back to Monte Circeo. Angelo had told the girls that his friend had gone to get some sleep. He let R.L. out of the bathroom, then brought her back completely naked, asked D.C. to come out of the bathroom, and locked R.L. back inside. He dragged the girl to a bedroom and threatened her, “Se strilli, ti addobbo”—literally, “If you yell, I’ll deck you out.” “Addobbare,” or “deck,” as in “deck the halls,” or decorate, is a neo-Romanesco term, a late addition to Rome’s dialect and already largely obsolete, almost invariably used as a threat: “Guarda che t’addobbo”—“Look out or I’ll deck you out,” often with a further specification, “come ’n arbero de Natale,” literally, “like a Christmas tree,” meaning “I’ll beat you black and blue.” After which, Angelo made D.C. strip naked and forced her to take his penis in her mouth. It was in that context that, either to frighten her or else, according to him, to establish an atmosphere of reciprocal trust, he invented the lie that he had helped to pull off the Bulgari robbery, which had taken place a few months earlier.

In her statements to investigators, the surviving girl said that the tenor of the rest of the night remained unchanged. It was one in the morning, or possibly later, and in the meantime Subdued had returned from Rome.

“Angelo came back into the bathroom. He assured us that he’d let us go, but then he said that if Jacques wanted him to, he’d have to kill us. With Angelo was his friend. They forced me to take his penis in my mouth. He got mad and told me that I didn’t know how to do a single thing right. A short while later they told me to call my friend. ‘We need to take one of these girls’ virginity.’ We begged them to let us go and they laughed, they were making fun of us.”

Then Subdued placed his member in R.L.’s mouth and pledged to Angelo that he would take her virginity. In the meantime, Angelo was fondling D.C. but said he wouldn’t be up to deflowering her.

They locked them back in the bathroom, naked, until the morning. After a nap, around dawn, they moved the car out of the villa’s courtyard, worried that the gardener might show up and see it. R.L. continued screaming and moaning, and Subdued threatened the girls with his belt, unfastening it from his trousers, cursing, and shouting, “Shut up the two of you or I’ll kill you,” while Angelo kept a pistol trained on them. They moved the girls from one bathroom to another, still naked, and then put them back in the first bathroom. Until the afternoon of Tuesday, September 30, that’s the way things went in the villa at Monte Circeo, or that’s the point at which they remained fixed, as if rerunning repeatedly the same brief clips: the boys threatened the kidnapped girls, made them come out of the bathroom, first one then the other, then one of the boys would force one of the girls to take their member in their mouth, the girls would beg, the phone would ring. Subdued thought that the most serious thing they’d done hadn’t been to beat the girls up or force them to perform fellatio, but to lock them in the bathroom. It turned it into a case of kidnapping. But they absolutely had to wait until Jacques got there. In the meantime, the girls, locked in the bathroom, had caused a minor disaster . . .

And the minor disaster is that, although it’s unclear exactly how, the faucet on the bathroom sink broke. In these vacation homes, the plumbing doesn’t get much use, the pipes oxidize and corrode, the washers crumble. The water sprays out of the broken faucet and floods the bathroom. The young men fly into a rage and start slapping their prisoners around. Then, again under the threat of the pistol, for the umpteenth time, they transfer the two young women to the other bathroom, this one also windowless.

Until around four in the afternoon, the stalemate is broken by the arrival of Jacques, the Marseillais, from Rome. The future Legionnaire. Jacques immediately takes control of the situation. He talks with the girls (without any French accent, of course), reassures them, and explains to them that no more harm will be done to them, as long as they swear they won’t breathe a word about what’s happened so far. “If you don’t want to go to bed with me, I won’t insist.” Then, though, he tells them that they have to make love with each other, in front of him. He forces them to embrace and touch each other. Then he chooses R.L. and leads her into a bedroom. Angelo keeps the other girl with him and tries to penetrate her. He lunges on top of her, crams a pillow over her face, while Subdued starts kicking her. D.C. shrieks in pain and fear, and no matter how hard Angelo might try, rubbing his sex against the girl’s pudendum and manipulating it to obtain an erection, he can’t manage to penetrate her. Angrily, he tells his accomplice to take care of it, but Subdued refuses. “I don’t like this one.”

From behind the closed door of the room where Jacques has taken the other girl, her screams can be heard. Subdued assumes that Jacques is deflowering her, opens the door, and sees R.L. on the bed and Jacques on top of her. They’re both naked. The girl is shrieking with pain. Subdued shuts the door again.

