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“What do the victims matter, if the gesture be
Illo: Umberto Boccioni, The Charge of the Lancers, 1915
had told you that I would not write again, that I would let you decide.
I’m reneging on that promise.
am sitting alone, utterly alone, in the choir loft of my church.
Snowflakes swirl in listless spirals round the inside of the sanctuary.
They blow in through a hole tapped in the ceiling by a stray bomb.
They fall, brushing against the marble ribs of the church dome and
tumbling past the expressionless faces of carved prophets. Settling over the shoulders of the grandmothers, who sit
in the pews as gray and silent as the saints.
church no longer has an organ or a choir-- both have also been lost to the war.
I am the only musician left. So
the music depends on me and the ocarina I wrote about before.
It is a fine instrument, double-barreled, one chamber in C, the other in
F. I can play my own
morning I played “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel”, because it is the fourth week of
Advent. The hymn asks us to
rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel will come. Yet
the tempo is like a funeral dirge, as if the hymnist himself did not believe.
much has been displaced by war. Men
fighting far from home, snow inside the sanctuary, and me so far from you.
gemit in exilio,
pro te, Israel.
yes, oh yes! O come, O come,
Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, I plead as I play.
I am the captive, longing to be rescued.
I am the one mourning in lonely exile, in a church not my own, a place
not my home. I have been waiting so
long, Lord, so long for the one who will bring my heart, as if in a parcel from
far away. Where is she?
Why does she tarry? She
knows I cannot go to her.
grandmothers can hear my music, but they cannot see me from the pews.
The only one who sees me is Father Emilio. A few days ago, he told me that one of the grandmothers
wanted to meet me.
told him, “No, I play music so the Lord may be praised, not the musician.”
nodded and went away. He never even
looked at me. He never looks at me.
does he torment me so? He knows
that I see no one, that I want to see no one.
dreamt about you last night. In my
dream you came to me, gliding past black and wet tree trunks, drifting. In my dream you had a hundred toes, and they spun like
propellers, lifting you into the air, so you floated, coming to me.
In my dream, the sunlight fragmented into shards and planes as it passed
through your hair, and your whole head sparkled with the prismatic colors of
Christmas tinsel. In my dream, you came to me.
come. You know I cannot go to you.
I went to war, you gave me a guitar. Do
you remember? I remember.
I wish I had taken better care of it.
I wish I had never lost it, never received the ocarina in exchange.
I hate this ocarina. It
keeps me from coming to you.
not you from coming to me. If that
is your choice.
cannot wait any longer.
love with you,
Paolo sat on the floor of the troop train, his back
against the metal wall, his face leaning into the guitar case cradled between
his knees. A splinter of late
afternoon autumn light fell between two soldiers standing nearby.
Paolo turned his head slightly, and the light warmed his scalp.
“Want a smoke?” asked a soldier, shifting from
foot to foot. His name was Pietro
and he was quite tall.
“Y-yes.” Paolo took a cigarette eagerly.
“That guitar...” Pietro said,
“you hold it like a baby.”
“My fiancee gave it to me,” Paolo said.
“I... I... don’t want
anything to happen to it.”
“Did you enlist to impress her?
Or run away from her?”
“Oh, no,” Paolo said. “It’s just that--”
“So you want to hear my story or not?” said
another soldier. His name was
Angelo, and he was much shorter and wider than Pietro.
“After all, we’re going to war.
We might as well be prepared.”
Pietro said, “Sure, let’s have it.”
Angelo smacked his lips and said, “A friend of mine
was marching, not even that close to the front. An Austrian shell came out of the air, out of nowhere.
Dropped straight down on them.”
“Was he killed?” Paolo asked.
Angelo laughed a great belly laugh.
“Was he killed? No,
because then he couldn’t tell me the story then, could he?”
Paolo shrunk back, blushing slightly.
Angelo continued: “Heh, heh. He
didn’t get a scratch. But the guy
behind, right behind him... Heh heh. Vaporized
instantly. Nothing left of him
except a cloud of red particles hanging in the air.
