Two weeks later I take the Rome-Reggio night train to meet Gino again … this time to visit the mysterious Aspromonte Mountains, the domain of criminals on the run and killers for hire. I have no idea what the upshot of the affair is to be but I sense that a major event is developing on the mountainous tip of the peninsula. It’s a hunch based on what I know of Gino and his TV station and the flow of refugees through the gateway from hell to opulent Europe. But above all because of something alarming concealed in those sinister mountains.
The trip down the darkened peninsula fulfills my expectations. Nothing exceptional happened until a sudden halt at a small station in the dark countryside south of Salerno. The train squeaks to a halt. The engine falls silent. Interior lights blink off, then return on dim. Passengers descend from my car and look around at the surroundings. A surprising number of people are waiting in groups or walking up and down a narrow platform, waiting for who knows what train headed for mysterious destinations. In the yellow-tinted darkness a kind of intimacy is born among the deboarded passengers.
In principle I love the night. Yet I’m wary of it too. The night is the time when unpredictable things happen. The night is the time when you might realize that one of the big moments of your life is about to happen and you know that afterwards nothing will ever be the same in your life again.
Gradually the people strung out along the platform in semi-darkness become aware of the reason for our nocturnal halt. After a steadily mounting dull beat from the distance, the roar and the reflections from the lights of the Palermo express flicker off whitewashed station walls in rhythm with the clicking over rail links of each passing car. Despite the only apparent speed and the pounding of steel wheels against iron rails, the silhouettes of marionette-like bobbing heads high up inside the illuminated cars flashing past above us seem to seek contact with our insignificant figures below, our faces, I imagine, whitened and motionless, lost in the night alongside the tracks of the small town station. The station master stops in mid-step, his torso twisted toward the thunder roaring past his station. A circle of tall, sun-tanned Boy Scout-looking types dressed in white shirts with red kerchiefs around their necks and bulging knapsacks strapped on their backs stand immobile at one end of the station building, their youthful heads lifted toward the sparkling white and yellow lights. In the glass-encased office facing the tracks, the slow motion activity near illuminated control boards is submerged by the beast running over and through the small room itself. I look toward the darkness of an outlying shed and note just behind it the same weak interior lights of a local train, stationary on a side track. From the station side the faint light from the traffic office, the dim lights of our waiting train silent as if in awe of the powerful Palermo express, and here and there a flashlight casts otherworldly attempts of light on the scene, visible only for the fraction of a second between each car speeding past. Time too flicks past, marked by the clickedy-clack, clickedy-clack from the express track. My head nods in harmony and my eyes shift from left to right, left-right, left-right, until motion seems to become circular and the station itself spins on a vertical axis of shadows and the steel-on-iron rhythm.
In that moment of mental and physical disequilibrium I note again the tall man who has been striding up and down the platform now seemingly approaching me, his head however turned toward the tracks and his hand outstretched as if seeking balance. He is leaning slightly backwards and his feet move forward ahead of his body, each foot sweeping from side to side feeling for the edge of the platform. His face framed in long silky hair is chalky, the way all of us on the platform must appear to the express passengers observing us aliens in the night. For some reason I imagine him as Isabel’s husband whom I have seen only once, in a similar momentary shaft of light on a snowy Munich night on Giselastrasse. Was he too blind to what was happening? The echo of the roar has not yet faded away when the lights brighten inside our high elegant cars with Roma-Reggio Calabriainscribed on plaques near the doors and the sound of its engines returns and the conductor calls out into the night: “All aboard!”
I climb the steep steps.
When I step through the sliding doors into the now gaudily bright first-class compartment, the country station and the Palermo express and the ghostly figure on the platform of Isabel’s imaginary husband cease to exist. Maybe he never did. Yet I know that even the most insignificant of us leaves behind an emptiness that is something. Perhaps an omen.
A few seconds after I step out of Reggio’s main station, Gino Rocca’s familiar tan Ford Fiesta pulls up in front of me, the Fiesta’s passenger door crackles, and his lanky figure climbs out.