When she emerged from the room, R.L. had blood between her thighs. She was bewildered, her legs wobbly. “Can I go get washed up?” she asked in a toneless voice. Jacques, completely naked, ordered the other girl to come with him, and told the other men to take the girl he had just raped to the top floor. He was gentle with D.C., he kissed her and told her not to worry, they would take the two of them home after putting them to sleep. In the meantime, outside, it was getting dark. The occupants of the villa didn’t notice because the shutters had been closed the whole time, since the previous afternoon.

The legionnaire pulled out some vials. He also had a length of surgical tubing, for use as a tourniquet, and a syringe. He went back down to the ground floor, taking D.C. with him, opened the box of vials, broke four of them into an ashtray, filling it with a red liquid, drew it into the syringe, and injected it into the girl’s arm. Then he went upstairs to do the same with the other prisoner who was confined on the top floor. After that, he went back downstairs and gave D.C. a second injection because the first one hadn’t had any effect. What effect was it supposed to have? Put her to sleep? Kill her? Then he went back up to the top floor. In the meantime, Angelo was playing with the tourniquet and saying: “You can’t guess how many people I’ve strangled with these things.”

The two men on the ground floor started to get dressed again. They let D.C. put on her pants. After being subjected to further maltreatment, more of the same, D.C. passed out. They took advantage of the opportunity to go clean up a little and mop up the water from the leak in the bathroom. But when they go back to the living room, they realize that the girl is awake and has dialed the phone and is holding the receiver in her hand. She’s called 1-1-3, the Italian 9-1-1. “Hello, they’re murdering me . . .” Subdued rushed over to her, grabbed the phone out of her hand, hung up, and then kicked her in the face. The girl’s blood sprayed onto the wall behind the phone, staining it. She got up and tried to rush toward the outside door, which was unlocked, but Subdued beat her to it and, using a tool he’d found in the yard, hit her in the head and at various places all over her body. The tool was a steel-reinforced club. The Legionnaire, who had come back down to the ground floor, ordered them to hurry and dial other phone numbers so that it wouldn’t be possible to trace the last call from the villa. The others hastened to do as he said. Then Angelo took the belt from his pants and wrapped it around D.C.’s neck. He dragged her around the house. She screamed. “If you scream again, I’ll throttle you.” Evidently, she continued to scream and Angelo choked her, tighter and tighter, until the belt broke. Then he hit her with the pistol butt, while Subdued went on beating her with the steel-tipped club.

She’s called 1-1-3, the Italian 9-1-1. “Hello, they’re murdering me . . .”

On the top floor of the villa at Monte Circeo, R.L. was drowned in the bathtub. Aside from the other evidence found, during the autopsy, in the respiratory passageways (a thick mucus, foam, and froth plug, massive emphysema caused by pulmonary hyperexpansion, subpleural hemorrhagic petechiae—all phenomena typical of drowning rather than a slower asphyxiation), the ecchymosis and swelling on her face could also be attributed to the violent and repeated immersion of R.L.’s head in the bathtub.

So one of the girls was dead before the group began its trip back to Rome. The second girl showed no signs of life. They had beaten her so hard and for so long that they were exhausted. Subdued kicked her one last time to see whether she was alive or dead. During his depositions, he would claim that he’d seen her move, though just barely. She was bleeding badly. To keep from getting blood on themselves, Angelo and Subdued wrapped the body in plastic sheeting, but it kept slipping out of their hands, sliding around, so they put the body back down and wrapped it in a blanket. Then they took it to the trunk of the Fiat 127, which had been driven back to the villa’s courtyard, and shut the trunk lid, leaving the keys in the lock. As proof that they thought she was still alive, Subdued tells the investigators that in the past he had even locked his dog in the trunk, when he went hunting with his father in Manziana, and that enough air got in for it to breathe. Then they went back into the house to do a quick cleanup, mopping the blood off the floor and wiping it off the walls. The Legionnaire alone would take care of transporting R.L.’s corpse downstairs and placing it in the trunk. They started off in two cars, Subdued’s Fiat 127, with the two young women in the trunk, and the yellow Mini Minor belonging to the Legionnaire, alias Jacques the Marseillais. On the way back to Rome, Angelo rode with him. They stopped to buy a couple of cans of Coca-Cola. Then, when they had almost reached Viale Pola, Angelo moved over to the Fiat 127.

