28 January, 2005

"God's will"

Stray dogs invaded the city at night. Hundreds and hundreds of dogs, profiting from others' fear, wandered in deserted streets, in empty squares, in uninhabited alleys.

No one had any idea where they came from; by day not a dog was to be seen. Perhaps they hid themselves among the ruins, in the cellars of shattered houses, in the sewers with rats.

Perhaps they didn't really exist, but were instead the ghosts of dogs, who took shape in the darkness to imitate the men who had killed them. As men, they divided themselves into groups energized by hatred; as men, they desired only to tear each other apart. The unchanging rite always took place under the same pretext: the conquest of some sidewalk made precious by the remains of decaying food.
So begins Oriana Fallaci's novel Insciallah. (English version here; I'm translating my Italian edition.)

Oriana Fallaci's journalistic career spans several decades, and has taken her to several war zones. She was for a period infamous for provocative interviews with world leaders, which (oddly enough) none of them would ever refuse. You can read a little about her career and biography at this webpage.

Insciallah is Arabic for "God's will." The title is appropriate, given her subject matter: the middle period of Lebanon's long civil war. The setting of the book is Beirut, the capital. Most people act like they never knew, or have forgotten, than Iraq will not be the first Arab democracy: Lebanon was once, like Israel, a prosperous democracy at the edge of the Middle East. Human rights were, by and large, respected. (Or so I have read, and Fallaci also writes it.)

This all fell apart in the 1970s with the outbreak of the civil war. Its causes lie beyond my competence to set out. Fallaci has her own list of bogeymen, and she doesn't pull any punches when she lists them, and a lot of Westerners would be horrified at whom she lists. (She blames lots of people, but reserves a special bile for the Palestinians.)

This book isn't about all that, though. I'll get to its theme at the end of this post, after I've described the plot and a few subplots.

The major plot deals with the Italian peacekeepers' activities in the aftermath of the truck bombs that attacked the American and French barracks in 1983, killing nearly 300 of them. Fallaci dedicates the novel to these fallen soldiers, as well as to Beirut's victims of the war; she informs us that the events of the book are based on real events, while the characters themselves are imaginary.

If accurate, the picture she paints is unsettling. The Italian command was convinced that a third truck bomb had been prepared for their barracks, with only a miracle preventing its deployment. Perhaps, they reasoned, it was because they had taken their informants seriously, and had prepared for such an attack, while the Americans and French had dismissed it as Yet Another Rumor. To be safe, they decided to cash in on an act of one-sided charity to the Shi'ites of the city.

It turns out that the Italian command had also tried to ensure its safety by giving blood to the Shi'ite religious authorities. Some of it the Shi'ite leaders used for legitimate humanitarian purpose, but some of it they sold on the black market for profit. After the truck bomb attacks, the Italian commander authorized his subordinate in charge of the blood money (I can't think of a better phrase for it) to "request" an announcement from the minarets, source of the Shi'ites' daily news and inspirational messages: "You are not to touch the Italians! The Italians give us blood! The Italians are our brothers in blood!"

This makes both the Shi'ite and the Italian footsoldiers angry; tension rises and falls with new provocations and hidden, top-level negotiations.

The Italian army is nearly entirely made up of late-teen and early-twenties conscripts. They called it il servizio leva; we call it a military draft. (In recent years, the Italian government of Silvio Berlusconi has abolished mandatory national service.) I don't know if all conscripted soldiers are as undisciplined as the young men Fallaci portrays, but it certainly makes for a worrisome future: the men smoke hashish, chase after local women (both Muslim and Christian), get chased by local women (both Muslim and Christian), etc. Men frequently desert their guardposts in order to pursue some personal interest.

The subplots are no less bleak than the historical setting. An excellent example would be the case of Salvatore Bellezza fu Onofrio. There is no question that Salvatore has broken a number of military regulations, but his true crime was to embarass Condor, the commander. Condor reads the riot act to Falco, the chief of military police, and Falco imposes the most severe sentence he can on the young man. The bizarre situation is illustrated by the following scene: (note: in Italian, «Bellezza» means "beauty", so Falco calls the man «Brutezza», which means "ugliness")
"Who breaks the law pays, Bruttezza, and the law is the law. It doesn't grant discounts."