For just a moment. Then that
was carried away by the wind. Flew
up very high and disappeared into the night sky.”
Paolo said, “That’s not true, is it?”
Pietro said, “What’s so horrible about that?”
Angelo said with a shrug, “Well, I guess it’s not
true that there was absolutely nothing left of him.
My friend said that later he was cleaning out his backpack.
He found these little holes in his pack, like bullet holes.
Strange, he thought. He
hadn’t been shot at. Then, as he
unpacked the bag, in among his rations and tools, he found some bloody bits of
the other guy’s teeth. That’s
all that was left of this noble son of Italia, just a molar and a couple
incisors knocked out of his jaw by the explosion.
If my friend hadn’t been wearing his pack, that guy’s teeth would
have bit him in the backside. He
would’ve needed a surgeon to dig them out.”
“You made that up,” Paolo said.
“Aw, come on, Angelo, I’ve heard worse than
that,” Pietro said.
“The front can’t be that bad,” Paolo said.
“They would have told us in training.
I didn’t come here to... I
“To be a hero?” Angelo said with a laugh.
“Well, yeah,” Paolo said.
“Hey, everybody!” Angelo shouted to the hundred
soldiers in the train car. “Hey,
look, our new national hero!” No
one paid him much attention.
“Trying to impress that girl of yours?” Pietro
Paolo said, “I was told that there’s all sorts of
commendations available for scouts and couriers. I hear it’s not as dangerous as people think, if you’re
“Careful or not, doesn’t matter,” Angelo said.
“A stray bomb and you’re blown to bits.
All that’s left of you is your teeth in someone else’s ass.
Oh, and there’s more. Suppose
you got another soldier who’s shot in the face and gets his teeth knocked out.
Well, you get a surgeon and he takes the teeth out of that one guy’s
ass and sticks them in to fix the other fellow’s mouth and…”
“Oh, don’t listen to him, Paolo.”
“It’s true!” Angelo said. “The doctors can do all sorts of thing these days.”
Pietro said, “You know what I hear is the worst
thing about being at war? It’s
not getting blown up or shot. It’s
not even dying. The worst thing is
“Waiting?” Paolo said.
“Waiting,” Pietro said, “waiting for the next
shell to fall on you, waiting for the next friend to die. Waiting to kill some fellow you’ve never met before.
It’s the waiting that drives men crazy with shell shock.”
“You’re just trying to scare me,” Paolo said.
“How do you know?”
“I know it’s true, I know it’s true,” Pietro
said, shaking his head grimly. “They’re
kept in special tents near the military hospitals.
Their faces are gray and shapeless like putty. Their eyes are glassy, and they don’t blink like normal
eyes. I knew a fellow before he
went to war. Full of life, just
like you. Then I saw him in one of
those special tents later. He was
like that. Putty-faced, eyes not
blinking. He’d lost all the color
in his cheeks, and his mouth was a quivering little slit.”
“The doctors must be able to...” Paolo said.
“Sure they can,” Angelo said, “They can do all
sorts of stuff. I hear they use
radical surgery... Lobotomies...
Whatever it takes until they’re happy, happy, happy all the time.
And one of their favorites is shock treatments!
They strap these wires to your head, and then, bzzzzaaap!
and you’re all better. All
ready to go back and kill and kill and kill some more.
I hear that after a while you get to like it.”
Angelo held out his arms and convulsed.
A wild monkey smile spread across his face.
“Gimme gimme shock treatment! Gimme
gimme shock treatment!”
“How do you know this?” Paolo asked.
“How long have you been at the front?”
“Actually,” Pietro said, “we’ve never been.
We’re going there for the first time now.”
At that moment, the door at the end of the train car
opened. A pair of enlisted men
entered. Paolo turned his feet in,
and Pietro pressed himself against the wall.
“The thing about being in the army that gets me
most,” he said, “is the constant discomfort.
Like this train! Look how
crowded it is. We’re packed in
like sheep to the slaughter. They
go out of their way to inconvenience us.”
“What I wouldn’t give for a seat!” Angelo said.
“My knees are aching,” Pietro said.
