Issue 105, Winter 1987
They had begun to view things differently from an early date. By the time Matteo Lupi celebrated his twentieth birthday each had agreed never to speak to the other again. Yet Matteo had —despite all effort to the contrary—learned certain lessons well from his lawyer father. The laws held within the chambers of civil men were, he discovered, eminently applicable out in the “jungle.” His father moved easily in the small upper echelon of Florentine society (a parochial crowd, the boy always sensed) —Matteo couldn’t recall a time when dinner wasn’t served by a butler with white gloves. From adolescence, however, it became clear that son would apply those lessons learned by the example father set, those insights into law, government, human nature, to the destruction, point by point and brick by brick (or so he thought), of just that society which engendered and championed them to its own benefit and fixed continuance (to use the law’s language, and he knew it by rote).
Lupi became a fledgling radical, revolted by the politics (—siete soltanto piccole borghese, but the petite bourgeoisie) of his family. He chose to display his new found political conscience in a particularly dramatic manner. The American consul from Turin was passing the night at the Lupi villa on his way to Rome for a meeting with the ambassador. A strapping Texan, boisterous, graying, loose-cheeked heir of an oil fortune and armadillo farms, a neighbor of the architect of the Great Society (whence his sinecure), chinless and with a runt wife, was seated at Gabriele Battista’s right addressing himself to a plate of gnocchi while talking amiably with assembled local dignitaries. The discussion at the head of the table was about prospects of effecting a quick end to the war by detonating a hydrogen bomb over the center of Hanoi. This was a theme popular with the rustic consul, and his wife strained to follow, although the conversation was in English, since neither she nor the consul had as yet managed to learn Italian.
In walked Matteo, aged fifteen. He heaved half a bucket of pig’s blood over the Texan, dropped the tin pail and raced out of the room before anyone seated at the long, candlelit table had recovered enough sense to scream. The carabinieri searched three nights and two days before cornering him up in the dank nave of the San Alessandro above the public gardens in Fiesole. Tired, hungry, but mutely defiant, he was taken home. A request was passed down to the editors of local newspapers; thus the disruption at the Lupi’s dinner never surfaced. The farmer who leased several acres from the Lupis, to keep chickens and other small livestock, was quietly paid triple its value for the pig whose throat the boy had slit. Having delivered Matteo into his father’s custody, the police assumed matters would cease there.
At the Liceo Scientifico his presence had become burden some to his professors — the notable exception was his philosophy teacher, in thick tinted glasses, who loaned Matteo Mao’s red book and urged him to make a closer reading of IL principe. He did reread Machiavelli, though all of it was forgotten now, and organized Le Voipe, a dissident underground society which would empty more clotted maroon-brown blood into file cabinets and on porches of churches and offices. Matteo had graduated, precipitous, from family and classmates whose response to social injustices, to issues from imperialism to apartheid, was anything less than rigorous and committed and if it came down to it, violent opposition. He learned how to fashion Molotov cocktails, and owned a doctor’s bag of stiff black leather in which he could discreetly transport them. By the time he turned nineteen he could make a pipe bomb eyes closed —it was, after all, he told himself, much easier than memorizing the names of all of Dante’s damned in hell.
Time passed, allegiances fluctuated. Friends who had stood with him on the lines, arms locked as they marched, friends who had taken tear gas together and made serious bonds of conscience, who had become friends out there in the street, pitted against antiriot police, seemed to disappear, a few at first, and then nearly all of them. Le Volpe disbanded and its founder became vagabond. He worked in a bookshop in Milan, reading novels in its ill-lit, cavernous interior. He lasted as a clerk in a tabac for the better part of an afternoon before being fired. A job waiting tables at a tourist bar with a view of the Vittorio Emanuele, which resembled, he pointed out to his customers, a massive, hideous wedding cake, lasted for some months before he quit in disgust. There was nowhere for him to go but back underground. The attraction was slight but was nevertheless more potent than any other. Nothing else seemed to interest him. He made a telephone call and was soon enough on a train, plagued only by the polar distance he felt between his own errant apathy and the fervor and bright anger he detected in the voice of that old acquaintance he had reached in Siena. The tour which followed through underground flophouse laboratories and slum arsenals in the cities up and down Italy became analogous to the way in which his mind had begun to function. What began in ideology had metamorphosed into a simple job, earning him enough to keep moving from apartment to apartment, city to city. The girlfriends (each of whom attenuated before the image of Nini) had begun to get married, or get jobs, move away. He had to keep working simply to stay alive in the underground. The looseness of his associations gave rise to two unhappy developments. First, among the tiny networks of the truly committed he began to make fast enemies for his own lack of a stable politic. Second — and it was this, like a disease that worsened day by day until it had spread and assumed predominance — because Lupi was now resigned to a life on the move, and one in which his identity must be a chameleon’s, he found he was obliged to take whatever jobs came his way no matter what they were or who was behind them. He moved through depression from morning to morning.
Rarely did he chauffeur kidnap victims. Usually he would tap telephones, steal documents or destroy them, place anonymous calls (a threat, a demand, a declaration) or shadow people: photograph them, tape them. He would manufacture bombs and timers if he had to. He was considered by those who knew of him quite expendable in the service of whatever presently required his expertise.
Cara Nini, he would write from Venice, in hiding: My sweetest girl, what I do now, how I have got from those days of you and me together to these days, I just cannot say, I cannot piece it together for myself in reverse so improbable even impossible a road it has been. It’s all twisted, and I too, I sense I am all twisted. I miss you. Do you understand that? I’m not happy. I’d rather not miss you. You see, I know that you think badly of me, you simply have to. But don’t think that I have changed so much from the man you remember because I haven’t, except that the foundation maybe of beliefs on which I built this life seems to be something weaker than originally I thought it had been. I would come anywhere you want, wherever you told me to meet you, to talk, even for an hour in a restaurant for lunch, not that I would know what to say. Once something is started it seems it never stops. If you’ve gotten married I wouldn’t want to get in your way. Just to talk. We can’t get back to where we began, but there is always some way to move forward. Isn’t that so? Whether your parents will forward this to you I don’t know, wherever you are now, I hope they will, but wherever you are and whomever you are with I send you my love and all my hopes.