Authors: Mario Calabresi
has worked for the Italian news agency ANSA and for the Roman daily
, where he served as managing editor and New York correspondent from 2006 to 2009. Currently he is the editor in chief of
, one of Italy's most influential national newspapers, headquartered in Turin.
Michael F. Moore
is the translator of the novels
by Erri De Luca,
The Silence of the Body
by Guido Ceronetti, the poetry of Alfredo Giuliani, and essays by Pier Paolo Pasolini. He is currently working on a new translation of the classic nineteenth-century novel
by Alessandro Manzoni.
When I was a correspondent in Rome in the 1980s, I was struck by the recurring headlines in the major papers, which often gave an impression of dÃ©jÃ vu. The subjects varied, from the latest political twists to the laws governing rent control, but they provoked the same uneasy feeling that nothing had changed or moved. One of the most troubling repetitions concerned “Piazza Fontana.” More than a dozen years before I came to live in the Italian capital, a bomb had exploded in Milan's Piazza Fontana, killing sixteen people and ushering in the so-called Years of Lead, a long season of political violence that shook the state to its foundations. The stories I read under those reappearing headlines concerned the endless legal back-and-forth over the Milan bombingâthe trials and appeals and retrialsâthat seemed to me to make nonsense of the law. Justice delayed is justice denied. I shook my head and occasionally wondered how I might write my way through the thicket of charges and countercharges to shed some light. For, as Mario Calabresi demonstrates in this brilliant book, there were real people and real
pain behind those numbing accounts of judicial peregrinations and paralysis.
Pushing Past the Night
is a work of literature. It represents one of those moments when a journalist, often condemned to deal in the ephemeral, combines professional skill with deeply felt personal experience to create a testimony of timeless power. It is a disorienting book, spare and unforgiving, shifting back and forth in time to convey Calabresi's giddying struggle to come to terms with his subject: the murder of his father and the long indifference, or inadequacy, of the Italian state before this crime that shattered his infancy and skewed his life. Seldom have I seen the personal and universal interwoven to such effect, at once disturbing and uplifting. When I lived in Rome, I used to smile to myself, seeing all the stopped clocks dotted around the city. They were endearing in their way, all those useless clock faces seemingly proclaiming the indifference of Italians to time and punctuality. But they also formed their own little monument to inefficiency, inattention, and waste. Time does matter, and it matters most when life and death and justice are the issues at hand.
Piazza Fontana led, by a strange detour, to the door of the Calabresi family home in Milan. An anarchist named Giuseppe Pinelli was detained as a suspect in the bombing and, while in the office of Inspector Luigi Calabresi, the father of the author, he fell through a window to his death. The police inspector himself was not in his office at the time. A painstaking inquest determined that Pinelli, disoriented and exhausted, had fallen by accident over a window railing that was only ninety centimeters high. But these facts proved irrelevant in the hysterical climate of the time. Inspector Calabresi was branded as a CIA agent and “Inspector Murder.” The newspaper of the extreme leftist group Lotta Continua bayed for his blood. A weak stateâand the state in Italy is chronically weakâdid little for its dedicated servant. And, on May 17, 1972, in a death foretold, this thirty-four-year
old police officer was gunned down outside his house by militants convinced they had revolutionary justice on their exalted side. So began the prosaic agony of the Calabresi family.
The author was two years old when the killing occurred. Locked in his mind is the image of his grief-stricken, pregnant mother upon confronting the neighbor who has come to impart the news of the murder. “My memory begins with her cry of despair,” Calabresi writes. “He tried to speak with her, but she kept running away, walking from room to room while I clung to her skirt. Frozen in my memory is the image of the two of us in black-and-white, circling for a long, long time. I was worried that he wanted to hurt her, but I didn't know how to defend her. Finally, she stood still, he spoke with her, she wept, and I hugged her legs, feeling lost.” It is the achievement of this book to convey the long personal journey of that circling, leg-clutching child to understanding and closure, while at the same time illuminating the recent history of Italy and the national failure to come to terms with the Years of Lead.