• • •

During the trip back, the girl who was still alive tried shaking the other girl with her elbow, but she remained inert. Pressed against her, in the darkness of the car trunk, D.C. couldn’t even figure out where R.L.’s head was and where her feet were. But she understood that she was dead. In any case, she refrained from calling her name and speaking to her for fear that the two men might hear her. She heard one of them saying: “Shhh, what good little sleepers these two are” and “Silence! We have two dead women here.”

The version of the CR/M provided by Angelo is dreamlike, somnambulistic, and yet still full of details, annotations, and interpretations and descriptions of states of mind, real or fictitious. Aside from telling, in all likelihood, a considerable array of lies to the investigators, Angelo candidly confesses all the lies that were told to the young women. But he may be lying even when he confesses to the lies. They are, so to speak, lies squared. Not only the lies that were necessary to lure them into the trap; during the long phase of the kidnapping, while the young women were being held captive, he invents a bunch of stories, embellishments, he likes to exaggerate, invert, or romanticize human interactions, introducing moments of intimacy and something approaching naiveté that give a certain color to his personality. His shifts in mood and attitude are sudden and wild. When the actual kidnapping begins, Angelo narrates that moment as if there were uncontrollable forces at work inside him that overwhelmed his very conscience. “I didn’t realize that by locking the girls in the bathroom our friendship would be damaged and that that would mean the end of any dialogue with them.” Dialogue? Dialogue?! (Ah, that word so beloved of the priests and the school run by priests that he and I had both attended until the previous year . . .) The dialogue had come to an end in spite of him, and to his chagrin. The realization that he was committing a crime had passed through Subdued’s mind, but not Angelo’s; and so he doesn’t give his friend time to hesitate and think it over, he pushes the girls into the bathroom and locks the door.

From that moment on, all sorts of anxiety and concern spangle the night. “I thought my mother might be crying. Every time that I came home late, I found the family worried, all of them just a wreck.” “I had left word for my father that I was staying with a friend of mine, at his villa at Monte Circeo, and that the next day I’d be going to the American market [flea market, translator’s note] in Latina,” where you could buy used shirts and jeans like new for a handful of lire, but you had to go very early. When, at dawn, he unlocks the bathroom door and finds the two girls inside, naked and terrified, on their knees begging to be allowed to leave, he justifies himself by telling them he can’t do as they ask because in the meantime other men who are wanted by the law have arrived, and are upstairs in the villa, so he can’t reveal the presence of the two hostages to them, otherwise things would just go so much the worse with them. “At this point I started to get the impression that the girls no longer believed the stories I was telling them.”

But the sequence of lies and fantasies traced back to the very outset. Aside from the story of the Marseillais gang and the Bulgari robbery, when the girls asked for the first time to be taken back home, otherwise they won’t know what to tell their parents if they get back late, how they’ll be able to explain, Angelo suggests that they just tell them a lie, that is, that they had been forced into a car by a bunch of thugs who had taken them to a pine grove. That is, he recommends that they gin up a fairy tale that just happens to be a chilling copy of the truth: as if they weren’t he and Subdued, he invents a bunch of thugs and kidnappers to help the young women find a way out of their unpleasant quandary. To stir them to pity, he tells them that his mother died of heartbreak when he was in prison in Marseille. He gets irritated when the home phone keeps ringing and it might be the Legionnaire’s parents calling, or the Legionnaire himself calling to let them know that his parents are arriving. So it’s probably best not to answer. He asks the two girls “as a joke, in a humorous tone” to have sex with each other: and that’s because, according to him, R.L. had confessed to him that she had a weakness for girls, and for D.C. in particular. Even though he feels riddled with anguish and dark thoughts, among them emerges the awareness that he’s going to spend the night away from home, which will make his parents worry: “But, now that I was here, I might as well enjoy the night.”

He recommends that they gin up a fairy tale that just happens to be a chilling copy of the truth