Having promised me something “surprising, stunning and sinister”, Gino asks right off: “What about a ride to the mountains? Or are you too tired.”
“That’s why I’m here. But aren’t you afraid to be seen with me? You’re in hot water yourself.”
He grins and shrugs, his nerves probably on edge as always.
“You don’t look so good,” I say.
“Just nerves. These are dangerous times in good old Rhéghion.”
“You don’t have to do this.”
“You didn’t see much on your last visit. A miracle you got away in one piece.”
“I thought about that too … but here I am again.”
“You shouldn’t be here. They love cracking the heads of curious journalists … from elsewhere. They’re used to me.”
“Stinking cowards, eh?”
“The kind who kill in the dark or who shoot down kids on the street.”
“But why all this violence, Gino?”
“They’re different from other people.”
We head north toward the Aspromonte. I note more of the black Suvs both downtown near the station and in the suburbs. Soon we’re passing through the periphery, through degraded suburbs that once must have been attractive villages facing the sea where affluent people of Reggio had beach houses. Gino speaks of peasant farmers forced to leave their homes by the creeping modernistic economic tentacles of old Rhéghion. He points out half-finished buildings that look as if they’d been that way for decades, flanked by vacant lots and more or less finished structures, flaking, crumbling and rotting away, maintenance being an attribute absent in theMezzogiorno. A desiccated and dying past decorated vulgarly by huge political posters. A past dying from negligence and displacement of peoples and objects infected by despondent changelessness. People hanging on in the former villages, people acquiescent to suffering, according to some politicians in Rome deserving of it because they are poor and lazy, three generations of families living with their impotent hatreds and dulling ignorance in precarious two-story structures and surviving on occasional useless jobs in the city to which they travel early mornings on rickety buses. Otherwise, I imagine, they sit around in garlic-infested rooms drinking sweet homemade wine and talking with thin old men and elephantine women about the good old times, while dogs run in and out and the walls of a former life crumble around them. Places from whose kitchens families overflow into adjoining houses and everyone mingles with the misery of everyone else in the delirium of a world in which misery is the common denominator. Rich people used to live here. Now it looks like I imagine the edge of hell. The center of the sprawling abandon surrounding the city where rebellion should be brewing lies in silence.
“What about the big cars, Gino?” I ask pointing to a dark blue Audi parked in front of a rundown two-story house. “I’ve counted three new Mercedes in the last kilometers and that’s the second Audi.”
“Not only the ‘ndrangheta likes such cars but also new people arriving from Sicily. Representatives of American humanitarian organizations—NGOs of course—here to aid refugees, they say. I’ve investigated a bit. Found no evidence of actual help. There’s also a new group that calls themselves Blue Helmets. Sometimes they really wear one. Not often though. Another Non-government Organization! All foreigners.” He glances at me and shrugs: “Go figure.”
Gino points east and says: “That road doesn’t lead anywhere. It ends down there around a curve among abandoned factories at a half-finished bridge. After that you see only walled fields of wild weeds bordering the sea … the symbol of the Mezzogiorno of Italy.” Then, abruptly, a few fields and gardens to the east are brilliantly golden in the rising southern sun, as if showing their best to me the visiting journalist. Even though the sea is close, this narrow part of the peninsula seems unlimited. The occasional touch of the wild is inevitably marred by improvised, semi-clandestine dumps. As Gino slows to a near stop I try to identify the objects filling an unmarked danger zone filled with rusted and gutted car bodies, wheelless motorcycles, crooked pipes now turned green, unidentifiable sheets of bent and moss-crusted metal from who knows what abandoned factory, former stereo sets, parts of bedsteads and yellowish mattresses, No Parking signs, cracked concrete blocks, two-thirds of what look like a former playhouse of a rich little girl, a headless doll stuck in a window opening, three cement encrusted shoes of indistinguishable sizes mounted in a row on a shoe carrier, stacks of coiled wires, two piles of tires turning brown, and all sorts of unidentifiable trash, the whole mess surrounded by sacks of rotting garbage. The dump is a repetition of the depths of the azure seas surrounding Reggio.