Calabresi, now the editor in chief of the Turin daily
, writes in a spirit of reconciliation. His book is an invitation to the Italy of the left and right to come to terms with each other and with painful history. But he is unsparing about what he calls a “romantic idea of terrorism” and about the discrepancy of treatment between the killers and the killed. It took sixteen years to identify the murderers of his father and another dozen years for the various iterations of their trials and appeals. It took until 2004 for an Italian president, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, to give a medal of valor to the slain police inspector's widow and say these four words: “We have rediscovered memory.”
For decades, attempts to honor Inspector Calabresi had to be somehow offset or balancedâand in effect underminedâby tributes to Pinelli. Meanwhile, the militants of the Red Brigades, Prima Linea, and other terrorist groupsâtheir sentences served
or commuted, their acts pardoned or indulgedâreemerged as politicians and commentators, engaging in public life without public shame. As Mariella Magi Dionisi, whose police officer husband Fausto Dionisi was gunned down by militants on January 20, 1978, tells the author: “The truth is that they gave us a life sentence. They have a second chance at life while we, and the persons whose lives they took, have had this possibility taken away from us forever. I was a young woman and my life was stolen from me.” As she speaks, in 2006, Sergio D'Elia, a man who was among those convicted of her husband's murder, has just been appointed secretary to the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies.
One of this book's many strengths is the way it reaches beyond the Calabresi family itself to show the extent of silent suffering from the Years of Lead. Calabresi writes that the Italian state has suffered from a kind of “emotional illiteracy.” How else to describe the compensatory offer, for “a daughter of a victim of terrorism,” of a job as a Naples street sweeper? Yet this is precisely what is proposed to Antonia Custra, a young woman whose father, a policeman, has been brutally murdered in Milan. How else to view the state's acquiescence to, or failure to control, sex in the defendants' cage at the trial of Red Brigade terrorists charged with the 1981 killing of Dr. Luigi Marangoni, the director of the Milan Polyclinic?
The author's point is one fundamental to the journalist's canon: facts matter. Reconciliation is important, and possible, but cannot be based on an unbalanced accounting of Italy's years of terrorism. His book fills an important lacuna. As Calabresi writes, “Italy has never engaged in a complete reckoning.” But this work helps. It amounts to a firm admonishment to the press and a left-leaning intelligentsia that irresponsibility can lead to bloodshed. In the years between Pinelli's fall and Inspector Calabresi's murder, myth masquerading as fact inhabited the Italian media. Almost
nobody bothered to check the facts. Hundreds of intellectuals signed a petition that appeared in 1971 in the weekly magazine
. It called the police officer “Inspector Torture,” the man “responsible for the demise of Pinelli.” Few of the signatories ever apologized, but one or two did, and that's important, even if such belated assumptions of responsibility cannot bring back a life.
Calabresi writes, “Justice is the duty of the state,” but the Italian state has too often proved “an empty shell.” If a shallow, too pliable, partisan, or venal press does not hold the state accountable, the way is open for the worst to happen. Even as it transcends journalism, this book is a reminder of the fundamentals of the journalistic craft and of the centrality of a vigorous press to any liberal democracy.
But in the end, beyond politics,
Pushing Past the Night
is a personal story, riveting in its directness. Calabresi reveals how the anger of his younger brother, Luigi, is rawest and hardest to tame. Luigi was not yet born when his father was killed, and he tells his brother: “The difference between us is that he never held me in his arms.” Calabresi writes, “Mama remembers the leap she felt in her belly when she received the news of the murder and she understands him. âWhen I see his anger, I feel exactly what I felt that day.'” Phrases like that “leap” in the belly, where unborn Luigi is curled, twist the insides of any sentient reader and usher in a new understanding of the Years of Lead.
Anger, however, is not what prevails in these pages. Indeed, it is perhaps in the author's victory over anger that this book is most unforgettable. Calabresi had to write his way through his disoriented rage and his pain to produce this testimony; in so doing he reconciles himself with his past and Italy with a neglected facet of its story.