If he doesn’t behave in an entirely rational manner, it’s because he’s running on a backlog of sleep. He continually steps away for a brief nap. He says that he didn’t have the pistol, his accomplice had it, then he doubts his own statement: “I don’t know where he got the pistol and whether he really had told me that or whether I’d imagined it. Sometimes I imagine things that I believe are true, things that refer to higher levels, meaning emotions.” Angelo in fact confesses that he is very sentimental and emotional: he never quite recovered from the way a troubled relationship ended, a romance with a girl he loved, nor from the “collapse of his political ideals.” He’s afraid of this and that, he’s alarmed, tense. Then, however, he promises D.C., “Now I’m going to take your virginity,” and his friend piles on, but just to scare her a little. “No, I’ll deflower you, but with a broom handle.” After Jacques arrives, his tension seems to subside somewhat and a strange disinterest takes over concerning the ending of an affair that has been dragging on for too long already. He is struck only by certain details: the phone that flies out of D.C.’s hands while Subdued hits her, the dog that Subdued took “to Manziana,” locked in the trunk, his revulsion at the blood on D.C.’s face, after she has been kicked repeatedly. He’s almost chivalrous when he asks the young woman if she’d rather be put to sleep with an injection, “or if you like with a blow to the head.” On the Via Pontina, when the Legionnaire’s Mini Minor stops “right in front of a police station” and Angelo gets out to buy the cans of Coca-Cola, he forgets to collect the change from the barista. “I’m sure that the people in the bar noticed my condition, I was a wreck, and they were looking at me.” He always feels eyes on the back of his neck.

Once back in Rome, his wanderings in the few hours between September 30 and the first of October are too random and intricate to be described without inducing confusion. Angelo wanders like a robot, starving and exhausted; he passes and repasses through Viale Pola, the last time without even noticing that where they had left the Fiat 127, the Carabinieri are now gathering; he’s just looking for a water fountain where he can wash his face, “because my head was exploding.”

• • •

Ah, yes, good manners. They guaranteed a net savings of time and mental energy: by observing them you eliminated all doubts and pointless hesitations. Nothing creates greater anxiety than uncertainty about the right thing to say or do, exposing yourself on positions that few others will support or share.

(The same thing happens with bad manners.)

Going along, in any case, entails lower costs than standing out for going your own way. And even if everyone likes the idea of being considered a nonconformist, a dispassionate reckoning would show us that most of the times that we wandered away from the majority consensus, we’ve turned out to be wrong. The effort to distinguish ourselves led us astray from the path of justice; rather than imitating the others when they spoke the truth, we chose to swear to the false.

The three pillars of any education, any upbringing, were these: persuasion, threat, punishment. But more than pillars, they were phases. If the first one worked, then there was no need to apply the successive phases. If the first two phases were sufficient, then the last one remained unutilized. But if after the explanations—reasonable—and the threats— disproportionate—the subject remained adamant, unmoved, then it was necessary to punish him. The chapter of punishments had not yet been drawn up because in that period, there were no longer any valid, welltested ones, none that could be applied without a second thought, such as a whipping or bed without dinner, and the punishments of modern pedagogy were still in an experimental phase. We were raised during the interval when everything was allowed and where, for the same infraction (a bad grade in math or a lie or a theft), among families that were otherwise quite similar to each other; in one family you might be punished by being sent to your room, in another by having your allowance cut or being grounded for the week, and in a third by the suspension of expensive gifts or your favorite foods, or else with straight-armed smacks to the face, verbal sarcasm (“You’re a pathetic moron, a mental defective”), or else with the exaction of the simple promise, “I won’t do it again,” and the matter was closed. Alongside these common approaches, which parents made use of on a fairly random basis, there were a few others, custom-tailored, personalized.

The most singular case might have been the writer who, having made the ideological decision never to punish his daughter, punished himself instead. He would stand in the doorway of his daughter’s bedroom, look her right in the eye, and list her misdeeds in a broken-hearted yet chilly voice (“You smoke hash, I know you do, even though I begged you not to . . .”), and then he’d start banging his forehead against the door jamb. Bam, bam, bam, gently at first, then bam-bam-bam! harder and faster.

And as he did, he murmured: “There’s nothing I can do about it. But I just want you to know that you’re causing me a great deal of pain through your actions . . .”

And the head-banging continues.

I read once that in England up until the eighteenth century it was customary to pair a scion of the nobility with a son of peasants the same age, to serve as a sort of double, a proxy. A relationship of equivalency between the two boys: since the aristocrat could not be given corporal punishment, whenever he committed some misdeed, the peasant boy was whipped in his stead. And he was dubbed, in fact, the whipping boy. Had the rich boy stolen jam from the kitchen? Then the poor boy got the whipping, and what was the result? That the rich boy, even if he hadn’t tasted the blows of the switch, was thought to suffer from pangs of guilt and sorrow for the blows his poor companion had received. In the case that I described above, it was the parent who chose to take the role of whipping boy for his daughter: he maltreated himself instead of punishing her. The spectacle was a pathetic one, but the self-punishment did achieve the goal of afflicting the guilty party, that is the girl, who in fact became increasingly eccentric over time and finally went completely mad.

