Authors: Lorenzo Carcaterra
Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #General
BALLANTINE BOOKS • NEW YORK
This one’s for Kate.
We talk just like lions
But we sacrifice like lambs
I’ve always wanted to write a novel about the war and the brave young men and women of Naples. There are many who have helped make that possible. I would like to thank my mother, Raffaela, and my Nonna Maria for sharing their stories of pain and loss. And to my family and friends in Italy (especially Paolo Murino and Vincent Cerbone) who opened their hearts and showed me the city of Naples and its people in ways I would never have been able to see on my own.
Ai sempre un posto nel mio cuoro.
Warm thanks must also be sent to Peter Gethers, hands down the best editor in the book business, and to Gina Centrello, a terrific publisher whose energy and enthusiasm help fuel each of my stories. And to the rest of the Ballantine posse—Ed, Ann, Kim, Marie, Leyla, Claudia and the best sales force on the planet—thank you.
A writer is only as good as the team around him, and I have the best. Owen, Joni, Rob, Suzanne and Tracy at William Morris cover me like a warm blanket. Lou Pitt puts up with the phone calls and the complaints, all the while making sure that what needs to be done gets done. Robert Offer delivers comfort and hard work and always has the right answer. And the great Jake Bloom has never wavered in his love and care. He’s the father I wish I had and the friend I will always have.
To Lorenzo Di Bonaventura, thanks for the trust and the friendship. This novel is yours as much as it is mine. To Courtenay Valenti and Steve Reuther for loving this story as much as I do, and to Paula Weinstein and Barry Levinson for their help.
To my friends who put up with the calls and always leave me with a smile—Hank Gallo, Dr. George, Mr. G., Steve Allie, William Diehl, Bobby G., Captain Joe, Eric and Peggy, Ida and Anthony, Peter Giuliano, Rocco, Fast Freddie, Sonny, Adriana, Rabbi Liz, Sister K, Michael C., Judge Leslie Crocker Snyder—a heartfelt thank you. Uncle Robert and Aunt Jane have earned a special place in my heart. And it is always a pleasure to spend time in the company of Caroline Shea, Dustin Fleischman and Peter Paleokrassas.
To my wife, Susan Toepfer, who endured a turbulent year and showed everyone around her how to handle it with both class and quiet dignity. I end up with her by my side. The other guys end up with each other. I win.
To my daughter, Kate, now old enough to teach me a few life lessons of her own, keep reaching for your dreams. You’ll figure out a way to get there. And to my son, Nick, the smiles, the hugs and the wise cracks help a lot more than you can ever know.
And to Big Jack Sanders—we all miss you every day.
During a four-day period, starting on September 28 and ending on October 1, 1943, a band of Italian street orphans, numbering less than three hundred, took on an advancing German Panzer Division that had been sent to finish the destruction of their home city of Naples. The boys and a handful of girls, armed only with primitive weapons and an arsenal of street cunning, fought with bravery and distinction.
It is a story I have heard many times. My mother always told it to me on the nights when I had trouble sleeping. She had lost a six-month-old son to the bombing of Salerno in 1943, and her story, told in her native Neapolitan dialect, always ended in tears for both of us.
As I got older and spent many months across many years in southern Italy, I heard different versions of the same story from people who had suffered through that war and through those days, many of them relatives. I have been a close friend for nearly twenty years with one of the boys who was part of that battle. For him, the victory was cruel: he lost a mother and two sisters in the rubble that was Naples.
I am not a historian and this book is not factual. All the characters are fictional, as are the details of the battles. The dialogue and settings can be found nowhere but on these pages. But at the very heart of this novel, at its deepest center, there is a simple truth: that a band of children, stripped of all that mattered to their lives, stood up against the most powerful army ever to invade their soil.
This novel stands as a testament to the courage of the
of Naples. And to the blood they spilled.
The German tank stopped in front of the small stone house, its tracks grinding the quarter-acre vegetable garden into pockets of dust. A German officer, young and in full battle gear, stood alongside, a bullhorn in one hand, a lit cigarette in the other. He raised the bullhorn to his lips, staring out with crystal blue eyes at the alarmed faces, young and old.