As he spoke, the train door opened again, and another
man entered -- this time, a lieutenant.
The men began to snap to attention, but the officer
put them at ease.
Paolo always felt nervous around officers.
And this one was taller than Pietro and wider than Angelo. Paolo
held his breath until the lieutenant began to speak.
The officer looked down at Pietro and said, “Why do
your knees ache, soldier?”
“Sir, there aren’t enough seats and we’ve been
standing this whole trip. That’s
over five hours, sir.”
“You lazy imbecile!” The lieutenant snorted.
“You shouldn’t be complaining, but celebrating!”
Pietro tensed his neck, but did not talk back.
“Do you know why we’re fighting, you maggots?”
the officer screamed at him. “What
we’re fighting for? Don’t you
know that this war will overthrow everything outdated and hateful in our nation?
Our backward nation! Don’t
you know that war is the only hygiene of the world!”
The lieutenant turned his attention from this one
soldier to the hundred men crammed with their duffel bags into the train car.
He clapped his hands together and shouted, “All of
you, listen! Since childhood you
have all been told about the splendor that was Rome! The splendor that was
Rome! The past
greatness of the ancient Empire! I say, let that tiresome memory be erased... by a modern
Italian greatness a hundred times greater!”
A small cheer arose among the men.
The lieutenant turned again to Pietro and asked,
“Soldier, do you know who are our enemies in this war?” the lieutenant asked
“Me, sir?” The
tentative answer came back: “Austria and Germany, sir?”
The officer said, “No! Don’t you mealyworms know anything? We don’t fight nations, but institutionalized sheepishness!
We fight the dullness of traditions!
The professional pedantry that suppresses us all!
You and you and you! We, all
of us, together, have the power to liberate ourselves from everything that
Then the lieutenant took a sack off his shoulder,
and, giggling to himself, thrust in his thick, knobby fingers.
He withdrew handfuls of tracts, which he distributed among the men.
Some papers advocated universal voting rights;
others, equal pay for women or socialization of the land.
He shoved tracts into the hands of weary soldiers and
littered the laps of the sleeping.
Then the lieutenant reached past Paolo’s ear to
fling open a window. Soldiers
yelped as frosty mountain air swept through the car.
Tracts flew from the officer’s hand and out the window.
“This train is the pyrotechnic beast, tunneling into the future!
Our manifestos are the smoke and power of its breath! The breath that breathes life into our lifeless nation!”
The lieutenant flung a handful of papers out the window to seed the
“He can’t be serious,” Pietro whispered to
Then the officer turned to Paolo, pressing his chest
into the boy’s face. The
officer’s name tag jabbed Paolo in the cheek.
It said “Mazzini.”
“Soldier, can you read?” the officer asked.
“Y-yes,” Paolo said.
“Then read!” Mazzini thrust a tract into his
Paolo read, “There... is, um, nothing for us to,
uh... admire today...”
No!” Mazzini shouted. “Furioso! Everything a Futurist writes should be read this way!”
“What’s a Futurist?” Paolo mumbled.
Mazzini seized the paper from Paolo and read as
loudly as possible, “There is nothing for us to admire today!
Nothing!! Nothing except the
dreadful symphonies of shrapnel!”
Giggling at the sound of his own voice, the officer
handed the tract back to Paolo.
The paper shook in his hand, and he looked nervously
around the train car. All the other
soldiers were watching him, all staring at him.
began to say, weakly. Then the
lieutenant slapped him hard on the back, and he coughed a word from his mouth.
“Nothing!” Paolo coughed, in a volume that startled even himself.
Mazzini smiled and slapped him on the back again, and Paolo coughed, even
louder, “Nothing!” Then he
shouted: “Nothing but the mad sculptures!
The mad sculptures that our inspired artillery molds in the masses of our
The officer clapped his hands and motioned for the
men to cheer. Most did, at least a
Paolo smiled. Sometimes
it was hard to speak his own words without mumbling.
But now it was surprisingly easy to shout someone else’s.
The office clapped his hand on Paolo’s shoulder and
smiled at him.