In middle school, I had a classmate named Venanzio, one of the very few students at SLM who managed to flunk entirely, and so he transferred to a different school. At his house, his parents went old-school, pounding away, beating him for the slightest shortcoming, until this habit of theirs caused a very singular incident.

He must have been about twelve years old when his mother, infuriated because he had been outside playing, instead of inside studying, gave him a good hard smack, only the latest in a long succession of them, and not a particularly violent one, but it was well aimed. Where? At the seat of his pants. The seat of the pants where, for centuries, the corrective frenzy of schoolteachers and kin had found its target. And Venanzio’s mother had such an extra-fine, well honed technique that she could have taken on the task of serial-spanking all the kids of the quarter. But the fact is that Venanzio, on that afternoon out and about with the rest of us, had stocked up on miccette, or firecrackers (left over from the New Year’s celebrations), and at the very moment his mother let fly, the back pocket of his trousers was stuffed full of them.

Miccette is what we call in Rome those little firecrackers an inch-and-ahalf or two inches in length, their fuses braided into strings of twenty or so: light that fuse and they go off in rapid succession, making a tremendous racket. Venanzio must have had a hundred or so miccette in his pocket, but his mother didn’t happen to notice the bulge, and she had no time to notice because the minute my friend walked into his home, after the door opened at his knock, his mother, without a word, simply stepped aside and let him walk past her, and then spun around and hit him, with her hand opened wide, like a spatula, right on his ass.

It was the most powerful spanking ever given in all of human history. Upon impact, the miccette all went off at the same time with a roar and Venanzio was propelled forward, rocketing across the room with a spectacular burst of flame that burned his mother’s hand but that especially burned him. It took three weeks in the hospital and then months of ointments and bandages before the burn was entirely healed; it seemed to be incurable, as if the absurd manner in which it had been procured somehow had a negative effect on the normal process of scar formation, and even now Venanzio has an unfortunate reminder between buttock and hip, a sort of round stamp the diameter of a tea saucer; he sometimes tugs down the elastic band of his trunks to show it off at the beach. The flesh there is white and fibrous.

And about that scar he says, ironically but almost with regret, that justice would have been better served if it had been shaped like his mother’s hand.

His mother was so shocked by what happened that she never raised a hand to him again, never employed any other means of correction, and indeed no one in his home ever again dared to so much as scold the boy, who thus grew up wounded but happy, and utterly savage. His manners provoked at the very most a little grumbling, but never any actual sanctions.

When he was older, and the memory of the dramatic event had faded, his father regained the nerve to scold him, or perhaps it was just his personality that, as he aged, had become increasingly choleric. The thing in particular that drove his father crazy was Venanzio’s way of sitting down to meals, which was in fact particularly slovenly, and since he had also grown a sparse beard, whenever he ate this beard was always splattered with tomato sauce. His father gazed at him, turgid with scorn.

Until he finally couldn’t take it, and blurted out a succession of insults in front of his siblings and mother.

“Venanzio, you’re a filthy pig!” And he’d get up from the table in disgust, tossing aside his napkin.

“Nothing but a fil-thy pig,” he’d carefully enunciate. Then he’d be seized by a realization, and he’d correct himself.

“No . . . you’re not a pig, pigs are useful animals . . . you’re just plain useless, harmful in fact!”

It’s a well-known fact that, without violating the dictates of fine manners, you can wind up gutting each other in a knife fight. Etiquette frowns upon cleaning your fingernails at the dinner table or spitting on the floor, it cautions against disturbing your neighbor’s afternoon nap, but it makes no mention whatsoever, doesn’t even criticize, the act of stabbing someone. So, take it from me, you’d better not annoy him with loud music, but you can certainly murder him. As I’ve had ample opportunity to learn from my contacts behind bars, it’s possible to be an extremely courteous murderer, a chivalrous strangler, a paid killer and yet positively ceremonious. It’s true that in these cases what’s at stake isn’t etiquette, but rather the divine commandments. But perhaps it’s no accident that when people focus on surface aspects, on the formal boundaries of behavior, a void remains at the center. We naively take it for granted that this void will automatically be filled in by the most obvious moral principles, such as thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal. While I have frequently scolded my children for sitting down to a meal with filthy hands, sending them straight off to wash them, I’ve never felt it was necessary to explain to them that you mustn’t murder a person. It struck me as unnecessary, almost offensive to explain to a young mind, in part because children have always seemed to me to be very clear-minded when it comes to morality, indeed, far more rigid than adults. Rarely will a child accept compromises on what is true and what is false, the kind of compromises so often adopted by adults. They want no shadows, no middle ground, no shades of gray. The stubborn child, I believe, is the creature that inspired the evangelical precept “But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil” (Matthew 5:37), and for that matter, there is a childish punctiliousness about all of Christ’s preachings; they are characterized by a deeply infantile intransigence. The fanaticism of innocence, the pure eye, the mouth of truth. The mouths of babes. The Pharisees, in contrast, they are certainly wise, they are adult. Pontius Pilate is too, with his half-measures, such as fustigation, after all, that was an acceptable compromise, wasn’t it?