If he succeeds, he clearly owes an enormous amount to his mother, simply “Mama” in these pages. Mama is a remarkable
figure, choosing love over vengeance, engagement over despair, faith over depression, and generosity over spite. Left with three young boys, she raises them to vindicate, through their spirit and openness, their lost father's life. For Inspector Calabresi was an open man. He reached out in life, across a political chasm, to Pinelli, the better to understand him. Pinelli once gave him a book as a gift. Mama urges Calabresi to respect Pinelli and the loss felt by Pinelli's children. When Ovidio Bompressi is finally convicted of Inspector Calabresi's murder, Mama is distressed at the thought of Bompressi's daughter losing a father. Her enduring lesson to her sons is one of compassion, honesty, and understanding.
One day, beneath the summit of Mont Blanc, Calabresi grasps all his family's lessons and comes to terms with the loss of his father. “I had to carry him into the world with me, not humiliate him with arguments and rage, if I did not want to betray him,” he writes. “I had to place my bets on love and life.” In grasping this lesson at the end of an arduous and superbly rendered personal odyssey, Calabresi has also given a lesson in openness and truth to his country, and said something universal about the human condition.
On December 12, 1969, a bomb exploded at the Banca Nazionale dell'Agricoltura in Piazza Fontana, in the center of Milan, taking the lives of sixteen people and wounding eighty-eight others. This massacre inaugurated more than a decade of political violence in Italy that came to be known as the
Anni di Piombo
, the Years of Lead. Although the bombing was ultimately proven to be the work of neofascists, the police investigation focused initially on the anarchists, several of whom were brought in for questioning at police headquarters. One of them was Giuseppe Pinelli. After being held for three days, he fell to his death from an office on the fourth floor. That office belonged to Luigi Calabresi, the father of the author of this memoir.
A few months earlier, a militant political movement had formed on the far left. Lotta Continua started out as a coalition of factory workers and students offering a more radical alternative to the more centrist Italian Communist Party. Through its newspaper of the same name, it seized on the general outrage over the Piazza Fontana bombing as a rallying cry for public
demonstrations against the government, which it called the true perpetrator of the massacre. The Lotta Continua paper also launched a virulent press campaign against Luigi Calabresi, whom it blamed for the death of Pinelli. Other major periodicals soon followed suit. A judicial inquiry and two court sentences established his innocence, but far too late. On May 17, 1972, Inspector Calabresi was gunned down in front of his home. The comment in
the next day was, “This act fulfills the desire of the oppressed for justice.”
These are just two events in the murderous cross fire between extreme factions on both sides of the political spectrum that took place during the Years of Lead. On the right, neofascist extremists exploded bombs in public places, including Piazza Fontana in Milan, Piazza della Loggia in Brescia (May 28, 1974), and the central train station in Bologna (August 2, 1980). On the far left, terrorist cells such as the Red Brigades and Prima Linea carried out a series of targeted assassinations, generally of police officers, prosecutors, judges, and journalists. Their violence culminated in the Red Brigades' kidnap and murder of former prime minister Aldo Moro in the spring of 1978. Both the left-and the right-wing terrorists claimed, paradoxically, that their actions were aimed at destabilizing the Italian government and society and ushering in a government that more closely reflected their own political views.
The climate of terror was further aggravated by the Sicilian Mafia, particularly in the 1980s and '90s. Despite obvious differences in its politics and motivations, the Mafia used tactics not unlike those of the extremists in retaliating against government investigations that threatened to erode its power. In 1982, for example, it assassinated General Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa, the government-appointed anti-Mafia czar, and, in 1992, two of the most successful anti-Mafia prosecutors (who had earlier scored
major victories against the Red Brigades), Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. Ultimately, the same judicial strategy was deployed to help defeat both red terrorism and the Sicilian Mafia: the offer of reduced sentences to turncoat witnesses, known in Italian as the
Despite countless investigations, legal proceedings, and publications regarding the crimes committed during the Years of Lead, the Italian public remains largely skeptical of “official” explanations and anxious for a more complete reckoning. Their hunger for truth has been exacerbated by the early release of many convicted terrorists and the election or appointment to public office of some of them. Some former terrorists took refuge in France, where they benefited from the so-called Mitterand doctrine (repealed in 2002), the country's policy not to extradite them to Italy. More troublesome, perhaps, is the romantic aura that still surrounds the Red Brigades, which may have inspired copycat crimes such as the assassination of two leading labor experts, Massimo D'Antona (in 1999) and Marco Biagi (in 2002) by the self-styled “New” Red Brigades.
The case of the Luigi Calabresi homicide demonstrates how the crimes of the 1970s continue to play out even today. After the investigation into the murder went cold, there were no new leads until 1988âsixteen years laterâwhen the driver of the getaway car, Leonardo Marino, turned himself in. On the basis of his testimony, three accomplices, Adriano Sofri, Giorgio Pietrostefani, and Ovidio Bompressiâall former members of Lotta Continuaâwere arrested for the crime. The first trial concluded on May 2, 1990, with the conviction of all four men, and a reduced sentence for Marino. All in all there would be seven trials over a thirteen-year period, variously nullifying and reinstating the original verdict. The final sentence was handed down on January 2, 1997, but seven more attempts would be made to reopen the case, ending in 2000.
Throughout the years the most famous of the three, Adriano Sofri, has maintained his innocence, with the support of noted journalists and intellectuals who complain that there has been a miscarriage of justice. Yet until recently, when he admitted what he termed his “moral co-responsibility” for the Calabresi murder, he has been unwilling to counter the accusations against him with his own version of the facts. Many other noted former terrorists likewise tease the public with the promise of the “true story” of those years, but are never willing to acknowledge the irreparable harm they have caused to the hundreds of Italians whose lives were ended or tragically altered by their actions.
In translating this book, I have adapted it for readers unfamiliar with the historical background or the intricacies of the Italian political and justice systems. The original edition assumes knowledge of the facts and the personalities that very few non-Italians command; it cites movements, national newspapers, and public figures that resonate powerfully with Italians, thus erasing the need to indicate their political orientation or ideological relationship to the events in question. Since a more literal translation would have made parts of this story inaccessible to the American reader, I decided, in consultation with the author and the editor, to insert brief explanations, and often a simple adjective, to make popular or political associations more explicit. At the same time, I have eliminated the names of people who relate only peripherally to the main narrative, such as national media figures and local politicians. To provide a frame of reference for the book as a whole, I have written this translator's note; although it might seem to exceed the boundaries of a more narrow and technical concept of translation, it attempts to express the broader cross-cultural vocation that good translation seeks to fulfill.
The political landscape traveled in this book is particularly complex, since the events related are considered within two very different and very dynamic time frames, the 1970s and today. At
the time of Luigi Calabresi's murder, there was a multitude of parties on the left, the largest being the Italian Communist Party and the Socialists, as well as several more militant “extra-parliamentary” formations, including Lotta Continua and Autonomia Operaia. On the right was the centrist Christian Democrat Party, which governed Italy without interruption for almost fifty years. After a series of corruption scandals in the early 1990s, the old system collapsed. The Italian Communist Party split into the centrist Democratic Party of the Left and the hard-line Communist Refoundation. On the right, the Christian Democrats were disbanded, the separatist Northern League emerged as a major contender, and the Italian Social Movementâthe heir to the Fascist Partyâwas reborn as the National Alliance. The biggest conservative player today, however, is Forza Italia, the party of Silvio Berlusconi.
The Italian legal system is best described as byzantine. Trials can drag on for years, and an initial conviction is often followed automatically by a second trial on appeal, and a third trial to confirm the legitimacy of a sentence, which could overturn the previous verdicts, and order that the whole process be started over again. Rather than guarantee the validity of a verdict, these multiple steps and the inconsistency of their outcomes tends to sow confusion and create fertile terrain for often outlandish conspiracy theories, a trend the Italians describe as
(literally, behind-ology, based on the sense there is always a dark truth hiding “behind” the official version).
Lost in this quest for justice is the human cost of terrorist crimes. This book casts a much-needed light on the lives that have been forgotten in the battles over historical truth. Rather than devote his memoir exclusively to his own family, Mario Calabresi also gives voice to many other victims of terrorist violence. This is not a manifesto or a political pamphlet. It is simply an attempt to disentangle the stories of the families from the warring ideologies that so irrevocably determined their fate.