Looking into Mazzini’s eyes, mesmerized by his
gaze, Paolo shouted, “War is the only hygiene of the world!”
Then, following the officer’s lead, Paolo grabbed a
handful of tracts and flung them out the window.
Paolo laughed and defenestrated more papers.
Then he thrust his head out the window and watched as some of the papers,
white in the moonlight, were sucked down and trampled under the train’s
wheels. Other sheets flicked off
the train’s black metal skin, settling down on the dark railbed.
Still others flew very high up and very far away, disappearing into the
clouds, perhaps someday to rain down on an unsuspecting villager.
“Well done!” the lieutenant said to Paolo.
“Come with me and I will make you a Futurist among men!”
Then the officer shouted, “Fight on!
Fight on, all of you!” as he made his way down the narrow aisle, knees
and boots withdrawing to clear a path for him.
“Fight on! And stupidity
and dullness will fall before us!” Hands
reached out to grasp his.
Pietro was shaking his head, and Angelo glanced at
the officer and rolled his eyes again.
Paolo looked again at Mazzini, who had stopped in the
middle of the aisle and was beckoning Paolo to follow.
It was not a command, it was a decision.
Paolo glanced back at Pietro and Angelo for just a
moment, and saw their dead eyes full of fear and complaint.
He looked again at Mazzini and he saw energy and passion.
Paolo waved goodbye to Pietro and Angelo and their
horrible stories, and then took up his guitar case and his duffel bag.
He followed the lieutenant out the train door.
Paolo and Lieutenant Ugo Mazzini arrived at the
Italian Third Army, and stood for a moment to watch teams of men tied together
with ropes, hauling impossibly heavy loads.
For a moment, Paolo thought: I’m not in the Alps to fight the
Austrians... I’m in ancient Egypt!
The Austrians, Mazzini told him, had long been
entrenched in the mountains, with heavy artillery installed high in the cliffs
facing Italy. Now the Italians
would have to haul their guns to the same heights of the opposing rocks.
Paolo watched as an enormous artillery piece slowly
inched up a foothill, columns of men dragging it with ropes.
The barrel was at least three meters long; the wheels of the gun carriage
were taller than the captain directing the operation.
Paolo couldn’t guess the gun’s weight, but he could count the
soldiers pulling. There were four
columns, and one column numbered sixty men.
“Sir,” Paolo said to the lieutenant, “I never realized so many were here just to move things around. Sir, I want to be just...”
“If you don't want to move things around,” Mazzini said, “I believe there are a whole lot of latrines that need to be dug, and mess tents that need to be scrubbed out.”
want to do something important. I
want to be able to go home and say more than, ‘I was there, and I didn’t get
killed.’ I was thinking that I
could volunteer to be a scout or a courier...”
“Oh no,” the lieutenant said.
“Don’t be a fool. There are safer ways to make you a hero.
That’s what you want, isn’t it?
I have all sorts of plans for you. The
entire world will look at you and say, ‘Ah!
There’s a Futurist!’”
“A Futurist, sir?” Paolo asked.
“Is that like a Communist?”
Mazzini’s face flushed red suddenly, and, for a
moment, Paolo feared that the officer would lash out.
No!” Mazzini shouted and started walking more quickly.
“We are not Communists! We
are Futurists! We have our
own revolution! And we are not
papists, we are not syndicalists, anarchists, socialists, or monarchists,
either! We are Futurists! Futurists!” Mazzini pounded his fist into his hand.
“Don’t forget that simple thing!”
“But, sir, what is a Futurist?” Paolo
Mazzini threw up his hands in disgust and ran ahead
of Paolo, who stood still, wondering if Mazzini was still his friend.
The lieutenant turned around and yelled at him,
“Are you coming or aren’t you? Hurry
up! Hurry up! All too soon it’ll
be too cold to fight. This war
won’t last forever, and we have so much to do!”
They arrived at the lieutenant’s quarters, which
bore the sign: “Art House.” It
was not a house at all, but a dugout, a cave chipped and scooped out of the
hillside. Paolo had heard that
French dugouts were primitive affairs, overrun with rats, with no more
furnishings than a naked lamp and a rickety table.
In contrast, German officers drank cognac in theirs and slept in warm
brass beds. The Futurist Art House
was another thing altogether.
When he went inside, Paolo realized the house was
designed not for military purposes, not for living comfortably, but for making
art. A rough wooden bunk was shoved
into a corner, with rolls of canvas piled around it. Drafting tables made from crates butted against each other.
A small press was tirelessly printing in another corner.
Shelves overflowed with little sculptures of heads
Paolo leaned in to look more closely.
Some horse sculptures were anatomically correct, with
even the recessed areas in the shoulders and elbows carefully defined.
Another horse sculpture was a jumbled mess, with a dozen legs splayed out
in all directions, as if the head and neck were the handle of an old mop.
One clay sculpture of a man’s head had features
that were jagged and exaggerated, the edges sharp like freshly chipped limestone
around the cheekbones and eyes. Another
head, in plaster, was bald except a line of hair worn in the style of the Mohawk
Indians. Upon closer inspection,
Paolo realized that the “hair” was closely-packed shards of colored glass.
Paolo reached out to touch a sculpture, but the
lieutenant shouted at him, “Be careful! Those
A call came from outside the house: “Lieutenant
Mazzini! Lieutenant Mazzini!”
Paolo turned around to see the lieutenant embracing
an enlisted man with energetic eyes and a cheerful face.
Mazzini introduced the man as Aroldo Baracca, another
“Great news, lieutenant!” Aroldo said.
“Colonel De Pisis has authorized a Futurist evening!”
“Four days!” Aroldo exclaimed.
Mazzini asked, “And General Cadorna has no attack
planned before then?”
“No,” Aroldo said.
“Four days is not much time,” Mazzini said.
“There is so much to do. Are
you making progress? Are the pipes
finished yet? You know how
important that project is.”
“They won’t be ready in time.”
“Excuse me, sir,” Paolo said.
“But what do you mean by an ‘evening’?”
The lieutenant looked at Aroldo knowingly, laughed a
small laugh, and then gestured for Aroldo to explain.
“A Futurist evening,” Aroldo said, “is a
performance, a combination of political rally, art exhibit, musical
“And, if at all possible,” Mazzini said, “a
fight and a riot!”
“A riot, sir?” Paolo asked.
The lieutenant laughed at his own words, and then
asked, “Are the others here?”
Aroldo called out, “Carlo! Gino! Matteo!”
The three young man came into the Art House.
Carlo grumbled and dressed his face in a sneer. He had three parallel
scars on his left cheek.
"This is Paolo Pascoli, my friends,"
Mazzini said. "He would like
to be a Futurist."
Each man introduced himself.
"Sir, what can I do?"
Gesturing at the sculptures and art work, Paolo said, "You seem to
have all the talent you need already."
"I could use some help cutting pipe,"
"I see you've brought your guitar with
you," Mazzini said. "Let's
hear you play."
Paolo placed the guitar case on a bench and opened
it. It felt like an audition.
He strummed a C chord, and then tuned, the wooden pegs squeaking loudly.
He looked around nervously and began to play.
Aroldo nodded, but Mazzini wrinkled his mouth.
"What is that?" Mazzini asked.
"Bach," Matteo said, "from Suite
Number Three in C major. The Bourrée..."
"I thought so," Mazzini said.
He listened for a few more bars, then exclaimed, "That's enough!
Bach is archaic music summarizing even more archaic music."
Aroldo said, "He's actually not bad..."
"The Colonel would like that," Matteo said.
"But his choice of music is all wrong,”
Mazzini said. “Bach is the
encrusted crap they use to quench creativity in music school."
“I’ve never been to--”
“But you have learned their small-mindedness and
Paolo said, "I thought you said that a Futurist
evening would be a musical concert, so..."
"Don't you know anything about Futurist music, real
music?" Mazzini demanded.
Paolo said shook his head.
"You've never heard of the intonarumori,
the noise organs?"
"What are those?"
"He knows music school crap, but he's never
heard of the greatest innovation in the history of music!" Mazzini said
with a haughty laugh, looking at the other Futurists. They laughed politely. "The
noise organs were invented by the master Futurist composer Luigi Russolo!
They will do nothing less than revolutionize the concept of
Noise organs, Paolo thought.
What were these? He looked
around the Art House. Several
musical instruments were on the shelves: a violin, a flute, an ocarina.
These were covered with dust, as if not been played recently. Then,
considering Mazzini’s apparent interest in technology and instrumentalities,
Paolo said, "Are these noise organs like steam-driven pipe organs, or a new
type of harpsichord?"
“No no no,” Mazzini said. "Aroldo, please...”
Paolo wondered what kind of instruments these noise organs might be.
Perhaps a French horn with extra loops like a bowl of spaghetti?
A guitar with extra strings?
When Aroldo returned with a noise organ, Paolo
exclaimed, "That's it?"
The noise organ had no f-holes, no stops, no keys.
It was undecorated, without pearl inlays or brass trim.
It was just a plain wooden box with a speaker sticking out of it. Only a small lever was mounted modestly in the side, and it
had an unassuming handcrank in the back.
"That little box is going to revolutionize the
concept of music?" Paolo asked.
"Never underestimate the power of a single
machine to change history," Mazzini said.
"Oh, I understand!" Paolo said.
"It's a new kind of Edison phonograph!"
As Aroldo began to turn the crank, Paolo became
excited, hoping to hear something amazing, perhaps a surprisingly clear
recording of Enrico Caruso, perhaps even Caruso singing the part of Canio in Pagliacci.
The sound that came out of the noise organ wasn't
Caruso's soaring tenor, but a sound like tin cans ground with a cheese grater.
"This isn't a phonograph," Paolo said.
Gino shook his head.
"Oh, that's repugnant!" Paolo said.
Instead of stopping, Aroldo looked up at Mazzini, who
raised his hand and said, "Voce di testa!"
Aroldo flipped the lever up and turned the crank more quickly.
The grating sound rose half an octave and became more clipped:
scri scri scri.
"Beautiful music, eh?" Mazzini said.
Paolo covered his ears.
Then Mazzini lowered his hand and Aroldo flipped the
lever down and turned the crank very slowly.
The sound dropped an octave plus two.
Paolo said, "How can you call that 'beautiful
music'? Or music at all?"
Aroldo wrinkled his brow and said, "The
overtones could be fuller..."
"You are so limited, Paolo," Mazzini said.
"You think beautiful sounds can only be made by a handful of
sanctioned instruments. Why is the
bassoon allowed in the orchestra but not the drill press? Why
is percussion of wood on leather acceptable, but not pebbles on glass, or steel
on terra cotta? This is the modern
age, and the world needs modern instruments!"
Mazzini glanced at Aroldo, who then said, "All
around us are interesting sounds. Not
just sounds, but music. In the
leaves in the wind, in the water dripping into a pool, in a small animal
rustling in the underbrush..."
"Not just that!" Mazzini shouted.
He picked up a pencil and waved it like a conductor's baton.
"The thoughtful chanting of smokestacks!
The delirious rhapsodies of metal stampers!
The feverish arias of howitzers at dawn!"
“Is that music or just noise?” Paolo asked.
“Why the arbitrary distinction?” Mazzini
"We have a whole series," Aroldo explained
to Paolo. "Some make sounds
like thumping or rumbling, some rustle, some whisper. We shall play them all at the Futurist evening."
"Do you think the men will enjoy this?"
Paolo asked. "Is this what the Colonel had in mind, sir?"
“The Colonel will get a good revue,” the
Then, after a pause, Paolo asked, “And what am I
supposed to do, sir?”
A broad smile spread across Mazzini’s face and then
he said, “I have a special plan for you, my son. Maybe we can make use of your ability to play Bach.
Dozens, hundreds will learn of your... your...”
“Talents, sir?” Aroldo suggested.
“Yes, talents. You do still want to be a hero, don’t you?”
IF THE GESTURE BE BEAUTIFUL
PART 1 - PART 2 - PART 3 - PART 4
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