But perhaps it’s no accident that when people focus on surface aspects, on the formal boundaries of behavior, a void remains at the center.

No, it wasn’t.

That is why it is thought useless to spend time explaining the fundamentals, and why we concentrate instead on details, we specialize. The same thing happens in schools today, where general curricula are no longer studied, but extremely detailed local research projects are carried out instead, on a theme, creating explicative panels, elaborating creative texts, and by the end of elementary school, although the pupils have no idea of where Brescia or the Danube River might be, they do know everything about a certain farm that produces organic foods, where they went on a field trip.

Something tells me that at least one of the murderers sat at the table with perfect posture, his elbows tight at his sides . . .

A crime like the one I’ve just narrated so concisely was an exceptional event in the QT and, as such, it ought to have stood out in the conscience of the quarter’s inhabitants, so alien was it to their mind-set and their shared experience. Ponderation, caution, hard work, prudence, decorum, what did all these things have to do with that monstrosity? Among good people, certain things just don’t happen. The graver and rarer an infraction, the more it ought to encourage the citizens to feel upright, encircling them in an isolating barrier, cordoning them off. The alliance among honest citizens is the sole positive fallout of a crime. The moral reaction that makes it possible to restore the values offended, to recognize them as fundamental and defend them collectively. Instead, that’s not what happened at all. That crime did nothing to bring the inhabitants of the QT into a common point of view; it simply terrorized them and made them suspicious of one another. It actually drove them to doubt themselves, which is the most worrisome schism of them all. Reading the newspapers, as you might gaze down a well where, in the depths, your own image flickers, quivering, dim and shapeless, they thought they could recognize a hidden flaw, a demon stirring at the foundations of that way of life. Instead of being sterilized by a solid, united moral front, the wound grew infected and spread total uncertainty about who had done what, and why, and about who had been, in any case, capable of doing it, willing and ready to do it; in every home, on every street, in every classroom in all the schools, in every group of friends or family, the crime proliferated with a refraction effect that made it infinitely possible, because the elements that went to make it up were in point of fact common and available everywhere you looked—boys and girls, a car and a vacation home, phones ringing, plastic bags, university textbooks to underline, jeans, ice creams. There was no need for any special scenario, no need for urgent motivations nor any particular succession of events; in other words, it wasn’t even particularly necessary to be criminals to commit that kind of crime. The crime was gratuitous, the crime was for sheer dilettantes, which meant it was within reach of anyone. Easy, convenient, no one was ruled out as either a perpetrator or a victim. The indignation of the first few days gave way to a new realization that sent shivers down the spine: the discovery, that is, that the margins of prevention and protection against what had happened were much more slender than anyone had ever dreamed; indeed, those margins simply didn’t exist. They never had. It was pointless to go on expressing astonishment and indignation: it was the very same practical bourgeois spirit that unveiled the fault, just like when a solid professional accountant goes over the ledgers with a fine-tooth comb, recalculates the accounts, and discovers the trick. All it took was a pinch of reasonable understanding to see that an entire life built entirely on reasonable understanding didn’t guarantee a damned thing; in fact, it had thrown open the gates to the very thing it should have warded off: the unreasonable, the demented. Pure horror. An ordinary mistake, starting from which all the subsequent calculations had turned out to be mistaken. Believing that they were immunizing themselves against evil by simply never exposing themselves to it, never even acknowledging the remote possibility of it, they had developed an extremely weak organism, atrophied, incapable of reacting to that which was no longer familiar. Which meant there were no longer (or more accurately, there never had been) any safe places or settings, and the ones that had been deemed safe now revealed themselves to be potentially the most dangerous of all.