Gino stares at the alternating scenery and the passing fields he must have seen so many times that he hardly registers its reality. And he talks: “Unemployment is worse each day. Industries big and little shut down, bankrupt. Or they move abroad. The few open schools exist because city administrators have forgotten them. The former capillary health system is in chaos. The ‘ndrangheta controls the economy. Poverty is spreading and youth escaping to north Italy or abroad.” His words reflect the disaster so visible around us. Everything except the occasional surviving bit of wild confirms that the situation is even worse than his descriptions. The truth of the South lies much deeper.
“Why is the South so much poorer than the North, Gino?”
“Traditions. Organized crime. Mafia. Corruption. A way of life. And Gael, that is the story the new Radio Calabria Libera is broadcasting twenty-four hours a day to the region.”
“What’s that, Gino? Never heard of it.”
“It’s new. American, I hear. Another NGO. They’re springing up like mushrooms. You know what we call them here? The Ngo-isti. Calabrian-American Friendship Society or CAFS, American Friends of Calabria, White Scarfs For Progress, Blue Helmets, American Society For Defense of Human Rights, Society for Resistance. The most visible appears to be the International Committee For Liberation From Communism or ICLC. Do-gooders of all sorts. The message of all is the same: Down with Rome corruption! Down with Communistic Rome! A new Calabria for a new Italy! Resist! Resist! Make Reggio great again! A free Calabria!”
“Oh yes, certainly American … or their proxies. Expel them all!”
“But the people love them.”
“As always. Everywhere.”
I observe Gino Rocca’s silhouette, an agitated and rarely silent driver. I think he feels a sense of timelessness and the same pandemic loneliness of the deep South. A feeling of not even being part of the world. I begin to form an image of a frustrated Gino, hanging between revolt and submission. A face concealed behind the mask of furious action and his talking head, his mask which, I suspect, is the twin of his true face underneath. As if he were on the verge of finding an answer to the conundrum that has plagued him for years: to revolt against everything and opt for the old Italian temptation of anarchy or to succumb to the contradictory thought that his life is all illusion, in which case what does it matter what he does? Gino’s words remind me of another Munich summer lecture course by a visiting professor from Vienna. According to the scholar, Nietzsche had noted that philosophers never express their true opinions in their books because many such ideas are too complex for words. The summer professor posed the question whether such books are not written in order to conceal that which resides inside us? Maybe the true truth lies concealed in multilayered shrouds of ambiguity. Like Nietzsche who believed that every philosophy conceals another philosophy, every opinion is just a hiding place for other opinions and every word a mask covering other words. I’ve thought that those are difficult, maybe evil thoughts. (Walter Benjamin: We do not always proclaim loudly the most important thing we have to say. Nor do we always privately share it with those closest to us, our intimate friends, those who have been most devotedly ready to receive our confession.”)
Gino Rocca and his existential conundrum calls such reasoning to mind. Things here are so bad that Gino can’t find the words to describe the problems, despite his many words hurtling intractably through his rickety car and out into the indifference of the southern air. During a sudden silence I realize that he conceals a constant turmoil of emotions, that in this moment he is wondering just what the fuck is he doing with his life. What are we doing here anyway? Who am I in all this? The answer, he must have concluded, the meaning of the world and his place in it, will forever lie outside our grasp. The journalist that is me, he must imagine, knows what he’s doing down here. Everyone else seems rooted in something somewhere or in a home, a job, a family, a purposeful life. Everyone has a life plan. For Gino, happiness and love must seem to exist behind the closed doors and blinds along the streets of these towns outside the orbit of Reggio. Where whole families are concealed. Where women love their men despite all, and men love their families. More than anything Gino perhaps would like to be somewhere else with his family, any other place at all, but he is aware that he is as involved in his milieu as a lifer in a penitentiary in his, and in his every waking moment he realizes he has lost sight of a destination. I suspect he knows there is no security exit for him.
“You’re suddenly pensive,” I say. “What’s on your mind?”