“You must leave now,” he commanded, his voice echoing through the funnel of the horn. “Take no possessions, take no food. This is no longer your home and this is no longer your property. The city is now under our rule. There is always a price to be paid for betrayal. This is yours.”
He saw the old woman out of the corner of his right eye.
She walked with a hobble as she rushed out of the back of the house, her arms wrapped around a three-foot statue of the Virgin Mary. She was dressed in black, with a hand-knit black shawl draped across her shoulders, her long strands of hair, white as an afternoon cloud, rolled and held in place by rows of thick pins. The war had cost her all she had once called her own—a husband she loved, sons and daughters who doted on her, grandchildren she cuddled in her arms, singing them to sleep in the silence of the Neapolitan night. Her home, where she was born, the place where she had made a life for herself and her husband, was now in enemy hands. All she had left was the statue that had been in her family for three generations. Gianna Mazella, seventy-eight years old, riddled with the pains of advancing age and the weight of a broken heart, would rather be found dead than let it fall into someone else’s hands. So she ran with her head down and her lips pursed against the sculptured edges of the statue, murmuring words of prayer as she moved over strips of parched land in search of safety. Her old heart was beating hard and fast, heavy patches of sweat forming on her back and chest, rivulets of perspiration running down the sides of her olive-skinned face. “
Madanna Mia, famme arrivera in tempo
,” the old woman mumbled into the cool marble, her arms gripping the statue as if it were a life preserver. “
Ti prego, famme arrivera
The German officer turned to his left, looking down at an infantryman with his rifle at his side. The officer nodded and the soldier dropped to one knee and brought his rifle up against the base of his shoulder. His right eye squinted shut, his left searched for the old woman in his scope. “Do you have her in range?” the officer asked.
“Yes, sir,” the soldier answered without a shift in position. “I can graze her in the arm or leg. That will bring her to a stop.”
“We are not here to waste bullets,” the officer said. “Nor are we here to stop escaping prisoners. We are here to kill them.”
The soldier closed both eyes for a brief moment and rubbed the fingers of his hands together, looking to free them of sweat. “I have the head shot, sir,” he said softly.
“Then take it,” the officer told him.
The young soldier gave the trigger a gentle squeeze, the mild recoil jolting him slightly. He opened both eyes and brought the rifle back against his chest. He saw the old woman spread out, facedown across a dry patch of dirt, lower limbs still twitching, blood oozing out of a large gaping wound in her temple, the religious statue next to her, inches beyond her grasp.
“Well done,” the officer said, turning away from the soldier. “Perhaps now the rest of these Italians will realize it doesn’t pay to ignore our orders.”
In the late summer of 1943, Naples was a city under siege.
Italy was once the third and weakest spoke in the Axis wheel forged by Germany and Japan as each nation sought to grab a piece of the world. Now the country and its citizens found themselves the victims of an abrupt switch in gears. Their once beloved leader, Benito Mussolini, in power since 1922, had been ousted from office by the anti-Fascists and was on the run in northern Italy, turning futilely to his last remaining ally, Adolf Hitler, for help. This left the Italians, for the most part, leaderless and stripped of any hope for a reasonable peace.
For the first fifteen years of Il Duce’s reign, from 1922 to 1937, Italy had thrived.
Roads long abandoned and unfit for use were dug up and repaved. Factory doors once bolted were opened wide and the businesses running at full capacity. Museum works were refurbished and the train stations modernized. Crime that was once rampant, claiming thousands of victims a day, was shut down, the criminals either behind bars or beneath freshly turned ground. A once starving populace pranced around with full stomachs and pockets crammed with cash. The Italians, who for decades had been treated as the adorable doormats of Europe, reveled in their fresh avenues of strength. “We are the new America,” Italians would brag in long letters sent to relatives living and struggling in the States. “We no longer need to leave our land to find fortune.”