An unspeakable consternation began to settle over all those families that had sent their children to the same school as the murderers, a place that they had considered until then as a further special reservation of safety, inside an already well-protected world, as was the QT. And instead of steering them clear of trouble, they had plunged them right into the midst of it. To protect them from contagion, they’d locked them up with a bunch of sick people. The type of panic caused by this revelation manifests itself in the form of the so-called cold sweats. The internal agitation, unable to vent itself, expresses itself as a stiffening and a stale sheen of perspiration that bathes the temples and drips down your back. Everything you’ve done or said or believed until then suddenly appears false. No action can be undertaken; you can neither attack nor defend yourself; all meaning has vanished into thin air. It is no longer a rhetorical expression to say that time stands still.

It is said that African villages, once night has fallen, are besieged, right up to the doors of the houses, by the spirit of the wild. It is as if with darkness the savanna reclaims possession of everything that man has taken away from it by the light of day, in the pitiful illusion that he has conquered that wilderness for good. Human space shrinks; people barricade themselves indoors, leaving everything else to the mercy of dark and menacing forces. The same thing happened in the QT. We only felt safe shut up in our homes, our apartments, in the dining rooms where the rules of family life reigned, a way of life that unfolded at its constant lazy pace, lulled by the humming of the refrigerator and the chirping of the radio, as if nothing could ever alter it; the preparation of meals, sleep, study, the washing of clothes, the ritual, harmless arguments between the generations over the dinner table. Let’s be clear—it’s not as if private life was exempt from drama and tragedy, but those cases were never sufficient to call into question, to throw into crisis the entire system. The death of a father or a daughter who’s been shooting up alone isn’t enough to bring down an entire civilization: a civilization that in the QT, just like in so many other places around the world, continues undisturbed to evolve or decay, but at rhythms that are so slow and with changes that are so subtle that it requires several generations to even register them and metabolize their meaning. Indoors, in other words, things turn slowly, “the silent calm of an aquarium reigns over all.” But between one apartment house and the next, the space proved to be riddled with booby traps. A gust of wind was enough to erase all the rules that had guided our lives, indeed, the very idea that there ever had been such a thing as a law. Immediately outside the private setting of the home, the tree-lined streets, the piazzas, and the wide parts of the road in the QT, which in terms of their decorum and anonymity perfectly matched the domestic interiors, could easily turn every bit as savage as any canyon. A cold wind, perhaps simply a shiver down your back, a strange shadow might materialize without warning within a panorama that remained utterly familiar in every way, in its everyday image exempt from the slightest shadow of danger: the Bar Tortuga, the photo booth, the scooters parked in front of Giulio Cesare high school, the bus—number 38 with the strikethrough—roaring past, heading for Piazza Istria.

While in a trench during wartime, you expect to die from one moment to the next—you’re there for that very reason, that’s the right place and the right time to catch a bullet between the eyes—the murder victims of the QT had not even the slightest idea that this day might be their last, as they were hurrying to catch the bus, walking their dog, opening their apartment house door, leaning against a car smoking a cigarette: and many of them didn’t even realize that anyone was about to kill them. There was no reason to expect it, no warning signs; it was an ordinary day.

On paper, the QT is bounded to the west by Via Salaria, to the south by Viale Regina Margherita, on the east by Via Nomentana, and to the north by the Aniene River. But the true boundaries of the QT were marked like those of the city of Sparta, as stated by one of its generals: Sparta stretches as far as my spear will reach.

So pay close attention to this point: patience, tolerance, restraint, and prudence are constantly on the verge of being turned upside down and transformed into their opposites; indeed they’re often nothing more than paradoxical manifestations of their exact contrary: calm is merely fury in a disguise; tolerance is a “coded” performance of aggression; the domination we impose upon ourselves is no less relentless than the domination we’d gladly impose upon others, if only we could; decorum is a mask we apply to a face devastated by obscene desires, and if you examined it with sufficiently close attention, you’d notice how diabolically the features emerge. So much furor beneath the surface, all that magma boiling under that peaceful crust! Violence announces itself in its most threatening way precisely as repressed violence. The virtues bear subtle traces of the delirium out of which they originated, and which might at any instant snatch them back, taking renewed possession of them. If modesty is born of sin, it resembles it as a son resembles the father. Sovereign mastery over one’s feelings, detachment, and self-control, which constitute the principal bourgeois contribution to morality, only increase the inner gap by means of which a person can observe and judge themselves as if they were safe on the far shore, on the opposite cliff face, across the yawning gorge; but if you are forced to cross back over, clinging to a dangling rope, at that point the oscillation truly begins to swing wide, the velocity becomes dizzying, and you find yourself catapulted into the void if you release your grip for so much as an instant.

Violence announces itself in its most threatening way precisely as repressed violence.

And so, in perfect unison, everyone thought the same thing but did not say it—they didn’t dare to openly utter their thoughts; instead they barricaded themselves in their doubt. They preferred to battle alone against nothingness, which in the end drives you to embrace it. There can be no more ferocious form of conformism than the kind that expresses itself in segregated, incubated forms, where everyone thinks the same thing but in private, refraining from communicating those thoughts. When everyone curses the same god in their thoughts. I believe that there was never a time around here in which people did so little talking as in the aftermath of the CR/M; among fathers and mothers and sons and daughters, between husbands and wives, between the sexes, a strange laconicism descended; everyone might have encountered grounds for criticism in everyone else, the right to upbraid each other for faults more or less blindly, but knowing by now that no matter what direction you hurled that stone of blame, even at random, you were bound to hit something (inasmuch as young, inasmuch as old, inasmuch as male or female, inasmuch as bourgeois you were certainly implicated and you had a sin to expiate); it was better for everyone to remain silent and when all was said and done it would have been difficult even to establish what it was exactly that was up for discussion—the topic defied analysis. The fear of letting a detail slip out, something that might later be used as evidence against you, meant it was probably best to keep your lips zipped even with the people you trusted: because they in particular might easily become the most fearsome accusers. Truth be told, any aspect of life was already weighty evidence of guilt, sufficient to bring a conviction. Aspects that might at first glance seem positive, for instance, could end up being red-handed proof. If you were an honest, hard-working father, then you were guilty of absentee distraction. If you’d married well and lived a quiet life, so much the worse. And let’s even talk about your bank account, or cheerful family vacations, all images of respectable conformity that could be turned inside out as so many crushing exhibits of evidence, probatory of guilt. A dignified appearance—you could swear that it concealed nasty surprises. And so, in short order, out of convenience, the conventional mask of indignation and wholesale rejection was put back on. The problem was put away and forgotten because of its monstrosity, the declarations of horror became ritual and detached, as if we were talking about a catastrophe fallen from the sky or a disease, an earthquake. “How could it be that such good boys . . .” It sank out of sight, and the surface closed over it.

The others come before us: in families the imperative reigns of doing things “for others” and not “for yourself.”

It is necessary to respect, to honor others, not to offend, listen to them when they speak, be courteous, if possible satisfy their demands. In reality, what is requested is often strictly an exterior tribute: a minimum of etiquette to facilitate the normal flow of everyday actions. Perhaps the least foolish aspect of bourgeois morality is in fact its pronounced formalism, which never demands the complete adherence to what one says and does, and indeed always safeguards a certain quota of inner freedom, even though in the final analysis this margin is reduced to being able to say one thing while thinking another. To being, in short, the first not to believe in your own words. Liberty, therefore, coincides with the shadow beneath which hypocrisy protects true feeling; it is specifically that dimly lit space, devoid of faith, ambiguous. The cool shade of disbelief. The virtual identity of bourgeois morality and Christian morality breaks at this point. Bourgeois morality seemed to be nothing more than a double for Christian morality, but it proves to be autonomous where it defends in a punctilious manner the superficial choices, latter-day Phariseeism, as opposed to the total adhesion of the soul that Christ demands. Its underlying principle is based on a practical order: let’s say that I am well behaved, or pretend to be; in the end what matters is whether my behavior is or is not good, independent of whether or not it is heartfelt, if it’s the fruit of conviction or deceit. You may even feel proud of yourself, when you go along with standard opinion even though you don’t share it a bit. If any correct behavior is artificial, the bourgeois can rightly expect it from anyone: if you’re not good, you still have to behave as if you were. And that’s the point, as if. The child who yawns while having dinner with his grandparents: though no one can demand that he not be bored (impossible!), one may rightly demand that he “politely” place his hand over his mouth when he yawns. That is the only reasonable demand that can be made . . . Act as if . . .

How much hatred the truth produces! While secrecy renders light and free not only those who conceal it, but especially those who overlook it, who do not know. “No, please, I don’t want to know anything about it” is the formula of those who wish to remain free.

The real problem with the truth is whether or not to speak it.

Edoardo Albinati is a novelist, journalist, and screenwriter who lives in Rome. His novel Svenimenti won the 2004 Viareggio Literary Award, and The Catholic School won the Strega Prize in 2016.

Antony Shugaar is a writer and translator. He is the author of Coast to Coast and I Lie for a Living, and the coauthor, with the late Gianni Guadalupi, of Discovering America and Latitude Zero.