"Yessir, Colonel, Sir."

"After this premise, let us pass to the sentence."

"Yessir, Colonel, Sir."

"This sentence will wear you thin, Bruttezza; it will serve as an example to anyone who would discredit the Benemerita and the battalion with a strumpet."

"Oh, Colonel! Colonel, sir!"

Crushed by impotence, Salvatore Bellezza fu Onofrio began to sob all over again, and for a moment Falco felt the temptation to console him: Come on, don't cry, don't despair, it's not as if I'm going to shoot you. He realized that he had exaggerated, that he had been cruel to the point of sadism. But then he saw again the face of sister Espérance, her white face surrounded by a wimple and a grey veil, her impeccable frock made precious by the sapphire crucifix; he heard again the yelling of Condor, the scene where he exclaimed certainly-she's-not-in-love-herself-is-she?, he heard again his reply, I-will-take-care-of-it-general. Pushing away the aforesaid temptation, he gave the last four lashes:

"Cry, you criminal: cry."

(I'm not translating this very well. In Italian, Franco growls, «Piangi, criminale, piangi.» These three words convey an emotional force that I can't quite capture in English.)

"Yessir, Colonel, sir."

"Drown yourself in tears, drown, I say, for you will never enjoy your strumpet again. I will send you back to Italy, Bruttezza."

"T... to — I... ta... ly..., Co... lo... nel..., sir...?!?"

"To Italy, to Italy and under arrest. You will leave on tomorrow's ship. They will take care of matters there to deliver a thirty-year sentence. Now get out of my sight. About-face! March!"
Salvatore's crime was to have:
  • fallen in love with a woman;
  • witnessed her receive abuse, both verbal and physical, from her family while he was on guard duty;
  • abandoned his post guarding the Italian ambassador's residence to "rescue" her.
That's not sufficient sorrow for Fallaci, though. As Salvatore is waiting to be transferred to the ship, his supposed lover comes with her "cousin" Ali to meet him, and tells him:
"I have come to tell you that if you dare to enter again into my house, if you dare to break my door again, if you dare to shout inanities and to write my name on walls, Ali will tear you apart. I have come to tell you that you no longer have any purpose for us; you no longer entertain us. Ali is my fiancé. I am pregnant by him, and I will marry him." Ali exploded with laughter, and took her away.
This is, admittedly, the most extreme episode of such sorrow and absence of military discipline in the book, but it is hardly the only one.

The theme of the book is a question of Death being at war with Life. Fallaci has admitted many times that she is obsessed with death. The question is perhaps best illustrated by this quandary of another Italian soldier, Angelo, who remembers an equation from his studies:
One hundred years ago Ludwig Boltzmann, the Austrian physicist who introduced statistical methods to thermodynamics, managed to translate into mathematical terms the concept of entropy, that is, of chaos, as he appropriately termed it. Chaos, he had said, is the ineluctable and irreversible tendency of everything — from the atom to the molecule, from the planets to the galaxies, from the infinitely small to the infinitely large. It has only one purpose, exclusively destructive. Trouble awaits you should you try to fight it by putting order into disorder, by giving sense to that which has none: instead of lessening or weaking chaos, you increase it. Why? because chaos absorbs the energy you put into the effort, the energy of life. It consumes the energy, which serves to hasten the final aim: the destruction — no, the complete self-destruction of the Universe.

And chaos always wins. Always... This condemnation is expressed in an equation of only five letters, S = K ln W: entropy equals the Botlzmann constant multiplied by the natural logarithm of the probabilities of distribution. ...

And if that were the formula of Life? No, that was the formula of Death! It held that Life is the instrument of Death, the food of Death...

Ah, if he could one day discover the opposite, to prove that Death was the instrument of Life, the food of Life! to prove that dying is a brief interruption, an hour of rest, a brief sleep to prepare oneself to be born again, to live again, to die again yes, but to be born yet again, to live yet again, to live, to live, to live without end!

He leapt to his feet, energized by a great hunger to live, to live to live to live for ever.
My previous foray into a book of Fallaci's ended rather depressingly, nihilistically, even, one might say. So, I'm prepared for the story to proceed ever downward.

For the time being, though, this book holds promise.

No comments: