Untranslated: Il prigioniero by Anna Laura Braghetti and Paola Tavella — C.D. Rose

I first moved to Italy in the early 1990s and, as is sometimes the way, found myself hanging out with a group of people who were all that little bit older than me, ten years or so, enough to make a generation. They were a companionable bunch, in the best southern Italian way, mindful of tradition (especially when it came to eating) yet all very progressive, liberal, sociable, socialist. As I got to know them better though, little shadows began to emerge. Over time, it became evident that there was a period in M.’s life that would be skirted over, and F. occasionally referred to an ex whose name was not to be mentioned, but was acknowledged by all with a knowing glance. G. was gently mocked for continuing to complain about anything he regarded as even faintly borghese (this extended to such traitorous acts as paying for a bus ticket and voting) but he took the jokes badly.

One night after one too many glasses of rough red wine, M. began to show slightly more familiarity with the construction of an AK-47 than I felt comfortable with. F.’s ex was referred to as a combattente, a word I was unfamiliar with but whose meaning I could guess. G. had friends ‘inside.’ I had a vague worry there might be camorra connections, but that didn’t seem to fit at all, and indeed it didn’t: with some gentle probing, a different truth emerged.

These people, now perfectly respectable journalists, bank clerks and arts administrators, had had a radically different approach to youthful political activism than me. While I’d stuck to shouting ‘Thatcher Out!’ now and then, or hanging round the back of the poll tax demo, they had been somewhat more intense. It was then I realised quite what a different country I was living in.

Cut forward ten years and, on the back of the mild success of a few short stories, I’m trying to write a novel and obviously do the thing that first-time novelists do: mine the murky experiences of people around me (my own background being blissfully dull, in so many ways.) Their stories were vague and often contradictory, I couldn’t tell what was ex post facto bragging, what truth, and what was being covered up, but I was guided to a couple of books, one of which was Il prigioniero (The Prisoner) by Anna Laura Braghetti and Paola Tavella.

Il prigioniero is an odd book in many ways, an intimate memoir far more than a political tract or historical analysis. It’s a story of a woman going through immense difficulties and life changes, eventually reaching some kind of troubled peace. But it is not gardening or swimming or an encounter with an injured animal that transformed this woman’s life: it is revolutionary terrorism.

Braghetti was a member of the Red Brigades, and more specifically, one of the cell who had kidnapped, held prisoner and then murdered the former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro in 1978. The book is an account of the days in which she acted as one of Moro’s jailers, and her life up to that point.

When I came across the book I was delighted—it was written so clearly, so simply and so affectingly, the fact that it hadn’t been translated enabled me to lift chunks from it almost in their entirety and slip them into my novel. Apparently written entirely by the journalist Tavella, based on conversations with Braghetti[1], it has incredible attention to tiny detail, and focusses on huge emotional turmoil with no trace of melodrama, taking the political backdrop as a given for the reader, making it perfect for the pilfering novelist.

While my novel eventually came to nothing (perhaps for the best—much of the same territory was covered to far better effect by Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers a few years later), the book stays with me.

The chapters alternate between Braghetti’s account of her early life—a fairly typical working-class childhood in Rome, marked by the early death of her parents—and the unfolding story of the Moro kidnap, with the two streams eventually converging. The chapters are brief, each one ending with a punch.

The flatness of the style has the effect of rendering the extremity of the story almost normal. The contrast between the quotidian banality of the lives of the brigatisti and the extraordinary political events they were shaping makes Il prigioniero (and, by extension, the anni di piombo—the years of lead, the years of bullets, the Italian 70s) a story I still find in many ways difficult to comprehend.

Braghetti is given the money to buy the apartment later used as a prison supposedly because she has no police record, is therefore ‘clean’ and unnoticeable, but as a female member of the Brigate Rosse notes also how her duties extend to doing all the cooking and cleaning. When meeting a member of their German counterparts, the Rote Armee Fraktion (better known as the Baader-Meinhof gang) she is surprised to find a woman with a significant role, one who can be the capo.

And while she reflects on what had driven her to such a point—that is, the feeling of being stifled as a girl and a young woman—she does what she is expected to do, and finds herself worrying about the scratches left on the dining table when the men casually throw their guns onto it, notes exactly what they eat (preferring simple dishes like pasta with lentils or chickpeas because they’re quick and easy to cook), and worries not only about the increasingly complex and frantic nature of the negotiations regarding their prisoner, but also about his medicines, if he has a toothbrush, and if the food she cooks will trouble his problematic digestion.

It is as if someone were to kidnap the prime minister, keep them in the spare room of a house in Dulwich and then spend time worrying about having enough milk for breakfast. But that would make it a peculiarly British kind of (tragi)comedy, which this decidedly is not.

Though comedy does not lack, despite the grimness of the ending we know is coming.

Braghetti recounts a blackly absurd story: waiting in a bar in the centre of Rome, a preferred place for clandestine Brigate Rosse meetings due to the assumed anonymity of the crowd, she gets hit on by a man with a face she vaguely recognises. The guy leans in and suggests that as they’ve both been quite clearly stood up, they should go on somewhere else together. As she makes her excuses and starts to run before her presence will register with him, she realises who he is:  Roberto Benigni, the famous comedian. (“Any other girl would have counted herself lucky,” she notes ruefully.)

The only other comedy is strictly of the Greenian kind, and the book hits its emotional core, not with the terrible event of Moro’s murder, but with an account of Braghetti later meeting the brother of a man she herself killed after the Moro affair, in 1980. She tells of her trepidation before the encounter, of how he forgives her, then recounts—with a clinical coldness and thriller writer’s attention to detail—how she shot his brother. Over time, they establish a strong friendship, she is touched by his generosity and compassion, before the brother too, dies. And then, in one paragraph, apparently unrelated, she tells the story of witnessing the death of her own mother in a road accident when she was a little girl: “I told dad that mum had fallen over, and that her head looked all funny. They took her to hospital but it was useless. Her name was Gina.”

While I wouldn’t acclaim this book for its literary greatness, the juxtaposition of these three simply told stories achieves an immense power, never self-pitying or even self-justifying, just showing.

This may be the result of Tavella’s background in journalism: concision, the eye for the telling detail but also, I suspect, reflective of the little we know about Braghetti: remorseful yet clear, avoiding pieties and excuses. The co-authorship of the book is never alluded to, it is presented in first person, as told by Braghetti. The book’s flashbacks and occasional digressions lend it the air of something worked from memory, yet well-wrought by a writer’s hand.

The book ends in a similar way, no bangs, no illuminations, great epiphanies, declarations or lessons heavily drawn. A few minutes after the crime that would define her life, Braghetti locks the garage door and walks out onto the street. “There was nothing there, apart from a man walking his dog.”

Il prigioniero is far from being the only eyewitness account of those times: of Braghetti’s former comrades, Barbara Balzerani (now a novelist) wrote Compagna Luna (‘Comrade Moon’) and Silvana Mazzocchi told Adriana Faranda’s story in Nell’anno della tigre  (‘In The Year Of The Tiger.’) Braghetti herself also wrote Nel cerchio della prigione (‘In The Circle of Prison’) with Francesca Mambro, a member of the far-right NAR (Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari / ‘Armed Revolutionary Nuclei’)—the two became unlikely friends after sharing a cell in Rome’s Rebibbia prison.  While these are all important documents and far more complex than this book, Il prigioniero’s directness and emotional appeal make it an excellent introduction for those not schooled in the intricacies of 70s Italian radical politics.

It seems strange, then, that the book hasn’t been translated into English. Maybe it falls between two stools: too personal for political theorists, too political to be a redemptive memoir. Maybe it’s the fact that she’s a woman, and worries about the shopping and not the bombs. Women just haven’t achieved the bad-ass Baader cool, the Carlos the Jackal chic. Maybe it’s because the Anglophone world still likes to think that all this is something so distant from us—this kind of thing goes on somewhere over there, somewhere else, somewhere other. This is the kind of thing foreigners do, after all, or deranged loners, or religious fanatics. Not ordinary people, not ones we might find out are our friends.

Anna Laura Braghetti was born in Rome in 1953.  In 1980, she was arrested and given a life sentence for her activities in the Red Brigades.  She was given a conditional release in 2002, and for several years now has worked with ex-prisoners and their families.

Paola Tavella is journalist, feminist, activist and kundalini yoga teacher from Genova. She has written for Il manifesto and The Huffington Post, and her books include Gli ultimi della classe: un anno con i ragazzi e i maestri in una scuola di strada a Napoli (‘Bottom of the Class: A Year with Kids and Teachers in a Naples Street School’, Feltrinelli 2007). @Tavellik

C.D. Rose is a writer of short stories, and the editor of The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure (Melville House, 2014). @cdrose_writer

Il prigioniero was published by Mondadori in 1998, reissued by Feltrinelli.

Translations from the Italian are by the reviewer.

[1] According to Ruth Glynn in Women, Terrorism and Trauma in Italian Culture (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)