The Italians, especially those in the more impoverished southern regions of the country, took to heart Mussolini’s words and beliefs. “It is better to live one day as a lion than a thousand years as a lamb” was a credo that even the youngest schoolboy could recite. Mussolini promised his people riches and glory not seen since the days of the Roman Empire, and for many years they believed in all that he said and all that he did. The Italians would follow him in any quest and answer his call to conquer any land.
The arrival of World War II brought a vicious and brutal halt to those dreams of power and respect, and forced Italians to awaken to a national nightmare.
The once rebuilt and redesigned infrastructures were blown to shreds by the onslaught of Allied bombing raids. Relics and artifacts that had withstood the battering of centuries now caved and shattered to the tumult of war. Mussolini’s government bolted and the people’s mood turned from adoration to rage as they saw their lands destroyed and the bodies of loved ones, young and old, in uniform and out, dead for reasons no one could fathom. The dictator’s once-mighty government shattered into tiny glass particles and was dispersed throughout Italy, its officers seeking solace in any port that would have them. The new government, led by a weak puppet named Marshal Pietro Badoglio, failed to rally the spirits of his people, who were short of food and fuel and living in a cauldron of destruction and upheaval. One hundred and ten thousand Italian soldiers lay dead in the frozen tundra of the Russian front, sent there by Mussolini to aid Hitler in his maniacal quest. An equal number of bodies were scattered throughout the Italian countryside and in North Africa, all of them victims of their leader’s thirst for world domination.
The years of victory were quickly erased from Italian memories.
By the summer of 1943, Italy was being attacked on two fronts, turning the country into one large battle zone. The combined Allied forces of American and British troops occupied lands and islands to the south. Sicily, Salerno and Paestum all fell in quick succession. At the same time, what had been an uneasy German friendship now turned into full-blown Nazi rage. Suddenly, Hitler’s air attacks and tank divisions throttled the Italian seacoast, Naples taking the hardest of the hits.
The Nazi high command had deemed Naples a port city that could not be left intact or it would become a stronghold for the Allied forces, giving them a clear path to the open sea. They knew it was inevitable that an American/British takeover of the city would occur, so a sinister three-step program was set in motion to ensure that miles of burning buildings, downed electrical wires, blown water systems and bombed-out roads would form a welcoming committee. Phase one was to evacuate anyone with the strength to walk out of the city. Phase two involved nighttime aerial attacks, aimed at destroying any structure that could be used by the enemy as housing or as a place to store arms. The final phase involved the complete and total destruction of Naples, a city that had withered but never fallen to the onslaught of dozens of conquerors over a handful of centuries. “If the city cannot belong to Hitler,” one German commander fumed, “then it will belong to no one.”
Any Neapolitan who resisted evacuation would be subject to the whim of the commanding officer in the sector. The few members of the growing Italian resistance fled to the surrounding hillside to await orders that were expected to come from the north. The Neapolitans were not sure of their future, but neither were they foolish enough to believe that the Germans planned to bring them out of Naples and usher them into a safe environment. They understood that they were being led to slaughter. It is why all resources were used to hide their children from Nazi eyes. The majority of those children were boys. Such thinking reflected a belief that boys would be best able to survive and cope on their own, which easily fed into the southern Italian reluctance to ever leave an unmarried daughter behind, regardless of circumstances. “Our families walked to a death sentence,” said Fabrizio Serra, who turned eighteen the day the Germans came into the city. “The lines started forming early in the morning, men and women marching side by side, leaving behind the only place they had ever lived. None of them turned around. No one could stand to see their homes burned, their animals killed, their furniture destroyed. I was hiding in a corner of a church steeple, looking down at the long lines stretched throughout the city. The only voices I heard were German, yelling out orders, setting fires, shooting anyone who refused to listen or who moved too slowly. My mother, father and aunt Julia left that day. They had accepted their fate. As he passed by the church, my father glanced up at me, one hand over his heart. It was his way of saying good-bye.”
They were piled onto the backs of flatbed trucks and herded into empty cargo trains at the main terminal. They walked with the slow gait of the defeated, tattered shoes leaving behind small mounds of dust, arms heavy by their sides, heads too weak to gaze at anything other than the dirt and cobblestones in front of them. The people of Naples had handed their destinies to a dictator who had promised them a piece of paradise on their ride to world rule. In its stead, there was now a land of darkness and upheaval, sadness and loss at every turn.
The boy’s name was Vincenzo Scolardi and he ran down the narrow streets, dodging cracks in the pavement and shattered stones, an early morning mist resting like a large quilt over the length of the city. He had a round, brown-crusted loaf of bread jammed under one arm and a string of rosary beads wrapped around the fingers of his left hand. He kept his head down, his thin-soled shoes landing softly on small puddles of brown water and hard edges of broken glass. The boy was tall for sixteen, with rich, curly brown hair, olive eyes and a casual manner. He had been both a gifted student and a superb soccer player prior to the eruption of the war. But neither school nor sports were what inspired the boy now. He loved and lived for a life in the military, eager to carry on a family tradition begun by his great-grandfather Giovanni, who held high the banner of a unified Naples, fighting alongside the legendary Giuseppe Garibaldi during his march into the city on September 7, 1860. Vincenzo devoured books on military history and tactics, envisioning the day when he would lead his own troops into the firestorm of battle.
He had spent the night sleeping under an old cot topped by a soiled mattress in a deserted apartment off Via Toledo, waiting out the bombing attacks that greeted Naples each night. His mother had sent him out earlier in the day in search of black market bread, which arrived nightly, carted in by flatbed trucks and sold in the darkness of quiet alleys. The war had stripped Neapolitans of even the most basic necessities, and they were forced to dole out small ransoms for what had once been inexpensive staples.
The trucks had been late.
They usually drove into the alleys at nine, but were delayed by mines and German checkpoints. The boy waited on a long, quiet line until nearly midnight for the round loaf that would serve as that day’s meal for his mother and two sisters. The air-raid alarms sounded seconds after the boy paid for the bread. He dropped his lira into the hands of a black marketer he had come to know, nodded and turned to leave. “Don’t go home, Vincenzo,” the man whispered from the emptiness of the dark truck.
“My mother’s waiting for this,” Vincenzo said. “My sisters haven’t eaten all day.”
“Forget about tonight,” the man said. “Let them have their bread in the morning.”
“I’m not worried about the bombs,” Vincenzo said. “I’ve run through them before.”
“It’s not the bombs you need to be concerned about,” the man said. “It’s the thieves who wait to steal the bread you buy. They haven’t eaten all day, either. And they never pay for what goes in their mouths.”
Vincenzo stared at the man, not sure whether to trust his own instincts or the word of a seller who profited from the hunger of his own people. “I’m not afraid,” Vincenzo said, looking around him at the now empty alley.
“Nor are you foolish,” the man said. “Find a warm place and wait out the night. You can make your run in the morning. Feed your family a good meal then. It’s a better choice than arriving home with empty hands.”
The first of the bombs fell in the piazza off the alley, sending debris and dust flying into the night air, the area now lit with flames. The truck’s engine kicked over and the man stood away from Vincenzo and let the cover drop over the back of the truck. “Save yourself,” the man said as he disappeared from view. “And the bread, too.”
Vincenzo waited until dawn before he braved the run back home.
He turned the final corner and skidded to a stop. He stood across from where his house had once been and stared at the crumpled mass of pink stucco, cement and wood. He dropped the bread and fell to his knees, head bowed, hands spread down the length of his face. He began to moan, moving back and forth in painful rhythms of agony, his body lifeless, his muscles weak. He lowered his head to the top of his knees and shook with rage and remorse. He didn’t need to look, didn’t need to search through rubble to find what he already knew to be true—they were dead.
His mother, who had born the weight of the war with stoic strength and love, was gone from his life. His younger sister, always quick to tease him and who loved to hear him laugh, lay crushed under the weight of stones that had once kept her safe. His older sister, who sang and rocked him to sleep when he was a toddler, reached out to her mother one final time before the bomb tore apart their lives.